Austria has a long history of viticulture, dating back to the Roman era (in fact back to approximately 4000 years ago, but with a major boost under the Romans).
A quick look at the geography will show why most wine is produced in the country’s less mountainous East, specifically in the districts of Niederosterreich, Burgenland and the Steiermark.
Within those 3 districts (4 including the capital region of Wien, which is surrounded by the Niederosterreich) there are 16 wine regions, most of which have controlled-appellation (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, DAC) status.
In 2005 Austria (Osterreich- Austria, the old “Eastern March” of the Carolngian Empire (c.800 AD)) has 51,200 hectares (123,000 acres) of vineyard, almost all of it in the east of the country. Of these 31,425 ha are in the state of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) and 15,386 ha in Burgenland which together make up Weinland Österreich. Steierland (Steiermark, Styria) accounts for 3,749 ha, Wien (Vienna) 621 ha and there are 32 ha in "the Austrian Mountains" (Bergland Österreich), which covers the rest of the country. The four main wine regions are split into 16 districts.
Niederosterriech- Lower Austria (topographically, vs the mountainous West)
Wachau: This narrow valley of the Danube around Melk is reminiscent of the great wine areas of the Rhine, with steep terraces that produce world-class Grüner Veltliner and Riesling wines. Climatically and geologically it marks the transition from the Alps to the Hungarian plains, leading to a diverse array of microclimates and terroir, with the river moderating the effects of the cold Alpine winds. The Wachau DAC still uses its own classification of Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd, reserved for wines that are made 100% from Wachau grapes.
Kremstal: Downstream of the Wachau lies the Kremstal region, centered on the town of Krems.The valley opens out a little, the climate is a little warmer allowing more red wine to be produced, but otherwise Kremstal is quite similar to the Wachau.
Kamptal: To the north of Krems lies Langenlois, which is the main town of Kamptal, the valley of the river Kamp. The sandstone slopes are so steep that only a thin layer of soil is retained, and exposure to the sun is high. Riesling thrives on these steep slopes; closer to the Danube the valley broadens and more red grapes are grown.
Traisental: To the south of Krems lies Herzogenburg, at the center of Traisental, which was only designated as a wine district in 1995. Mostly Grüner Veltliner is grown here, which is made into a fresh style for drinking young.
Wagram (formerly Donauland): Between Krems and Vienna lies the Donauland, which covers two very different areas. North of the Danube is the plateau of Wagram, where the Grüner Veltliner is a bit more full-bodied and aromatic, and Roter Veltliner is something of a local speciality. Blauer Zweigelt and Pinot Noir wines are also made here, as well as a little Eiswein.
Further downstream, just outside Vienna, lies Klosterneuburg. As the biggest private wine estate in the country, the abbey has played a formative role in Austrian wine for the last 900 years. The Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology was the world's first college of viticulture and continues to play an important part in the development of wine in Austria.
Weinviertel: The Weinviertel (“wine quarter”) lies in the northeast corner of Austria, between the Danube and the Czech and Slovak borders. The biggest single wine region in Austria is home to half the Grüner Veltliner in the country (subject of the first DAC), and considerable amounts of Welschriesling, but most of Austria's varieties can be found here. Even sparkling wine is made from Riesling and Grüner Veltliner in the far northeast around Poysdorf.
Carnuntum: The deep soils between Vienna and the Neusiedlersee are rapidly establishing a reputation for well-balanced red wines made from Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch.
Thermenregion: The spa region south of Vienna saw two wine regions, Gumpoldskirchen and Bad Vöslau, merged in 1985. Climatically similar to Burgundy, with a wide variation in soils, all kinds of grape varieties are made here, many being made into heurigen wines. Perhaps the most interesting wines are the Spätrot-Rotgipflers, made from a blend of the local varieties Zierfandler (Spätrot) and Rotgipfler, both of which are white grapes despite their names.
Burgenland (originally Vierburgenland, Land of the (Four) Castles- adopted 1922 for the modern Austrian state.
Neusiedlersee: The east side of the Neusiedler See is also known as Seewinkel, "corner of the lake". The shallow Neusiedler See (Lake Neusiedl) is one of the few places on earth where noble rot attacks grapes reliably every year. This means that botrytised dessert wines can be made more easily, and hence sold more cheaply, than in other areas famous for this style of wine. Increasingly, red wine is also being made in this region.
Neusiedlersee-Hügelland: The "hill country" to the west of the lake offers a diversity of terrain that is reflected in the number of grape varieties and styles of wine made here. Perhaps the most famous is the Ruster Ausbruch dessert wine from the western shore of the lake.
Mittelburgenland: The Mittelburgenland is a southern continuation of the forested hills to the west of the Neusiedlersee. The nickname "Blaufränkischland" reflects the dominant variety here, which is the subject of the only red wine DAC and can be very good. The Bordeaux varieties also do well here.
