The history of Austrian wine is both ancient and recent. Archaeological evidence exists to prove that the Celts were growing wine grapes before the Romans arrived, but a much later date, 1985, is arguably of the utmost importance. In that year a few unscrupulous merchants were found to be doctoring wine with chemicals and the ensuing scandal led to a drastic overhaul of the industry. As a result the greatness it had achieved under Charlemagne and the Church throughout the Middle Ages, but had since lost, has unequivocally been recaptured in these last 20 years.
After the scandal of 1985, when a few merchants were found to be mimicking the sweetening effects of noble rot with a component of anti-freeze, a number of stringent laws were introduced to salvage the country's reputation. This they have achieved with startling effect, though understanding the labelling can be a remarkable challenge and a word with the retailer is highly recommended. Based on the German system, though even more exacting, Qualitätswein is the basic standard of excellence.
In a mountainous country that regularly rises to almost 4000 metres above sea level, it is only in the continental climate of the comparatively low-lying east that viticulture is able to thrive. Here there is less rain and higher temperatures than in the Alpine areas, and mild autumns allow for a late ripening of grapes and the concentrated flavours that follow. Unusually, Vienna claims to be the world's only capital city producing wine on a commercial scale within its limits.
Austria produces five times more wine than New Zealand but little is seen over here. This is because most of what they do not drink themselves is snapped up by the Germans. Yet that little we do see is steadily increasing and should be sought out with vigour. Grüner Veltliner is often compared to Gewürztraminer, Austrian Riesling can eclipse Alsace for its mineral impact, the dessert wines of Burgenland are absolutely luscious and the reds are unique and ever improving. Austria has spent thousands of years perfecting wines that are appearing like new for discovery.