The wines of Kärnten: an introduction
Hands up who’s ever had a wine from Kärnten! We thought so. But just because you haven’t tasted – or even heard of – one doesn’t mean you should skip reading this article. In fact, it’s all the more reason why you should.
Kärnten (‘Carinthia’ in English) is the fifth largest of Austria’s nine states and lies in the very south of the country, bordering Slovenia and Italy. A population of just over half a million on an area of approximately 9,500 km2 leaves plenty of space for agriculture, but only a tiny amount of this is given over to the cultivation of vines. Around 130 hectares, in fact. And when you compare that to the 28,000 hectares in Lower Austria or even the 600 hectares in Vienna, it’s not very much at all.
Wine from Kärnten is very much a rarity in Austria, never mind the rest of the world. It does, however, look back on a long history as one of Austria’s original and most important wine producing regions. Documents from the 9th century are the start of a trail that weaves through the Middle Ages, when wine was produced in great volumes by the church. Monasteries across Kärnten produced not just communion but regular wine, and it was common for smallholders to have a vineyard from which they made wine for their personal consumption. Farmers were given dispensation to sell wine in small taverns (the forerunners of today’s Heurige) and by the 16th century there were around 400 hectares of vineyard in the Lavanttal area alone. Today, by comparison, there are more like twelve.
Maria Theresia (1717 – 1780) was one of Austria’s most famous and favourite rulers, who introduced such important things as obligatory schooling. Less beloved was her introduction of taxes on domestically produced wine, which came into effect in conjunction with a lowering of import tax. Kärnten had previously benefited from a basically closed system, in which wines from Italy and Slovenia – just a short hop over the border – were considerably more expensive and thus less favoured than local wines. But with one flourish of the imperial pen, Kärnten’s wine industry was more or less doomed. An outbreak of peronospora in the late 19th century finished it off.
Some things are never meant to work. But some things, through no fault of their own, are killed off or forced to lie dormant for a long period of time. Wine from Kärnten is one such thing.
Fast forward to 1972 when Herbert Gartner, a teacher and research technician at Austria’s premier school of viticulture in Klosterneuburg, returned to his hometown in Kärnten and planted a vineyard. What began as a hobby project for him and his father was in turn taken over by Herbert’s son, Erwin, who in 2006 increased the size of their plots to a respectable six hectares. At the same time, a handful of other winemakers also planted vines in the same valley, Lavanttal. A few valleys over, on the slopes below Taggenbrunn Castle, local entrepreneur Alfred Riedl had also invested in a whopping 40 hectares of vineyard in the 1990s.
As well as reawakening Kärnten’s wine production, Herbert Gartner founded the Kärntner Weinbauverband – a union of winemakers from across Kärnten. Over the years, this group has hammered out regulations for local wine production, founded a local technical laboratory and increased interest in their products both regionally and nationally. In just short of fifty years, wine production has gone from zero to around 250,000 bottles a year. And Kärnten’s wine producers are an ambitious lot: by 2020, they claim, they want to have increased this to 750,000.
The attainment of this goal is by no means a given. While there are plenty of geographical and climatic factors that give Kärnten an advantage in viticultural matters – mixed soils of chalk, sand, slate and loess; protection by the Alps and a small amount of Mediterranean climatic influence; multiple micro-climates caused by the large number of mountain lakes; warm summers and cool nights which allow a late harvest – climate change is having an unwarranted (and unwanted) effect. Late frosts, hailstorms, violent winds, landslides and almost twice as much rain as in other parts of Austria are making conditions more and more difficult for all agricultural businesses in this region. It’s not uncommon to hear that a vintner has lost his entire harvest. Year after year.
Once the natural circumstances have been overcome and the bottles filled, wine from Kärnten is beset by difficulties on the market. Although most winemakers will tell you they aim their products at local consumers (there’s a lot of regional pride down here), wines from Styria/Steiermark, Burgenland, Lower Austria and Vienna are simply too well known – and cheaper. Though the price difference is generally a matter of a couple of euros, monopolising, wealthy estates such as Taggenbrunn don’t help by promoting Kärntner wine as expensive and elite. A vibrant tourism industry is of more assistance, but tends to pull in one-off purchases rather than repeat customers. It’s not an easy business, no matter how you look at it.
And yet there is hope. New projects such as the ambitious Domäne Lilienberg are springing up and, slowly but surely, Kärnten’s wines are becoming better known throughout Austria and its neighbours. The thing is, a lot of them are impressive. Clear expressions of this unique terroir, wines from Kärnten can sing with a minerality and aromatic complexity that makes them really stand out. Whether locally popular varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay or less common Riesling, Pinot Noir or Zweigelt, they can be more than capable of competing with some of Austria’s most well regarded wines. And that’s not something we say lightly.
Modern representatives of a long tradition, winemakers from Kärnten are doing nothing less than bringing a forgotten history back to life. It’s a history worth saving – a part of local culture that could well have slept forever were it not for the efforts of one man, and the bold men and women that have come after him. Rather than being regarded as rare, odd or too expensive, these are wines that should be celebrated for all that they embody: character, terroir, natural caprice and human spirit. Should you ever find yourself in reach of one, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. Join us in helping keep this history alive.