The Austrian First Growth project

Tuesday, 4. September 2018 - 14:45

Members of the ÖTW on tour

On a freezing night, it’s a relief to get inside the Esslokal restaurant in Hadersdorf am Kamp, a welcoming place with a farmhouse feel. The  locally-sourced food is delicious, and the company convivial: the table is crowded with noisy winemakers, who have brought along bottles of their own wines to share. They are all members of the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter (ÖTW), or Association of Traditional Austrian Winemakers, who have been working together on a special project: the Erste Lagen (first growths). The ÖTW is creating a quality classification system of Austria’s vineyards, from scratch.

What makes it so unusual is that it’s a private project. “At the moment it’s basically a circle of friends promoting this,” says one. “Hopefully it will come into law.” Another laughs, and says they are now all experts in labelling laws. “The politicians think that we are declaring one wine better than another and it’s unfair competition,” he says. “We had to put ‘E.L.’ on the label and some consumers thought it meant ‘extra light’.”

Not only are they labelling experts, they’re extremely patient. The Erste Lagen project kicked off in 1992, more than 25 years ago, and the group says they’re just getting started. Given that some of these winemakers will have retired before they see the classification system formally adopted, what is it they’re trying to achieve?

Geological pace
“In the beginning it was a little bit difficult,” admits Michael Moosbrugger, chairman of the ÖTW. The CEO of Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, Moosbrugger is sitting at an antique dining table, his laptop open in front of him. The room is so big that the imposing Biedermeier furniture seems to take up very little space, leaving more for the cat to wander around in. “There is not a book that is referring to how to establish a vineyard classification system in your area,” he says. “We had to start from the beginning.”

Strikingly, this push to classify is coming from a private group, rather than a regional or governmental body. The reason, says Moosbrugger, is that up until the end of the war, wines were sold under village names and were related to particular styles: “I didn’t want to have discussions with every mayor of every village about why his vineyard was classified or not classified.”

Even so, the government has taken an interest, with officials asking the ÖTW to go through established institutions. There have even been public meetings about the project, with politicians worrying that such a classification could have an impact on both land and wine prices. “We said we are not going through that process,” says Moosbrugger, who speaks quietly but firmly. “We have a very strong group of producers who take this very seriously.”

In the first 15 years, he says, the ÖTW — which now numbers 62 producers — was occupied with working out how it was going to proceed. “When you’re building up and starting a system, what are you going to classify?” He lays out the possibilities: wineries, as in Bordeaux; villages, as in Champagne; or vineyards, as in the Côte d’Or.

The ÖTW decided to begin with geography. Who grows what, and where?  “The biggest part of Austria is covered by the Alps,” says Moosbrugger. “Everything north of the Danube is white wine production,” which is about two-thirds of production.

What they soon realised is that basing anything on the existing appellation system was not helpful, not only because “the Danube area is a cultural unit” rather than a geological one, but because some of Austria’s appellations “had political quarrels and split into the sub-regions you find today. I personally believe the differences within the appellation are more significant than the differences between them.”

Another possibility was going by geology based on the two archetypal Danube sites: “On one side you have terraces. Terraces are very dry, with high mineralisation. On the other side we find vineyards based on loess and so on that have a very good water supply, which is very good for Grüner Veltliner.”

But geology alone is not a good proxy for quality. “The idea of classifying the vineyard is very difficult,” he says. “You have to define what is quality. You have to define if this angle of the vineyard is better than this one.” Moosbrugger says the group can’t measure the quality of a vineyard, but only its homogeneity.

Yet another option is to evaluate the significance of single vineyards, known as Rieds, which seems a more promising approach. “How long have we known about a single vineyard? There are certain single vineyard sites we have known about for a thousand years or more,” while others have been known about since 1823, when the Crown set out to document Austria’s vineyards. “If a single vineyard is really important, then it was sold for a long time as a single vineyard.” 

