Martin & Anna Arndorfer
Brigit & Katrin Pfneisl
Austria has an incredibly long and diverse history with wine, spanning from the times of Ancient Rome to present. Today it is a mecca of small-production, high-quality wines from a number of top producers - many of whom practice biodynamics and/or natural winemaking. But it wasn’t always this way. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
For a Central/Northern European country, Austria has a relatively long history with wine grapes. Many historians believe that the presence of quality wine goes back as far as 4000 years in modern day Austria, to 2000 BC. This is roughly as long as wine grapes were cultivated in modern day Italy, longer than France or Spain, but shorter than Greece or Georgia (4,000 & 6,000 BC, respectively). Viticulture really started to flourish in Roman times, once Marcus Aurelius Probus removed a ban on wine produced north of the Alps. Presently popular grapes, like Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling, were even cultivated in these early times. After Ancient Rome fell, there was a decent (~500 year) dark age until Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire took control of much of Europe for the next 1000 years and encouraged production in the area.
Austrian wine history as we know it really started in the 1200’s, which is when the first vineyards were named and some estates still in operation today were founded. Vienna’s position on the Danube River gave rise to prominent merchants who bought and traded wine across the Empire. Eventually these wine producers grew larger and larger, beginning to control not only the wine trade but also cultivation and production. The Austrian wine market became largely focused on bulk wine that would be sold off in Germany and beyond, for blending and re-labeling as more sought-after regions. For a brief time, after WW1, Austria was the 3rd largest wine producer in the world. Today it makes less than California alone does.
Fast forward past both World War’s to the early 1980’s - Austria saw a slew of bumper-crop vintages where production was high but quality was even lower than normal. The aforementioned wine merchants, suddenly facing a market that didn’t want to buy their cheap wine, got a bit cheeky. A small number of merchants started blending in diethylene glycol - a chemical found in Antifreeze - to impart some sweetness and body in the wine. This had the potential to go unnoticed for a long time, as it wasn’t toxic to humans in those amounts. In summer 1985, West German wine regulators had been on the lookout for non-wine compounds since a scandal there broke years earlier, and routine testing of an Austrian dessert wine at a supermarket in Stuttgart led regulators back to the bulk producers. Within 2 weeks the German health ministry had tested and found the substance in a large number of Austrian wines, and issued a statement for consumers to avoid Austrian Wines for their health. The news spread quickly and within several weeks, Austrian wine exports around the world dropped to near-zero. It took a considerable amount of time (2 decades) for the Austrian wine industry to recover, and many of the bulk producers were put out of business as a result.
As a whole, however, this scandal was probably good for the future of Austrian wine. The large bulk producers had gained a chokehold on the industry and were steering the industry in a downward spiral (see: May 2022’s rant against our very own Chateau Ste Michelle). To be doomed by their own immoral practices is sweet, sweet justice. Partly because of this, a new generation of farmer-winemakers are at the forefront of the Austrian viticulture scene. These producers are doing a great job of blending modernity with history, practicing polycultural farming and biodynamics in the field and the cellar. While the antifreeze jokes do get thrown around from time to time, the new wave of Austria wine is unrecognizable from that era.
Geography & Climate
Much of Austria’s quality wine production is focused on the Eastern part of the country, along the Czech, Slovakian, Hungarian, and Slovenian borders. Austria, being landlocked, is highly continental with cold winters, warm summers, and a long Autumn good for late-ripening grapes. Latitudinally, it covers about the same range as the state of Washington, but without the warming effect of the ocean.
Niederösterreich, or Lower Austria, is in the Northeast part of the country. This is where 60% of production comes from and most of the highest-regarded regions are. The Wachau, along with neighboring regions Kramptal and Kremstal, are where the top producers of Grüner and Riesling are located. Being warmer than Germany, the Rieslings are more powerful and textural, with less acid than their northern neighbors. Austrian Riesling (and Grüner) are *almost* always dry. Wines from the Wachau (but not the Kramtal or Kremstal) will bear designations stating their ripeness levels (translating to alcohol/body) - steinfeder being light-bodied, federspiel being medium-bodied and smagard meaning full-bodied.
Along the northern part of the border, within Niederösterreich, you have Weinviertel, which is where a lot of the sparkling production comes from. It is much cooler here, hence the preference towards sparkling (called sekt in German). Directly south of this, you have the capital of Vienna, or Wein in German, which is a wine region unto itself. With over 1,500 acres under vine, this city has the unique designation of being the world’s only capital city with any real wine production within its city limits (apologies, Le Clos Montmartre).