Südburgenland: The most famous vineyard of the South Burgenland, Eisenberg reflects the red, iron-rich soil which imparts a distinct spiciness to the Blaufränkisch grown here. A speciality here is Uhudler wine, made from hybrids with North American species such as Isabella, Concord, Delaware, Noah, Elvira and Ripadella, which was banned for a while after the 1985 scandal.
Vienna (Wien) There are 621 ha of vineyards within the city limits of the Austrian capital. Vines were grown within the city walls of Vienna in the Middle Ages, although they have now been pushed into the outskirts. Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot blanc are grown on the limestone soils towards Klosterneuburg, whereas red grapes do better on the rich soil to the south of the city. Field blends known as Gemischter Satz are common here, and most wine is drunk young in the city's heurigen (wine cafes).
Styria (Steiermark) Named for the Medieval duchy, which included the eastern half of modern Slovenia).
Vulkenland-Steiermark (formerly Südoststeiermark): The many extinct volcanoes east of Graz give a rich soil which imparts a spiciness to the variety of grapes grown in Southeast Styria. The climate is a little cooler here, especially at night, giving a long growing season resulting in wines that are crisp, aromatic and full bodied.
Thirteen hundred hectares of vineyards are cultivated—all located around Klöch, Sankt Anna am Aigen and Straden and situated primarily on the slopes of the extinct volcanoes which characterize the landscape. Some vineyards are up to 650 m above sea level.
The main grape varieties grown in this region are Welschriesling, Chardonnay (called Morillon), Weissburgunder (Pinot blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot gris), Gelber Muskateller, the Traminer family, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling; red wines feature Zweigelt as well as other grapes, including St. Laurent or Blauburgunder (Pinot noir).
Südsteiermark: Südsteiermark (South Styria), near the Slovenian border, is mainly Sauvignon blanc country—however, the 1,950 hectares of vineyards also include Welschriesling, Morillon, Muskateller and Traminer. Soil types include sandstone, shale, clay and shelly limestone. The combination of warm days and cool nights gives a long growing season, resulting in crisp, aromatic and full-bodied wines. The warm humid climate and steep hills make this one of the toughest places in Austria to be a vigneron.
Weststeiermark: Southwest of Graz lie ancient vineyards which mainly produce a cult rosé called Schilcher. Made from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape, genuine Schilcher carries a mark with a white horse, after the Lipizzaners bred in Piber for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
The Grape Varieties
Austrian wines are mostly white, with white grapes running about 72% of plantings. Most varieties are indigenous to Austria.
Gruner Veltliner 36%
Weissburgunder & Chardonnay 6%
Blauer Portugieser 5%
Other Red 10%
Other White 10%
The Major Grapes
Gruner Veltliner: Around 36% of total plantings. Bright, high-acidity, food friendly wine. Two basic forms- light and fresh, and powerful intense & spicy. Highly reflective of its terroir. Notes of peach and apricot, minerality, often touches of tobacco and spice. Black pepper is a frequent aromatic. This is an ancient variety descended from Savagnin, and grown in/around the alps for a thousand years.
Riesling: Only around 4% of plantings, but responsible for some of Austria’s most highly-regarded wines. Finished dry (occasionally with botrytis as a dessert wine), powerful and aromatic. Bright white fruits, very high minerality, expressive of terroir. Petrol in young wines.
Zierfandler (Spatrot): Tiny production, mostly in Thermenregion. Makes whites or very pale reds. Often blended with Rotgipfler. Rich and nutty, finished dry to sweet. Possibly the etymological origin (but no genetic relation) of the name Zinfandel, which detoured through the Imperial Botanical Garden in Vienna on its way from Croatia to southern Italy.
Rotgipfler: Also tiny production, mostly in Gumpoldskirchen (Thermenregion). Used for big, powerful whites and mostly as a blend with Zierfandler. Possible cross between Roter Veltliner and Traminer.
Zweigelt: Austria’s most widely grown red grape. A cross between Blaufrankisch and St Laurent developed in 1922 (by Fritz Zweigelt, at Klosterneuberg). Produces soft, easy-drinking wines with bold fruit flavors of cherry and cassis. Lush and gentle with no rough edges.
Blaufrankisch (Lemberger, Kekfrancos): About 5% of Austrian wine production. Unrelated to Pinot Noir, the name refers to its use in Franconia rather than any reference to France. Descendant from Gouais Blanc, and first referenced in the 1850’s, its origin is unclear. Bold and spicy in character with firm tannins. Ages well.
Blauer Portugeiser: Also around 5% of Austrian plantings. Probably originated in Styria, descended from a Sylvaner cross. Ripe and low acidity, commonly a blending grape or made in a fruit-driven, nouveau style.