A Comprehensive History of Viticulture in the Weinviertel
At the very dawn of viticultural history in Austria, we begin in the Weinviertel, where the most ancient preserved grape pips have been unearthed. This discovery provides some of the oldest evidence of domesticated vines in Central Europe. These grape pips, accurately dated to the time around 800 BCE, were found at Stillfried an der March, site of one of the most important archaeological excavations in Central Europe, which is effectively yielding artefacts from all epochs, from the Stone Age through the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Roman colonisation and the Middle Ages – all the way to the early days of modern times.
This has more than a little to do with the fact that Stillfried was situated on one of the most important trade routes in the history of Europe – the Amber Road. This thoroughfare facilitated a rich cultural exchange, including contacts with the Mediterranean region, where the domesticated grapevine originated. That is where the wild vine, which ultimately produced today’s Vitis vinifera, was widespread as early as 11,000 BCE, as discoveries made in the Peloponnesian peninsula substantiate. Cultivated vines appeared at the latest around 3,000 BCE in Egypt, while it is probable that the first attempts at domesticating the grape date from the fifth millennium BCE in the Near East.
By 3,000 BCE, grapevines were already being cultivated in the Aegean. The spread of viticulture north of the Alps enjoyed a legendary level of growth under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus (232–282 CE, reigned beginning in 276). Even if the introduction of viticulture to current Austrian territory cannot be directly attributed to him, he was instrumental in promoting the planting of new and better grape varieties here, and for rescinding laws that limited viticulture in the provinces. This can be corroborated in passages written by Roman authors associated with viticulture in the province of Pannonia, men such as Aurelius Victor, Eutropius or Eusibius, as well as the Historia Augusta. While viticulture actually existed here even before the Romans arrived, it is certain that Roman rule brought positive developments to the existing wine culture. The importance of winemaking in these latitudes grew to carry greater weight from the middle of the third century onward. We have depictions of wine that can be reliably dated to the second century of the Christian era such as Roman artefacts from Carnuntum bearing the image of two grape vines growing leaves and clusters. The first concrete written reference we have to a vineyard in today’s Lower Austria is found in the Vita Sancti Severini, written by Eugippius, who is the most significant source for information concerning later antiquity in the Bavarian/Austrian Danube River region. In this record, vineyards in Mautern (across the Danube from Krems) are mentioned in connexion with the life of Saint Severin, dating to around the year 470. Very likely for this reason, Saint Severin – along with other prominent glorified souls like Urban and Martin – became a patron protector of winegrowers and grapevines. Viticulture in Lower Austria also seems to have survived the time of the Great Migration at least rudimentarily intact; this can be corroborated by evidence from the 8th century found along the Danube River, most likely still preserving Roman viticultural techniques.
Little can be known for certain concerning early viticulture in Austria south of the Danube River, owing to the extraordinary paucity of source materials, but in the Weinviertel we find the first relevant sources dating from the late Mediaeval period. An entire flood of pagan German groups – Goths, Erules, Rugiers and Lombards – made their way through the territory north of the Danube in the course of their migratory movements, before these travellers arrived in the sphere of influence dominated by the retreating Avars and the Slavic tribes they ruled.
Following is a brief and rather incomplete sketch of developments in the centuries of late antiquity and the early middle ages:
Over the course of Frankish eastward expansion in the Carolingian period, the territory now called Weinviertel became a hotbed of conflict between Charlemagne’s empire and the greater Moravian state, even before the Hungarians penetrated the region. Around 1040 the situation became relatively stable under the Salian king (and later, as of 1046 emperor) Heinrich III. Heinrich was able to subjugate the Bohemian ruler Duke Břetislav, while simultaneously repelling the Hungarian invaders. This paved the way for a new wave of settlement in today’s Weinviertel. Immigrants from Bavarian and Frankish territories made up the majority of these settlers.