South of Vienna, you have the second major wine region, Burgenland. With roughly 30% of vineyard area, it is the source of much of Austria’s red wines - St. Laurent, Blaufränkisch, and Zweigelt being the most notable. As a whole, Austrian reds are fresh, vibrant and juicy, with berry notes and baking spice interlaced. Great summertime wines, no strangers to chills or light food pairings.
Lastly, the smallest and least prominent wine region is Styria, deep in the south near the Slovenian border. Here, in its basking warmth, grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc excel. Here you can find fantastic value-driven expressions of these grapes, however you’ll rarely see them exported out of Austria.
Overall, there’s a wide range of Austrian wine beyond the typical liters of Grüner you see at the end-cap of the grocery store.
Arndorfer, ‘Vorgeschmack’ Rosé, Kamptal 2021
Martin Arndorfer and Anna Stieninger were both born into wine. Martin, is the son of a long line of winemakers and Anna is the daughter of Karl Steininger, the head of a highly respected winemaking family in the Kamptal region. They met when they were young, in their early 20’s and late teen’s, already having a few vintages under their belt by the age Americans are legally allowed to drink. The Arndorfers are located in the Austrian village of Strass (aka Straß im Straßertale), in the Kamptal sub-area of Lower Austria. This area is particularly fertile due to the presence of the Danube River and its tributary, the Kamp River, which they are located off of.
Since the Arndorfers are at the northern limit for grape growing, they produce mostly whites from Grüner and Riesling. In fact, just 15km north, the verdant hills of vineyards starkly turn to wheat - one of the crops better suited to cold cultivation. Even though they mostly grow whites, a few sneaky parcels of 30 year old Zweigelt vines have made it into their care over the years. These grapes, almost too light for a typical red, are the perfect grapes for a high-acid, focused rosé.
This wine is composed of 100% Zweigelt juice, pressed after a 14 hour soak on the skins. After pressing, the juice is mixed with spent Grüner Veltliner skins and spends 14 days fermenting with those skins (adding texture, grip, and an herbaceous character). Once its fermentation is mostly complete, it is racked to a mix of 70% stainless steel and 30% neutral barrique. The judicious use of barrique has become a signature of the Arndorfers, gained from Martin’s years as an intern in Northern Italy’s Friuli region. Made as naturally as possible, this wine is unfiltered, unfined, and only sees 15 ppm of SO2 at bottling. True to our ethos, this wine is as ‘small production, family-owned’ as possible. With only 4000 bottles made, Dogwood has claimed about 5% of production of this particular wine - all for you lovely people!
Pfneisl, ‘Blaufränker’ Blaufränkisch, Burgenland 2021
Sisters Katrin and Brigit Pfneisl were born in Austria but are Hungarian in blood. Their family was originally from Sopron, a small area of now-Hungary that juts into modern day Austria. Much like France’s Alsace region, this area has changed hands over the years and has an identity and culture intermixed between the two rather than leaning in either direction.
During the communist years, the family dropped the Z in their name (Pfneiszl) and fled Sopron to settle across the border in Kleinmutschen, Burgenland. Here, the sisters’ father and uncles founded Weingut Pfneisl - today a leading producer of red wine in Austria. In 1993, the family re-acquired 27ha of their ancestral vineyards in Hungary and, already having a successful winery in Austria, gifted the lands to Brigit and Katrin.
Today, Brigit and Katrin make wine in both Austria (these wines) and Hungary, where they use the traditional Pfneiszl name. Since most of their energy is expended in Hungary producing high-end Kékfrankos (Hungarian for Blaufränkisch), the duo has chosen to produce just a few simple, highly drinkable 1-liter bottles of wine from their Austrian label.
Brigit, the older sister, handles the viticulture and enology side of things while Katrin manages the business, sales and marketing. Brigit has extensive winemaking experience around the world, interning in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South America and the US before returning home. She has farmed organically since day one and has always had a delicate and gentle touch with winemaking. Katrin’s influence is clear on the bottle, with whimsical label art depicting the combination of cover crops and beneficial insects key to successful organic viticulture.
This wine is 100% Blaufränkisch, fermented in Stainless and made in a light, bright and delicate style. The grape is evocative of Gamay or Cabernet Franc, often blue and purple-fruited, with a touch of tomato leaf and marigold flower. This and the ‘Zweigler’ Zweigelt, which we’ve had in our ‘Crushable Reds’ section before are two wines that consistently deliver in flavor and value year-in and year-out. If you see them on our shelf or elsewhere, I encourage you to grab a bottle for whenever you need an easy and casual red.
*Fun fact - I started a briefly-lived online wine club about 5 years ago. Thereare just a few crossover members left here. Sometime in late 2016, we featured the 2015 vintage of this exact wine in our club. The wine has gotten better and better over the years, while the price has hardly increased at all. I was very pleased to taste this iteration of the wine and select it for the club!