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Central European wine identity: myth or reality? by Julia Sevenich

Despite changing national boundaries throughout history, scholars assert a distinct Central European culture based on similarities emanating from historical, social and cultural characteristics. Central Europe is often viewed as the area of cultural heritage of the Habsburg Empire and this is particularly true from a wine standpoint.. Despite the fact that “Central Europe” is not a legally defined and protected geographic region of origin for wine in current or past legislation, it is worthwhile considering the identity of Central European wine from a cultural aspect. Do the wine regions of Austria, Alsace, Alto Adige, the Czech Republic, Friuli, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland share a common identity?

Central European wine cultivation is highly fragmented. Wine grapes have usually been one of several different crops on small agricultural farms. The average grape grower in Central Europe has less than two hectares of vineyards. Post WWII saw the first wave of agricultural farms specializing in wine grapes and subsequently a growth in the number of grape growers producing and bottling their own wines rather than selling grapes to larger producers and cooperatives. Magnifying this fragmented structure is the fact that Central Europe has always been multi-lingual and multi-national. Borders of the various countries and legislations have changed and been redefined multiple times. As fragmented as this may appear, this is actually a binding aspect because this diversity is universal throughout Central Europe and has provided a breeding ground for one of the world’s richest sources of creative and intellectual talent.
Central Europe is geographically encompassed by the Alps to the west and the Carpathian Mountains to the north and the east. The climate for wine cultivation can be defined as continental and in all parts of Central Europe where the climate is moderate enough, wine cultivation thrives. Central European vineyard area covers over 330,000 hectares and is in 5th place in global wine production behind France, Italy, Spain, and the USA. The importance of wine in Central European lifestyle can be observed in the vineyard area, production volume, export and annual per capita consumption in the graphic below.

The continental climate that reigns in Central Europe has greatly influenced the choice of grape varieties planted for wine production. For the most part, the climate is cool and over 50% of the vineyard area is planted with white wine grape varieties. Central Europe is responsible for 75% of the world’s Riesling vineyard area (source: Fischer/Swoboda “Riesling”) which is planted mostly in Germany, Alsace and Austria. The exquisite off-dry Rieslings of the Mosel with low alcohol levels are an inimitable style that is admired around the world. The Rieslings in general from Central Europe are viewed globally as role models for the variety. Black grape varieties are prevalent only in the Pannonian Plains of Burgenland in Austria and Hungary which comprise the warmest parts of Central Europe. An estimated 20-30% of the world’s Pinot Noir is planted in Central Europe which is the region’s predominant black grape variety. Riesling and Pinot Noir are followed by several other varieties. Grüner Veltliner has recently established itself as a popular brand from Austria. There are hopes that the unique Blaufränkisch (synonyms: Kékfrancos, Lemberger) will also establish itself as a brand, for it certainly has a unique profile among red wines and is a variety that is found nearly nowhere else in the world. Welschriesling (synonyms: Olasz Rizling, Laški Rizling) and Müller Thurgau (Rivaner) are likewise varieties that are associated nearly exclusively with Central Europe. The significance of Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, Welschriesling and Blaufränkisch after Riesling and Pinot Noir can be seen in the graph below.

Quality wines are made from over 200 different grape varieties in Central Europe. Most of the wines are single-varietal wines and carry the name of the variety on the wine label. This is also demonstrated in Alsace, Alto Adige and Friuli which lie in countries that otherwise generally use geographic labels of origin rather than varietal labelling. As one can see in the graph below many of these varieties are found across several countries and sub-regions in Central Europe.

Geographic labels of origin that do not mention the grape variety are less prolific in Central Europe, but do exist in areas where a unique wine style has been established over a long period of time and this wine style employs more than one variety. Examples of this are the botrytized sweet wine specialties Tokaij and Ruster Ausbruch. Dry white, dry red, botrytized sweet wine, sweet wine from dried grapes, ice wine and sparkling wine are all produced in Central Europe. Production of fortified wine has little tradition here. There are styles that are unique that have established an internationally recognized identity. Besides the botrytized sweet wine specialties mentioned above, there are also the Trockenbeerenauslese from Austria and Germany, Rosenmuskateller from Alto Adige and Picolit and Ramandolo from Friuli.
Central Europe is a dynamical historic concept, not a static spatial one. “Central Europe” is not a legally defined geographic region and its manifestation as an identity on a wine label shall remain a myth. Despite this, the concept is a reality in a wine cultural sense. This is documented by the common grape varieties shared among the different sub-regions, many of them autochthon grape varieties that are found nearly exclusively in Central Europe. Also testifying to wine’s significant role in Central European culture is the relatively high annual per capita consumption and its use as a regular beverage with meals. Wine is the beverage of choice at diplomatic and public celebrations as well as at business and private dinners. The Roman Catholic religion continues to be the most prevalent religion in Central Europe and wine is a part of the religious ritual at mass. A rich heritage is documented by historic and unique Central European wine styles that continue to be treasured and sought-after on a global scale in today’s modern wine world. Grape varieties can be planted anywhere in the world as is demonstrated by two indigenous Central European varieties Riesling and, more recently, Grüner Veltliner. It is important not only to highlight the variety in branding for a global market, but also the geographic region of origin. There exist several terroir of very high pedigree in Central Europe - terroir that leaves an inimitable stamp. Measures should be taken to ensure high qualities and authentic expressions of these terroir and this uniqueness should be communicated to consumers clearly. A movement away from varietal labelling in favour of clearly defined geographic regions of origins can be observed in Central Europe. The Austrian DAC system is now a part of that country’s wine legislation. The beginning of a movement towards vineyard classification is also observed among various vintner associations throughout Central Europe. It is not just the variety, but inimitable terroir and historic wine culture that lend Central European wine its unique identity and point of difference on the market. Although “Central Europe” may never be found on a wine label, there are unique terroirs from the region that have established international recognition and respect and there promises to be more in the future.
©2011 Julia Sevenich, for more information www.julia7ich.com


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