Writer Joe Roberts, the founder of 1WineDude.com, one of the most influential and popular wine blogs in the U.S. takes us on a deep dive into Austrian “Sekt” — sparkling wine that has been produced since the 1840s. The market is just now seeing the results of Austria’s new sparkling wine designations, and Roberts has the goods. For those of you considering the WSET Diploma program, this is the kind of new information you’ll need to keep up on.
Austria’s famous cultural fastidiousness has been particularly acute when it comes to Sekt, the country’s sparkling wine. While Sekt has been produced since the 1840s, the market is just now seeing the results of Austria’s new sparkling wine designation, under the moniker Österreichischer Sekt mit geschützter Ursprungsbezeichnung (g.U.), which stands for “Austrian Sekt with Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO).
With this foray into a more formal quality designation for its Sekt, Austria isn’t so much vying for a place among the entry-level bubbles market as it is competing with the likes of vintage sparkling wines from the best regions of Germany, Italy, and even France. And at the top of their just-approved quality pyramid, Austrian Sekt can hold its own even among that rarified group.
The new g.U. (geschützter Ursprungsbezeichnung) quality pyramid is the result of “a discussion lasting several years” according to the Austrian Sekt Committee, a group consisting of Austrian Sekt estates, as well as members of the Austrian Viticultural Association, Federal Chamber of Commerce, Austrian Wine Marketing Board, and the Federal Ministry of Sustainability/Tourism.
The three new Sekt classification weren’t made official until 2016, and due to the strictness of the aging regulations for the top g.U. tier, lovers of fine bubbly couldn’t get their hands on Austria’s Grosse Reserve Sekt—until now. As outgoing Managing Director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, Willi Klinger, noted during the 2019 Austrian Wine Summit in Vienna, “as of 22 October 2018, Austrian Sekt with protected designation of origin is finally available for the first time as Grande Reserve.”
Here’s a breakdown of the new g.U. categories, all of which can be vintage-designated. In a testament to Austrian attention to detail, to be eligible for sale as Sekt, bottles must carry the “Geschützer Ursprung. Geprüfte Qualität” seal (and only after review by one or more federal agencies):
- Klassik (Classic)
Made from grapes harvested and processed in Austria, with any legal sparkling production and dosage methods allowed. Aging on the lees has to be nine months or more, with a minimum of 12.5% alcohol, and no designation of origin is permitted beyond the Austrian federal state level.
At this level, grapes must be hand-harvested, whole-cluster pressed to juice extraction minimums, then fermented in the traditional Champagne method to Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Nature only, with the finished wine matured for 18 months on the lees. As in Klassik, origin designation is at the Austrian federal state level, but the grapes must be harvested and pressed in that same area.
- Grosse Reserve
This top tier builds on the Reserve category but allows single-vineyard designation; requires basket or pneumatic pressing, and 30 months lees maturation; sets maximum residual sugar at 12 g/l, and restricts release until October 22 of the third year following harvest.
Austria’s sparkling wine focus seems logical: bubbles are big in the world’s largest wine market, the USA, where consumers can’t get enough of the stuff. According to Beverage Wholesaler, (part of the EPG Media group, and specializing in alcohol sector data collection and reporting) sparkling wine accounted for nearly seven percent of all U.S. wine consumption in 2017 (at 23.5 million cases); over a decade of consecutive growth, the category has increased a whopping fifty-six percent. So it might surprise you to learn that Austria’s Sekt focus has little to do with upending that lucrative market.
Austria simply produces too little Sekt to make a large dent in the sales generated by the oceans of Cava, Cremant, and Prosecco to be found on US store shelves. Bottled sparkling wine makes up less than two percent of Austria’s total wine exports, with over a third of that going to neighboring Germany.
The real push, according to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, is to enhance the overall positioning of Sekt g.U generally, and to highlight the quality of its top tier Grosse Reserve sparklers—the best of which in my opinion, while not inexpensive, rival better examples from Franciacorta, Germany, and even Champagne, and are absolutely worth your time if you’re a lover of bubbles.
To dive even further into wine laws and regulations, check out our WSET Diploma program. The WSET Diploma fulfills the prerequisite for an advanced wine qualification for entry to the Master of Wine (MW) program.
- Interviews with Willi Klinger, Managing Director of Austrian Wine
- 2019 Austrian Wine Summit visit