Austria is famous for its wide range of Prädikatswein. The nobly sweet varieties like Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Ruster Ausbruch DAC, as well as Eiswein and Schilfwein as well as Strohwein (literally “reed wine” and “straw wine”), are a delight for wine connoisseurs the world over. These wines obtain their unique, “noble” character as a result of different types of processes taking place within the grapes.
The history of nobly sweet wines in Austria dates back almost 500 years, but these wines are far from outdated.
The first Trockenbeerenauslese in the Pannonian region was produced as early as 1526. A large quantity of shrivelled, raisin-like berries was harvested from the Baron of Leisser’s vineyard in Donnerskirchen and used to produce an excellent wine. In 1653, Prince Paul Esterházy acquired his mansion together with the same wine and had it decanted into small barrels. Whenever wine was drawn off to be drunk on festive occasions, the barrels were filled back up with boiled pebbles to avoid any oxidation. The last drops were consumed in 1852 at Forchtenstein Castle, which means that this legendary Prädikatswein delighted generations of connoisseurs for 326 years.
A special form of Trockenbeerenauslese originates from the historic free town of Rust on the western shores of Lake Neusiedl. Ruster Ausbruch has an age-old heritage, with evidence of production dating back to the mid-16th century. On 3 December 1681, the Hungarian Parliament of Ödenburg passed a decree endowing the market town of Rust with the rights of a royal free city. For this honour, the citizens of Rust had to pay King Leopold I (1640–1705) in “real and liquid gold”, i.e. the enormous sum of 60,000 gulden and the entire year’s harvest of 500 pails (or 30,000 litres) of Ruster Ausbruch.
Two relatively new varieties of nobly sweet wine are Eiswein (ice wine) and Schilfwein (reed wine) or Strohwein (straw wine). They were already being produced in Roman times but slipped into obscurity over time. Strohwein was produced for the first time again in Austria in the 19th century, up until the 20th century, but was only rediscovered by Burgenland winegrowers in the early 1980s. It was a similar story for Eiswein: the first of its kind in Austria was harvested near Lake Neusiedl in 1971. Today, winegrowers across Austria eagerly await cold winter nights when they can bottle the coveted rarity.
The traditional sweet wines have found their way through the royal courts of Europe all the way to St. Petersburg. Today, they are enjoying a refreshing renaissance in their modern form and have attracted devotees all over the world. Nobly sweet wines are produced in all winegrowing regions in Austria, including Niederösterreich (primarily Eiswein), Wien and Steiermark. The epicentre of production, especially for Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, is Burgenland. It is therefore no surprise that nobly sweet wines from this region were awarded DAC protection of origin in 2020.
Ruster Ausbruch DAC
The grapes for an outstanding Trockenbeerenauslese – Ruster Ausbruch DAC – grow near to Rust town centre, overlooking Lake Neusiedl. All stages of production – from cultivation to harvest, which involves selecting suitable berries by hand (“breaking off”, German: “ausbrechen”), and even bottling – is carried out within the town’s confines. The result is a concentrated yet well-balanced wine, which enables the “city of storks and noble wine” to live up to its reputation.
Neusiedlersee DAC Reserve (nobly sweet)
On the eastern side of Lake Neusiedl is the Neusiedlersee winegrowing region with the well-known Seewinkel National Park and its many brackish lakes known as Zicklacken. Especially here, the microclimatic conditions are ideal for the production of sweet wines with the assistance of the noble rot fungus Botrytis cinerea. Those of the Welschriesling variety in particular are well known far beyond the region’s borders.
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Remarkable natural processes
While fruity sweet wines obtain their sweetness from the maturity of the grapes, nobly sweet wines rely on processes that go beyond full, natural ripeness – processes that are responsible for the high sugar content and, most importantly, the unique taste of these wines. The reduction of water content in the grapes is a key part of these processes as this concentrates the aromas.
Beerenauslese & Trockenbeerenauslese
What seems unbelievable at first glance is actually a small miracle upon closer inspection. Wines in the Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) categories are produced from grapes that are partially or completely covered with mould at the time of harvest.
When ripe white wine berries are afflicted under the right conditions by the Botrytis cinerea fungus, noble rot develops. The growth of the fungus must be supported by damp air and simultaneously, water should evaporate from the berries. This occurs primarily in locations where, in autumn, early mists are followed by warm, dry days – in the Pannonian region, for example, where Lake Neusiedl’s great expanse of water has a temperature-balancing effect. Initially, localised Botrytis cinerea nests form in still-healthy grapes, then spread out to infect an increasing number of berries. The fungus penetrates the berries’ skins, feeds on the liquid within and water evaporates through the holes so that after a while, the majority of berries shrivel up like raisins. The remaining contents – sugar, acidity and other extracts – are now very highly concentrated.
