By Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright CWM
For over two millennia, wine has been a part of Austrian culture, with the first findings of wine dating back to the Celts and Romans around 700BC. In fact, Austria’s flagship white grape, Gruner Veltliner, which covers 37% of Austria’s vineyards today, was created in the 10th century.
Today the wine growing area of Austria totals 113,000 acres and is farmed by 23,000 wine growers. Almost all of Austria’s fine wines are produced by small family wineries which have been doing so, in the same way, for centuries.
Today’s young winemakers are building on deeply rooted traditional knowledge and combining it with experience gained in oenology schools and travels to wine regions around the world, and are confidently treading a new path, while aiming to preserve the land for generations to come. Therefore, in every glass of Austrian wine you can taste the combination of century old tradition and the spirit of the young generation
Austria has emerged as a major player on the international wine scene, largely due to the quality boom in the last few decades. Vintners have all understood how important it is to combine traditional viticulture and oenology with modern practices and processes, most of all based on sustainable principles.
The motto is ‘quality without compromise’. With this mantra, Austria’s reputation is soaring and the region’s wines are routinely featured on the most renowned wine lists worldwide.
Best known for crisp and refreshing single varietal white wines made from Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, Austria also makes elegant reds from Pinot Noir and from local varieties like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch—in a range of styles. Most of the country’s world-class wines are produced along the eastern border where the terroir is ideal for cultivating an array of indigenous and international varieties.
Austria is a world leader when it comes to environmental protection, including water purity, biodiversity and efficiency, with future-oriented farmers, and environmentally aware consumers.
For this reason, it should come as no surprise that Austria is among the world leaders in organic farming: around 14% of Austria’s farmers are practicing organic farming while 16% of the utilized agricultural areas are managed according to the principles of organic farming, making Austria number 1 in Europe for organic farming. Sustainability has always been a focus but now the country is working together to take this to a new level
So how is this being applied to the wine industry? The Austrian wine industry has been making great inroads in both sustainability and integrated viticulture
There is now an official certification scheme for sustainable viticulture, called “Sustainable Austria”. Winegrowers being certified can guarantee a sustainable production chain: from the vineyard to the bottle, strict ecological, social and economic criteria must be met.
When examining 300 international certifications for sustainable wine growing in 2019, Scandinavian experts chose “Sustainable Austria” as one of only fourteen to meet their high expectations. Today, some 9% of area under vines are cultivated according to the standards of the ‘Sustainable Austria’ certification.
The Austrian Viticultural Association has made it easy for environmentally conscience farmers and has developed an online tool for measuring the sustainable work practices of the domestic wine production sector. This way, individual winegrowers can autonomously evaluate their business and can apply for their own certification of sustainability.
The words ‘certified sustainable’ can then be applied to the label. The farmer will receive an analysis in the form of a diagram where practices which make only a small contribution to sustainability get a lower value, whereas a meaningful change, like moving from heavyweight to light weight bottles, means a major step
The production facility can then be evaluated according to different sustainability criteria, and it can be identified where improvements can be made. The following criteria are used:
Climate neutrality, use of water, use of energy, use of equipment, soil fertility, biodiversity, high quality standards and social aspects
The key factors of sustainability according to the Austrian Winegrowers Association are ecology, economy and society.
Ecology looks at the sustainability of the property with regards to; climate, soil, biodiversity and the consumption of materials, energy and water in the sectors of grape growing, wine production and vineyard systems
Economy examines sustainable operations management, promoting regionality (having a preference for regional suppliers and selling ex-cellar) and economic sustainability
Society explores employee protection, fair wages, social safeguards, adequate qualifications, fostering an improved work environment, integration and job security
Markus Huber from Weingut Huber has a focused approach to sustainability. The estate is certified organic, and he manages his vineyards naturally. Green crops are grown in every second row and crops such as clover, or flowers are planted to attract the bees. In the winter months, grass management is done using a herd of over 40 sheep who graze the land to their own benefit as well as fertilizing naturally as they go.
