Austria’s Natural Wine Gets Bubbly
From traditional Sekt to funky pét-nats, natural wine producers are expanding their production of sparkling wines, introducing a diverse new range of bubbly to the category.
From traditional Sekt to funky pét-nats, natural wine producers are expanding their production of sparkling wines, introducing a diverse new range of bubbly to the category. Although Austria does have some history of sparkling wine, with the production of Sekt starting in the early 1800s, the category has often struggled. The wine was considered low in quality and character and was not permitted to be labeled with Austria’s protected designation of origin (PDO) status.
In recent years, however, two major developments have propelled Austria’s sparkling wine to new levels of quality and innovation. Firstly, Austria finally introduced the Sekt Austria PDO in 2015, creating new categories and regulations for the production of Sekt, ensuring the utmost quality in all of the wines bearing the Sekt Austria label. Concurrently, Austria embraced the natural wine movement, with young winemakers looking to break the barriers of what people expect from Austrian wines. Several pioneering producers in Austria with iconic labels and unique wines have irrevocably linked the region to the natural wine movement. Now, the natural wine trend is taking a new turn in Austria, with an increased focus on sparkling wines. Austria’s cool climate, distinct terroir, and flair for experimentation are leading more producers to start or expand their sparkling wine portfolio.
What is inspiring these producers to lean into sparkling wine, and what can we expect to see more of from Austria in the future? Read on to hear from some of the leading natural wine producers in Austria about what drove them to make sparkling wine and what they are disgorging next.
Christoph Hoch is a 12th generation winemaker, who’s family started producing wine in the town of Hollenberg in 1640. Instead of taking the reins of his family’s winery, Christoph split to pursue his own project in 2013. Uninspired by classic vinification techniques using commercial yeasts and temperature-controlled fermentations that made wines “predictable and without big character,” Christoph set out to make wines that better conveyed his passion.
With the support of his family, Christoph started his own eponymous winery with 5 hectares of vines; he now has 15 hectares, with the goal of crafting evocative wines with natural winemaking methods. After mastering the production of still wines, Christoph challenged himself to make sparkling wines in this same natural method.
“I wanted to do sparkling wine in a natural way without commercial yeasts,” he says. “I talked to people with experience in sparkling wine and they said it was not possible. I liked the challenge of trying to do this with my own methods and approach, and, in 2013 I made my first pét-nat with our Pinot Blanc.”
On the other hand, winemaker Alwin Jurtschitsch of Weingut Jurtschitsch was determined to use sparkling wines as a way to showcase Austria’s distinct terroir. Alwin grew up on his family’s historic estate in the Langenlois in Kamptal and, after some years of traveling and studying, he returned to work in the vineyards in 2006. Now, Alwin and his wife Stefanie run the winery and are leaders of the natural wine movement in the area, implementing organic agriculture and low-intervention winemaking.
Alwin values the precision in the wines from the Kamptal, so when the region started to produce wines in a richer style, Alwin wanted to create a wine that highlighted the qualities he valued in the region. “Kamptal is still one of the hidden treasures when it comes to cool climate wines in Europe,” he says. “To prove the elegance of the Kamptal we came up with the idea of making sparkling wines with purity, verticality, liveliness, and minerality to show this as a kind of signature card for the region.”
Austria’s cool climate and unique soils make it ideal for sparkling wine production, and current producers are looking to unlock the country’s potential to make high quality sparkling wines by showcasing this terroir. When selecting the sites to work with for their sparkling wines, both Christoph and Alwin focused on vineyard area rather than grape variety.
Christoph describes his town of Hollenberg as “A geologic island of chalk- and limestone-rich soils.” Christoph saw how certain pockets of limestone-rich soils would supercharge the acidity of his sparkling wines and chose to focus on those sites. Christoph’s naturally sparkling “Kalkspitz” is named for “kalk,” which means chalk, and “spitz,” which means acidity, conveying the importance of the chalky soils in the crisp nature of this wine.
Alwin and Stefanie traveled to Champagne for inspiration before starting their sparkling wine production, and, inspired by the classic French region, decided to start with their estate’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, after carefully considering those vineyard parcels, they changed direction. “My parents wanted to make great still wines out of these varieties and so they planted them in the best – meaning the warmest – hillsides,” he explains. “But, to make the sparkling style we dreamed about, Stefanie and I decided to put terroir over variety, so we chose our coolest and highest-altitude vineyards for our sparkling wines. The first base wine we did was in 2007, from old Grüner Veltliner vines planted on 400m altitude where late ripening is possible, and a nice acidity and liveliness is kept.”
Now Weingut Jurtschitsch produces two cuvées of Sekt, the Brut Nature made with 100% Grüner Veltliner, and a Brut Rosé made with Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, and St. Laurent. These fresh, high-acid sparkling wines convey the precision and liveliness that Alwin aimed to highlight.
Sparkling wine production started out as a curiosity for Christoph, but now it comprises 70% of the winery’s portfolio, and Christoph plans to debut four new sparkling wines this Spring. The increase in production of sparkling wine was not a plan hatched by Christoph, but a direct result of consumer demand. Christoph produced two of the new bottlings – a red and a skin-contact sparkling wine – because customers specifically asked for them.
Forever pushing the boundaries of wine, Christoph’s other new bottlings of bubbly are made with the goal of showing that naturally sparkling wine can be serious, age worthy, and in line with the quality of traditional method wines. These will be non-vintage wines aged 1.5 years on the lees to reach a level of complexity not typically found in ancestral method sparkling.
Christoph has seen an incredible boom in sparkling wine in Austria, and gives credit to the natural wine movement, with a noticeable rise in pét-nats. Austria’s lack of sparkling wine history and strict regulations might have been a blessing in disguise, as now producers have a lot of room to experiment and make something that is their own. Christoph attributes the success of Austrian natural wine to their culture. “The reason Austria is successful is our Austria-Germanic way of thinking and living,” he says. “We do not adopt someone else’s culture. We do our own thing. We still have this approach in our blood to be critical – we will not bottle something bad. We will always ask ourselves if we can do better and improve.”