Harvesting requires special care; usually the berries are selected in the vineyards over multiple harvests to obtain the desired parent material for the quality categories of Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese or Ruster Ausbruch DAC.
The subsequent work in the cellar also demands patience. The higher the must gradation (Beerenauslese at least 25° KMW, Trockenbeerenauslese at least 30° KMW) and therefore the natural sugar content in the must, the more difficult it is for the yeasts to convert the sugar into alcohol, which means that fermentation can take several months.
While other grapes have long been fermenting in the cellars, the healthy grapes for Eiswein wait patiently on the vine for bitterly cold, frosty nights. Only when the temperature drops down to -7°C for a period of several hours is the water frozen in the berries. Eiswein is therefore harvested during the night or in the early hours of the morning.
The grapes must be harvested in a frozen condition and then pressed very gently. This is the only way to ensure that the water remains as nuggets of ice and the juice is full of sugar (minimum must weight 25° KMW), aromas and other extracts. The earlier in the year that frost occurs, and the heavier it is, the better it is for the quality of the wine, bearing in mind that the health of grapes becomes more precarious over time.
Schilfwein/Strohwein (straw wine)
Ripe, healthy grapes are dried on straw, rush mats or on strings for a minimum of three months. This concentrates everything inside the berries. When they have reached a minimum must weight of 25–30° KMW (depending on drying time), they are ready for pressing. Noble rot is undesirable for straw wine so berries must be inspected regularly and rotten ones removed by hand. Ideal shrinking of the grapes requires dry, well-ventilated spaces – traditionally attics or, more frequently today, outdoor polytunnels.
Beerenauslese & Trockenbeerenauslese
Botrytis cinerea are the magic words that provide the unique aromas of Beerenauslese and especially Trockenbeerenauslese. The wines are dense and concentrated with an agreeable interplay of sweetness and acidity, which prevents them from becoming too opulent.
Most vines cultivated in Austria are suitable for the production of sweet wines: Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc; the early variety Bouvier (an assiduous sugar producer); the intense bouquets of the “Schmeckerte” varieties (from Austrian dialect, Schmecker = nose) such as Muskateller, Muskat Ottonel, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Scheurebe (Sämling 88) – not forgetting Austria’s flagship Grüner Veltliner, which some winemakers press into excellent Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
With Eiswein, the fruit comes clearly to the fore, accompanied by zesty acidity. Specific aromas are dependent on the grape variety – usually Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Traminer, Gelber Muskateller or Scheurebe, as well as the lesser-used red varieties like St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Merlot. Generally, however, the following aromas are typical of this wine type:
Schilfwein/Strohwein (straw wine)
Because of the extreme dryness of the berries, straw wines are situated aromatically somewhere between an Eiswein and a (Trocken)Beerenauslese. They are very dense, yet their acidity simultaneously lends them freshness. The favoured grape varieties for this type of Prädikatswein are Scheurebe, Chardonnay, Traminer, Welschriesling, Zweigelt and Muskat Ottonel.
Storage & Service
The high sugar content in sweet wines has a preserving effect. This makes nobly sweet wines excellent for longer storage in the wine cellar. Over time, they develop more complex tertiary aromas like dried apricots and walnut, which makes the wines seem even sweeter. The colour also becomes more intense.
The ideal serving temperature for sweet wine is around 10°C with a drinking temperature 2°C higher. This prevents the sweetness from becoming overpowering and allows the aromas to develop to perfection.
The shape of the wine glass is also a contributing factor. As a rule, dessert wines should be drunk from glasses that are not too large and that taper towards the top. These tulip or apple shapes bring the fragrances together. Alternatively, a universal glass can be used.
More than just dessert wine
There are two approaches when combining wine and food: attention can be paid to either complementary or contrasting flavour components. Classically speaking, nobly sweet wines add a finishing touch to desserts like fluffy Kaiserschmarren (an Austrian speciality of thick, chopped pancake), apple cake or crème brûlée. Sweet aromas in game and chicken liver are likewise a successful pairing.
However, it is well known that opposites attract. So, if there is an element of spiciness in the food, a nobly sweet wine takes the sting out of the tail and blends with the dish to bring special depth of flavour. For example, the piquant spiciness and intense flavour of a blue cheese is perfectly balanced by the elegant, mellow sweetness of a Prädikatswein. Asian cuisine also calls for aromatic sweet wines with elegant structure and well-balanced fruit and acidity.