One winemaker says that alcohol levels in appellation regulations are a relic of a cooler past and should go.

Davide Bortone·Sunday, 31-Dec-2023.


Alcohol-level restrictions for appellations have never taken into account the reality of a warming planet.© Tumisu/Pixabay | Alcohol-level restrictions for appellations have never taken into account the reality of a warming planet. 

While the international wine industry is questioning how to limit the damage caused to winegrowing by climate change, in Austria a case has emerged that pits tradition against the reality of warming vineyards.

Well-known Wachau producer Franz-Josef Gritsch is one of the first in the world to have put the correlation between climate-change and wine alcohol content on an institutional level – especially as it increasingly impacts appelation rules. The young enologist, owner of Weingut FJ Gritsch, has decided to quit the Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus organization (part of Austria’s wider DAC system), which since 1983 has brought together the producers of the Wachau wine region since 1983.

The reason? The association’s wine classification system, which is still based on alcohol levels – sugar levels and grape ripeness – would not take into account the effects of climate change on viticulture and winemaking.

Wachau, famous for its Grüner Veltlinger and Riesling wines, has a unique system of classification, with Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd levels all predicated on alcohol levels.

It was a difficult decision, since Weingut FJ Gritsch is one of the founding wineries of the Wachau DAC, but one that was taken after much thought.

« Starting with the 2023 vintage, » explains Gritsch, « we will no longer classify our wines in categories such as Federspiel and Smaragd, which are typical of the Vinea Wachau association’s wine classification system, but exclusively according to the [wider] DAC – Districtus Austriae Controllatus – pyramid of origin. The reason is that we consider the DAC system to be more reliable and promising, both in view of changing climatic conditions and in the international context. »

He said the Wachau system, which requires a maximum and minimum alcohol content on the basis of quality category, made sense in times when we still had to worry about proper ripening of the grapes in the vineyard.

« Now, every year we have the feeling that this categorization is out of step with climate change. I think it is no longer relevant, because an alcohol classification says nothing about the quality of the wine. »

According to the young Austrian winemaker, this is particularly evident at international level.

« We are constantly told, especially by our partners and retailers in various export markets, that the alcohol classification is obsolete nowadays. »

This is news has made a stir in Austria, and not only because the owner of 15 hectares in the best locations in the area, including Axpoint, Hochrain, Loibenberg, Klaus, Singerriedel, Setzberg, 1000-Eimerberg, Kalkofen and Dürnsteiner Burg, is throwing the stone into the pond.

In addition to being a founder-member Vinea Wachau, Weingut FJ Gritsch is one of the most historic wine cellars in the area, overlooking the church square in Spitz an der Donau, in the heart of the Wachau Unesco World Heritage site. The winery, founded in the 13th Century, combines ancient local winegrowing traditions with state-of-the-art technology, and has been producing wine for more than 200 years.

Wachau has one of the most stringent production regulations in the world. Wine production is limited to the legally defined growing area and members may not purchase grapes or own vineyards outside the Wachau. Harvesting among the steep vineyards must be carried out entirely by hand; the use of machinery is forbidden even where the slopes would allow it. As the association’s specifications explain, the use of vineyard names to describe the wines has a long tradition in the Wachau, where many of the best- known names can be traced back to the 13th Century.

« These names do not just reflect the origin of the grapes, » the association’s manifesto explains. « They also describe the character of the wines. The name also often hints at what the vineyard is like, who used to own it, or some local historical event. Over 100 different vineyard sites pay tribute to the complexity arising from the variations in geology, soil, climate and topography. The personal understanding and experience of the winemakers are the final ingredients in reflecting the Wachau’s terroir. »

According to the rules of Vinea Wachau, the Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd styles indicate the level of maturity of the grapes and the complexity of the resulting wines, establishing that clear correlation between alcohol content and quality against which Franz-Josef Gritsch is currently railing.

While Steinfeder may not exceed 11.5 percent alcohol, for Federspiel it rises to a maximum of 12.5 percent. For Smaragd wines the minimum alcohol content is 12 percent.

But those figures were settled on when the association was founded, rather than today’s warmer climes.

An alternative already exists. Starting with the 2020 harvest, wines from Wachau can be produced according to the DAC pyramid: regional wine (Gebietswein), village wine (Ortswein) and single-vineyard wine (Riedenwein).

« I think this focus on origin is right for our area, » said Gritsch. « More so than the alcohol content. The Wachau DAC regulation has given the region a new future-oriented system. Hence my resignation, in the hope that my efforts will give an impetus to the trend and contribute to the further development of viticulture in my region. »

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