Austrian wine: Climb every vineyard

Austria is ticking a lot of boxes for wine drinkers, finds Sonya Hook

Austria could be one to watch in wine in 2020 with the country boasting success from both its international varieties and its “rarities”, alongside its ongoing favourite Grüner Veltliner, supported by reports that 2019 might be “Austria’s vintage of the decade”.

But what is it that is driving Austria’s success and what can retailers do to help consumers discover new things from the nation?

Carmen Augschöll, head of international markets for the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, tells DRN that Austrian wines are “transporting the values that people are screaming for: conscious treatment of our environment, high quality for fair prices as well as food-friendly, elegant wines”.

She adds: “Our winegrowers cannot wait to show the first samples of the 2019 vintage. Quantity-wise it will be above the past five-year average and quality-wise it could be Austria’s vintage of the decade.”

Peter Honegger, at Austrian specialist importer and retailer Newcomer Wines, also highlights the environmental focus from Austrian wine producers, predicting that over the next few years “we will see more and more organic certifications”.

He says: “Austria is one of the leading countries these days in terms of good agriculture and good farming practices.

“There are more low-intervention and organic producers now and we are seeing new clients approaching us who are looking for these kinds of wines.

“It seems that the quality you get on average wine in Austria is very high and the wines are just speaking for themselves.”

Some retailers in the UK agree. Beth Pearce, Majestic Wines’ Austria buyer, says: “Austria is flying at the moment, with sales for the year to autumn 2019 up over 70% like-for-like.”

Grüner Veltliner, the nation’s flagship grape, which covers one third of Austria’s total vineyard surface area, is leading the way for Majestic, according to Pearce.

She says: “We had some really successful parcels in 2019 and we added one to our Definition range. Grüner is still thriving. Bringing it into the Definition range has helped create trust and brand building – and the sales are following. The lighter, fresh style is finding a great audience with those customers who love New Zealand Sauvignon styles. It’s really exciting to see.”

Nik Darlington, director at Graft Wine, says the best-selling producer for his previous company Red Squirrel – and now Graft – was for many years Austrian, bolstered predominantly by Grüner Veltliner.

He says: “In 2018 we found sales of Grüner tailed off in the on-trade, where it is no longer as in vogue, and the off-trade has been slower to pick up the slack. Zweigelt continues to be exceptionally popular but we felt Grüner was hitting a plateau. I am pleased to say, however, that trend has been reversed over the past year, and Grüner is back in growth.”

Retailers looking for a starting point would be wise to include Grüner but, like Darlington, many in the trade highlight Zweigelt as one of the up-and-coming success stories from Austria. Majestic has had Grüner Veltliner in its portfolio for more than a decade but it recently expanded its Austrian collection, including the trial of a Zweigelt.

Pearce says: “I think this could be the next big thing since juicy, fruity reds are working a treat for our customers. Grüner will still be the flagship I’m sure but it needs a red partner and Zweigelt can be made in a really approachable style.”

Honegger at Newcomer also highlights Zweigelt and other lighter reds from Austria, which he says consumers are increasingly looking to explore. He says: “Wines such as Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir and Zweigelt are increasingly being produced in Austria. There is still a big domestic demand for these but historically it was the richer reds which were exported. This is now changing and we are seeing increased demand outside of Austria for its lighter reds.

“I think the single most important red variety is Blaufränkisch and we are seeing just the beginning of the growth of this. It can compete with some of the best fine wines of France or Italy and it has such a variety of styles.

“People have compared it with the good terroir you find in Beaujolais or, if you pick the grapes later and produce whole-bunch wines, then you could think of it as being more similar to a Northern Rhône Syrah.”

Darlington also points to Austrian reds, “whether that’s lighter, fruitier styles much like Zweigelt, or the bolder offerings from the southern regions where grapes like Blaufränkisch and St Laurent thrive”.

Similarly, Augschöll confirms Austria’s red wines are gaining in popularity.

She adds: “Red quality wines saw an increase of 45% in value and 72% in volume in the first nine months of 2019 compared to 2018.

“In addition, there is definitely a higher interest in Austria’s rarities, such as Zierfandler, Rotgipfler, Roter Veltliner and Wiener Gemischter Satz.”

Augschöll also notes that Austria can rely on its success with international varieties “which are combined with a clear identity”, such as its Rieslings.

Pearce also sees an “exciting opportunity” for varieties such as Riesling, with the more engaged wine consumer.
She adds: “I would love to see more of the Pinot Blanc, which seems to be kept within the country.”

Looking ahead, it is clear Austria can produce wines of interest, but do the nation’s wines offer any additional plus points for retailers?

Those in the UK that are already reporting strong sales from Austria highlight anumber of keys to its success, including the fact its wines are often lower in alcohol and that they are known for being food friendly.

Darlington says: “Despite the renaissance having been going strong for a number of years now, Austrian wines still hold something of a novelty factor with many wine drinkers. There is also a groundswell of support for lighter wines (especially lighter reds) and lower alcohol levels, and Austrian wines regularly deliver on these and deliver well.

“What’s more, it is a relatively youthful wine industry, with a new generation of charismatic young winemakers, a great push towards organic and biodynamic viticulture, and a strong natural wine scene. There are great stories to tell.”

Majestic’s Pearce adds: “I think the Austrian style appeals to customers who like the restraint and freshness of European whites but want to look outside the regions commonly found in the UK market.

“I think they have similar appeal to Italian whites – not too fruity, clean mineral flavours and not too alcoholic. All that means they are great to pair with food.”

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