It could easily be argued that Austria is the historic center of the world of sweet dessert wines. In fact, the first recorded sweet wine created from nobly rotted grapes comes from near the Neusiedler Lake in the Burgenland region of Austria. Found in a barrel inscribed with a date of 1526, it was a Trockenbeerenauslese from the Donnerskirchen Mountains that was enjoyed until 1852 (now that’s some cellar life!)
Nearby, in the town of Rust, history tells us that the Ruster Ausbruch dessert wine has been made since at least 1634. And across the lake in the town of Weiden, there is another Ausbruch on the books with a date of 1617.
Compare that to the first fortified Port wines, which date to around 1678, and the first late harvest Spätlese from Germany in 1775. Sauternes? The Chateau d’Yquem, which is considered to be the first of all the sweet wines of Bordeaux, was not even established until close to the end of the 16th century, which puts it in an historical second place to Austria.
So what do we mean when we say dessert wine? In every respected wine making country, these sweet wines are created by using grapes that have been left to hang on the vines until very late in the season, which is why you will also see them called “late harvest wines.” Beyond this, it depends upon the specific climate of that country. Some of these grapes are harvested and laid out to air dry on mats until they are shriveled up. Others are affected by the fungus “botrytis cinerea” (aka “noble rot”) to make what is often called the Noble sweet wine. Still others are left to hang until they freeze on the vine, and are then used to create Ice Wine (Eiswein in Austria). And then, as in the case of Port, there are the fortified sweet wines. For our purposes, we will look at the three primary styles of dessert wines created in Austria.
Strohwein or Schilfwein, which means “straw” or “shelf” wine, is a wine made from grapes that have been laid out to air dry on mats for at least three months. The mats are made from straw (thus the name) or reeds, and are usually built as long shelves (again, thus the name) that are protected from the “free harvesters” (birds and the like) by being placed in tunnels made of thick plastic sheeting. This also causes a greenhouse effect that helps the grapes to become shriveled like raisins. Because the grapes are usually healthy at harvest (that is, not affected by the noble rot) they are more like an ice wine in taste than like a Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. However, they do generally have a lower acidity level than an ice wine. A comparable wine to the Austrian Schilfwien would be the Italian Vin Santo. Amarone wines are also dried on straw mats, but the goal is not to create a sweet dessert wine. The sweet Amarone wines are called Recioto.
The Noble sweet wines are the wines made from grapes that have been affected by botrytis cinerea. These wines are rare because it takes a very special set of climatic conditions to produce them. It must be a warm summer, a mild autumn, and there must be moisture in the form of mists or fog that rolls over the vineyards from a nearby lake or river. The Burgenland region of Austria is famed for it’s sweet wines, which is due in large part to its perfect conditions which triggers the growth of noble rot on the grapes every year: the warm Pannonian influence causes a fairly high average temperature, which then plays off the large Neusidler Lake and dozens of surrounding smaller lakes (called puddles, “Lacken”, locally).
This fungus penetrates the skins of the grapes, causing them at once to dry out, shrivel and concentrate their sugars and flavors, while also imparting it’s own heady note. These rotted grapes are harvested at different times, the earlier harvest yielding less affected grapes, which results in a less sweet (though still very much a dessert style) wine called Beerenauslese. Later harvests use more grapes covered in the fungus, which produces the very sweet wine called Trockenbeerenauslese. For more details of the specifications for these two wines, please check out our Austrian Wine Classifications primer.
There is also an even more selective, sweeter wine called Ausbruch, which is so labor intensive (it can take weeks of harvesting to yield little amounts of this liquid gold) and therefore rare that a half bottle can cost hundreds of dollars. This wine is called Tokaji in Hungary, and in the town of Rust, a specialty version of this wine is made, called Ruster Ausbruch. The people of Rust used the wine to buy their freedom from the Emperor hundreds of years ago, and you can read a more detailed version of the history of the great Ruster Ausbruch wines here.
Finally, that leaves us with Eiswein. A true Ice Wine is made from grapes that freeze on the vine, and are then harvested while still frozen. Some producers in countries with less strict wine laws create “Ice Wines” by tossing the grapes into a commercial freezer, but that is a bit like calling chopped chicken liver a pate de foie gras.
As Austrian wine laws are among the most strict in all of Europe, you can be assured that any wine carrying the proud name of Eiswein is a true ice wine. You’ll find the whole Ice Wine, Eiswein, Icewein, Icewine, Eiswine story right here.
If you subscribe to the theory that practice makes perfect, then the 1,480 years spent in the practice of making dessert wines would make those that hail from Austria pretty close to perfection. But you don’t have to subscribe to anything: just taste any one of these wines, and you’ll get the picture for yourself pretty quickly. As with all wines, Austria may not yet have the popular clout as those from France, but as these world-class sweet wines become more readily available, that notion is due to change.