Austria offers elegance and value for buyers looking to add quality in the mid-market price brackets
Austria’s public declaration in October that its 2018 vintage was “fully-ripened and bountiful” could equally be applied to the status of its recent sales success in the UK.
Its whites in particular are finding favour with both trade buyers and consumers for their balance, reliability and value in the growing £8-12 price bracket, providing an elegant alternative to some of the prevailing big New World styles of recent years.
Majestic, for example, reports that annual sales of Austria’s flagship white varietal Grüner Veltliner were ahead by 41% in 2018, with drinkers switching from Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc in particular.
“That style has dominated our customers tastes for a decade now, but many are wanting to branch out,” says Imogen Bowen-Davies, Austria buyer at Majestic. “That’s really where Grüner is doing so well. It’s immensely food-friendly which I believe works incredibly well with savvy, sophisticated consumers.”
Oddbins has seen sales of Austrian wine soaring too. Buyer Ana Sapangiu MW says: “We have seen growth of up to 29% in some of our Grüner Veltliners. There are three in the range in the £13-16 price bracket. I have plans to bring in one below these price points as more volume and affordable pricing becomes available.
“The profile of the wine appeals to consumers and is shared with the type of customers who buy modern German wines, where we have done a significant range review that has been very successful.”
Ben Wyse, Domaine Wachau brand manager at Gonzalez Byass UK, says: “I suspect the appeal of Austrian Grüner Veltliner is that it is approachable without being bland. It has
no blatant characteristics that one might find offputting, such as overt grassiness in Sauvignon Blanc or oakiness in Chardonnay. The wines are refreshing and flavoursome.”
Plenty of positives to go at then, but the danger is that, just like the Kiwi Sauvignon who’s territory it’s encroaching on, the success of Grüner Veltliner could turn Austria into a bit of a one-trick pony.
Nik Darlington, managing director at importer Red Squirrel Wines, which has Eschenhof Holzer and Diwald in its portfolio, says it has seen sales of Grüner tail-off in the on-trade in favour of other varietals – and that the off-trade is merely playing catch-up in Grüner anyway.
“Consumers remain very curious about trying less familiar wines, Austrian wines among them, and the bigger retailers have responded to the growing popularity and press attention that Grüner Veltliner and Austrian wines generally have received in recent years,” he says.
“However, Grüner sales have declined year- on-year [for Red Squirrel], even though Austrian wines generally are on an upward trajectory. Retailers might be a bit behind the curve. So even if the on-trade’s attention is waning, that popularity might now be feeding through in a bigger way than before to multiples and supermarkets.”
And 2019 could see more Austrian wine come on to the market, making it even more of a draw for off-trade buyers looking for value-for-money in the mid-market price brackets.
Like other parts of Europe, Austria was buoyed by the weather in 2018, with production increasing to 3.2 million hl from a sorry 2.5 million hl the year before, with the biggest boost in production coming in white wines, the driving force behind the country’s wine exports.
Tim Carlisle, new business development manager for Vindependents, which began importing wines from Ecker-Eckhof at the end of 2017, says it has sold 2.5 times more Austrian wine than it expected to in the short time it has been selling it.
“There seems to be a real thirst for pure, elegant wines that are unoaked,” he says. “At the same time Austria offers consumers a lot of value and, generally speaking the wines are a dependable choice. That blend of really high quality, value and dependability aligned with a magnificent harvest should see Austrian wines go from strength to strength this year.”
Carlisle is hopeful that other varieties can help broaden the appeal of Austria.
“As overall sales have gone up opportunities for alternative varieties to Grüner Veltiner have too, both because of the amount of wine being sold but also because wine merchants are more confident in adding new listings,” he says.
“In the last 12 months only 41% of Austrian wine we’ve sold has been Grüner. Other grapes that have done well for us in particular are Zweigelt, Roter Veltliner and Riesling which make up nearly 50% of sales of dry wines.”
Darlington at Red Squirrel has seen similar trends in the way Austria is spreading its wings.
“We now sell a lot more Zweigelt than Grüner Veltliner, and we have a Zweigelt rosé that jumped 45% in sales last year,” he says. “Meanwhile other Austrian whites like Riesling grew 7% and Roter Veltliner, which always sells well, held steady.”
Multiple retail buyers are steadily getting more adventurous as confidence in Austria grows. In the last two years, Majestic has listed six Grüner Veltliners and its Definition Grüner has entered the top five best-sellers in its range.
“Many consumers brought into the region by the success of Grüner may now well be interested in exploring further,” says Bowen- Davies. “In that sense, it’s a similar story to one we have seen in other regions, such as New Zealand or Portugal.”
“Consumers get a taste and think: ‘What next?’ We can gauge the appetite for this through our when-it’s-gone-it’s gone parcels and, indeed, we already are, with a red Zweigelt from Carnuntum which we launched in December.
“It is, however, still very early days. Grüner Veltliner too is capable a making a myriad of styles, from fresh and bright to something more broody and spicy. There’s a lot to explore.”