Austria's New Vineyard Classification System Is a Big Deal | Wine Enthusiast
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Austria’s New Vineyard Classification System Is the First of Its Kind Outside France 

Seasoned wine drinkers are likely familiar with the terms Premier Cru, Grand Cru and First Growth. Until recently, these official designations were exclusively used in France—despite informal usage elsewhere—and signaled that the associated wines were from some of the most favorable vineyard sites of Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Loire. All that changed several weeks ago when Austria adopted similar verbiage, becoming the only country outside France to boast a nationwide, legal vineyard site classification system.

Among other things, the Wine Law Collective Decree will help designate single-vineyard sites as Premier Cru, or Erste Lage, and Grosse Lage, or Grand Cru. The inaugural wines labeled with the classifications will likely debut in 2025.

The initiative is big news, the culmination of 30 years of research and at least a decade of lobbying by the Austrian organization Österreichische Traditionsweingüter (ÖTW). It stands on the shoulders of previous attempts to establish classification systems outside of France: A few decades ago, Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP), a consortium of over 200 leading wine estates around Germany, established a classification system modeled after that of Burgundy, but it was not written into law.

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Similarly, the push for Austria’s new Wine Law Collective Decree goes back to 1995, explains Michael Moosbrugger, ÖTW National Chair and CEO of the renowned Schloss Gobelsburg winery. However, Austrian government stakeholders struggled with how to implement it. Things became clearer after the development of a legal classification system for Austria’s appellation system, the Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), which applies to Austrian quality wines (Qualitätswein) typical of their regions.

The current DAC system, as established by the Wine Law Collective Decree, is also similar to that of Burgundy. It recognizes regional wines (Gebietswein), village wines (Ortswein) and single-vineyard wines (Riedenwein or Rieds), which now makes it possible to distinguish between Erste Lage and Grosse Lage amongst single-vineyard sites. The system, however, still leaves some control to local wine authorities.

“The decision whether to classify [single-vineyard sites, called rieds] … officially according to a standardized system is up to each wine-growing region, because the significance of single vineyards differs from region to region,” explains Chris Yorke, Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB) CEO.

If adopted, the classification adheres to strict criteria. For instance, Erste Lage and Grosse Lage are only for DAC wines from classified vineyards. Furthermore, the wine-growing region from which the wine originates must have three established DAC levels. Finally, the highest classifications are exclusively for hand-harvested wines that have a lower maximum yield per hectare than the legal limit.

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If a region wants to classify its vineyards, its designated wine committee must apply to the National Wine Committee for each ried. The application must include facts such as the vineyards’ historical significance; homogeneity of the soils that dominate the rieds; the rieds’ climate and geographical orientations; as well as the volume and value of the wines produced. National and international wine ratings also factor into consideration. Finally, for a ried to receive the designation of Grosse Lage, it must have been an Erste Lage for at least five years. Requirements for using the term Grosse Lage have yet to be defined.

Though it’s still early days, supporters of the classification system say it potentially opens opportunities to small producers that might have otherwise been overlooked—despite what critics may say.

“Not everybody understands the importance of this system, some think the classification is an elitist behavior,” says Dorli Muhr of her eponymous estate in Carnuntum. “But it is definitely the opposite.”