Some of the practices Huber uses are also biodynamic. This is an ultra-natural form of agriculture based on the work of a German scholar, Rudolph Steiner, where plants are grown according to the phases of the moon. No chemicals can be used but natural ‘potions’ can be made using rock flour, an elixir of stinging nettle tea or horsetail extract, among other things.
Most of the winery is powered by using solar energy with the addition of 300KW worth of solar panels.
After the harvest, the skins and pomace remaining after pressing the grapes is composted and this is returned to the vineyards instead of using chemical fertilizers.
All the water used in the production of wine is from the farm’s own source, a natural fountain, and the waste water goes through a sophisticated waste water management system.
From a packaging point of view, 86% of the material used in the outer packing cases, comes from recycled cardboard and no metal pigments are used in the ink for the labels.
Huber’s wines carry the “Sustainable Austria” certification for good reason; he is applying sustainable and green thinking in every step of his product’s life. Huber’s wines are also vegan.
Weingut Huber wines are available from Woodman Wines in Ontario
Winzer Krems, Austria’s largest winery, which produces the fastest selling Grüner Veltliner in the LCBO has made huge investments in its facilities for both quality and sustainability. The goals are clearly defined: improvement of quality, sustainable production and improved working conditions for their employees.
All 900 wine growers that contribute their grape production to Winzer Krems observe guidelines of controlled integration production over their 1200 hectares, meaning that sustainable methods are applied to farming both economically, ecologically and toxicologically, to keep the damage to a minimum and beneath the economic damage threshold.
All growers must avoid Glyphosate which is a broad-spectrum herbicide and crop desiccant, or in more general terms, a weed killer.
Many new grape varieties have been planted – the PIWI grape (a German abbreviation for a grape that is fungus resistant) has a high resistance to disease and therefore it can be produced more environmentally, sustainably and economically
As the new cellar was built, the existing foot print was used so that no new land had to be developed; instead only replacing old buildings and storage facilities. The fermentation and storage cellar has state of the art air conditioning and light-flooded rooms offering top working conditions for employees
The construction of the entire new facility, started in 2019 and is due to be complete in 2023, relies on solar energy
In terms of packaging, the outer cases are all made from recycled material and there has been a move to lightweight bottles, saving energy and materials on the production of the glass as well as the transportation. Winzer Krems Sandgrube 13 Grüner Veltliner is available on the general list at the LCBO and is priced at $13.95
Rudi Rabl from Weingut Rabl, one of the largest properties in the Kamptal region at 80 hectares, is happy about the traditional history of his family winery, dating back to 1750. The love for nature and grapes and working at one with nature, as well as the specific microclimate, allows for high quality as well as varied and diverse wines. This shows clearly in the numerous awards his winery has won.
Quality is everything to Rabl where the grapevine is of “the utmost importance “and the grape selection begins in the vineyard where there is an extreme reduction in the crop to promote concentration of flavours. Once the grapes are picked, they are sorted again before being crushed. Rabl combines the natural resources with sustainable practises in the vineyards and modern winemaking techniques to produce a multi award winning range of wines
It is the ethos where modernity is combined with traditional values. Ecology is an important factor and the winery has been certified as “Sustainable Austria” since 2015. Among the highlights of the awards in recent years is the “White Wine Maker of the Year” 2019 at IWSC in London, the two Decanter Trophy Winners Grüner Veltliner Dechant and Riesling Steinhaus, as well as the 2017 regional winner in the Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc categories. In addition, the winery was awarded “Winery of the Year” in Kamptal. Rabl wines are certified “Sustainable Austria” and are available through Vintage Trade in Ontario
Austria is going from strength to strength in the quality of the wines it delivers and it is encouraging that this progression is followed with a strong focus on the environment. As consumers, if we vote with our green dollars, more wineries will follow suit
Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright is a Cape Wine Master, the highest qualification in wine education in South Africa. She was born into the wine industry in South Africa where she lived until 2018. She now lives near Toronto with her family and is a freelance writer, international wine judge and educator