To list Germany and Austria together could get me in trouble, as
the history between both countries has not always been easy. As
with most generalizations this is not the full truth. Though
Austria and Germany have almost always been separate countries they
share a common language and a certain cultural heritage, though
there I go getting myself in trouble again. But since this is a
column about wine, let's raise a glass and toast: and keep it all
in good fun!
What both countries (almost) have in common are the wine laws;
Austria, as recently as 2003, introduced an appellation system
similar to the French terroir concept. However the old laws are
also still valid. In the old system, wines are classified according
to quality, ripeness and sugar content (as in Germany) and the
region of origin. This makes the labels pretty informative- if you
can read them, it will be a challenge to non-German speaking wine
While not every label will include all of the information, most
will list at least the following starting at the top: the producer
name, the grape variety (unlike all the other European countries),
and the vintage.
Then it becomes a bit trickier as labels often will also list
names of the vineyards or villages of origin, as well as wine
region, quality level, and sweetness designation (such as trocken -
There are four levels of classification based on ripeness of the
grapes at harvest: Tafelwein ('table wine' or 'vin de table' in
France). Most of this wine is sold in Germany and is mostly
imported bulk wine unless it says Deutscher Tafelwein, when it's
made exclusively from German grapes that are barely ripe. This
wine, often chaptalized, means sugar is added before fermentation
to increase the alcohol level. But German table wine still barely
reaches 10% alcohol, usually having as little as 8.5%.
Next up is Landwein ('country wine' or 'vin de pays,') which does
list a geographical indication and must be from one of 19
designated regions. It also must be from slightly riper grapes to
reach 0.5% more alcohol, and it must be dry or off-dry
(halbtrocken), but cannot be semi-sweet.
Most of the wines from Austria and Germany we see here in the US
are 'quality' wines called 'Qualitätswein' or in Germany 'QbA'
(Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete - quality wine from a
designated region - similar to French AOC).
There are 13 specific regions in Germany and three in Austria.
Wines are made with approved grape varieties (usually Riesling in
Germany, Grüner Veltliner in Austria) that must have sufficient
The top level is 'Prädikatwein' ('quality wine with special
attributes' - compared to French AOC 'Cru' level), which must come
from the same 13 specific areas for 'QbA' in Germany or 15
sub-regions in Austria. At this level grapes must have achieved
sufficient ripeness in the vineyards, as chaptalization is not
allowed. These wines then are divided in subcategories in ascending
order of grape ripeness (and thus sugar content): Kabinett,
Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein,
Most wines from Germany are Riesling (over 60 percent); the rest
is mostly Müller-Thurgau (as in 'Liebfraumilch') and some 10% reds
(Dornfelder or Pinot Noir to name a couple).
In Austria more than a third of wines are made form Grüner
Veltliner, which makes a crisp dry white. The second most widely
planted is the red grape 'Zweigelt', known to display a medium body
with cherry flavors and peppery finish. Other Austrian whites are
made from Welschriesling, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Blanc, or Riesling;
other reds are Blaufränkisch and St.Laurent.
As a last generalization, one could say the German wines tend to
be sweeter with some acidity to back them up, while the Austrian
wines tend to be dry.