Looking at how people are using a site can yield important information about it. If multiple producers are distributed on one site – such as on the famed Heiligenstein – and they’re all keen to put the site name on the label, then it’s a sign that the site is prized, and probably for a reason. Conversely, “there are some single vineyards where nobody is producing a single vineyard wine,” says Moosbrugger. Then there’s the price signal. “How much can a producer ask for a single vineyard wine – what are the price variants?”

What about the quality of what the vineyard produces – and who should assess that? Should it be about what sells best in the marketplace, or based on the opinion of specific tasters? The association’s solution is to have an annual tasting where a range of experts are invited to come and taste and rate wines. Tasters include acknowledged local and international experts, wine writers, sommeliers and other trade people. “We offer all the wines from the sites to taste and we ask them to share their tasting notes with us, and we analyse them,” says Moosbrugger, pulling up a spreadsheet on his laptop. “Last year we were looking at 100 tasters and here we have all this information.” The spreadsheet is dense with hundreds of filled-in cells.

Everything else that is known, from geology to history, is also there. “All this information is running in datasheets. This will be the legal basis for the bringing of the classification into law,” he says.

But again, it will take time – probably another 25 to 30 years. To maintain group enthusiasm for a project that runs decades would be an insurmountable barrier elsewhere. But perhaps the nature of the properties involved inspires patience. Schloss Gobelsburg, which Moosbrugger leased in 1996, is a Baroque castle from the 1740s, though it has been a monastery for far longer – wine was made here in the 13th century. Down in the freezing cellar, Moosbrugger is cask ageing his Tradition Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings, a method in use nearly two centuries ago.

There is also a practical reason for the ÖTW to remain patient – to ensure decisions are not based on one snapshot of time that might not tell the whole story. “Theoretically you could have a very good vineyard, but nobody is looking after it,” he says. This is the reality in places like Carnuntum, where old, high quality vineyards have fallen into disuse. Dorli Muhr, the founder of Vienna’s Wine & Partners public relations agency, has made it her personal mission to buy as many of these old vineyards as she can, to preserve them for the future (she says, however, that convincing the bank of the importance of the work has proven extremely difficult). There may also be other parcels of land that seem average at the moment, which might turn out to be ideal sites in light of climate change.

“I expect that ten years from now we will classify the whole segment,” says Moosbrugger. “In ten years we will start with the question of what are the Premier Crus. After that, it will take another five to ten years to get the whole thing into law.”

The money to fund all this research and tasting comes from the producers, and the group currently has a budget of between €3,000.00 ($3,415.00) and €5,000.00 per year. It’s a lot of time, effort and money but Moosbrugger says the project will be crucial for selling wines in international markets. “To me, this is one of the big advantages of the classification system. It’s so much easier to communicate and understand an area.”

General acceptance
It’s Sunday morning in Göttlesbrunn, a town so tiny that it’s not surprising to hear winemaker Gerhard Markowitsch say it’s important to get on with the neighbours: with so few people, a feud would literally split the place in two. Markowitsch unlocks the door of his modern winery, filled with intriguing sculptures, and starts a tasting of his single vineyard wines: spicy Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt. “The influence comes from the Carpathian mountains,” he says.

Markowitsch is situated in Carnuntum, a tiny region once known to the Romans, but now less well-known, extending from the back of Vienna to Slovakia. Markowitsch, who is head of the ÖTW regional association, thinks the Erste Lagen project will, literally, put Carnuntum back on the wine map. “For our winegrowing area, it’s important to get more focus on the soil, on the character of the wineries,” he says. “We are very small and in the south-eastern part of lower Austria, which is known for Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but not for reds. We need an identity for our area.”

He points out that 15 or 20 years ago, few people cared about the Burgundy system, while today, Burgundy’s vineyards “are like brands”. He says what’s important about the association is that it involves many wineries, rather than just a few. “Otherwise it would be too personal, too much about marketing.” He says he knows the classification will take time, “but it’s the only correct way. What I fear is that everyone prints a single vineyard on his label. We have to do this together – I think we can do it.”

It’s just a matter of time.
Felicity Carter