It remains beyond the reach of our research to determine if the settlers found actual domestic cultivation of the vine waiting for them in the Weinviertel at that time. Farming and livestock were their primary concerns. Simple viticulture was practiced only for household purposes, yet according to the investigations of Franz Stubenvoll, these small vineyards constituted part of the basic layout when the area was settled. It cannot be determined, however, if and to what extent this involved pre-existing domesticated grapevines. At this point, jurisdiction over viticulture was assumed by the monasteries, dioceses and various nobles, who like many of the settlers were also of Frankish origin. One manifestation of this is articulated in the fact that the good wines (and hence grape varieties) were categorised as “Fränkisch”, while the lesser ones were dismissed with the title “Heunischer”, which from an etymological standpoint refers to the Huns, a blanket-term for all of the (locally unpopular) equestrian peoples of the east.
Documented evidence concerning viticulture with particular reference to the eastern part of the Weinviertel appeared relatively late among the developments of the 11th century.
Initial mentions in public records of wine-producing municipalities that are today of great significance were surprisingly late, but this does not mean that viticulture was not yet practiced there. The existence of much earlier records in the immediate vicinity relativizes this absence of documentary evidence. One example is the famous judicial code of Falkenstein from 1309, which will be discussed later.
For Poysdorf, which with its wine festival offers one of the greatest attractions in wine tourism and is generally considered to be one of the most important wine-producing communities today, the first official mention of viticulture dates from the year 1334, although citations from elsewhere in the vicinity reach much farther back. Wolkersdorf first appears in connexion with wine in the year 1377. Hagenbrunn was initially mentioned in 1395, when the sale of Kloster Formbach’s property and vineyards to Stift Klosterneuburg were documented. Even such an important wine-growing community as Matzen does not appear in this context until 1413.
From the eastern reaches of the Weinviertel, earlier records do exist, for example from
Gross-Schweinbarth (1135/40), Königsbrunn (1156/77), Bisamberg (ca. 1150), Pillichsdorf (20 March 1161), Ulrichskirchen (1180), Stillfried (1180) and Stammersdorf (1220/40).
Around 1160, Heinrich von Mistelbach pledged a vineyard to Stift Klosterneuburg, “in case the Abbey loses Weingut Welwen, which he gave to it along with his daughter Adelheid”. Unfortunately, this document leaves us unclear exactly where the vineyard was located, but because the other vineyards mentioned in the document are situated in the neighbourhood of Maria Laach am Jauerling, it is highly likely that the vineyard in question was located in that vicinity and not in Mistelbach.
In the western Weinviertel, we have slightly earlier references to viticulture available to us than we do for the eastern part. In certain municipalities they even reach back to the second half of the 11th century. A record from 1066 documents winegrowing in Thern. A couple decades later, Bishop Altmann of Passau deeded vineyards in Goggendorf to Stift Göttweig in 1083. Even Hollabrunn, where viticulture plays no role today, followed as early as 1135 with its first reference. In the vicinity of Retz, one of the most renowned wine-producing towns in Austria, viticulture is first mentioned in 1155, which is actually the first official reference to Retz itself. Another significant wine-growing community, Pulkau, does not make its first appearance until 1216, while Schrattenthal makes its 13th century debut in a record from 1220.
The notion that negotiations over the “Weinzehente” (a tithe levied upon viticulture) took place at a synod in the Weinviertel municipality of Mistelbach toward the end of the 10th century could be blamed on the desire for fame and acclaim. Like many other early records originating from addresses in the Weinviertel, this involved a not-quite-unintentional confusion with similarly named places in Bavaria or Upper Austria. The said synod actually took place in Mistelbach bei Wels (WSW of Linz and closer to Munich than to Vienna).
Winegrowing enjoyed a particularly vibrant boom in the 13th century with significant expansion of the area under vines. This of course went hand-in-hand with the clearing of forested areas and the re-purposing of onetime pastureland and grain fields as vineyards. Where possible, sloped sites were cultivated, which led to the term of “Weinberg” being used, even in the rather flat Weinviertel. (Wein = wine; Berg = mountain or hill)
In the Middle Ages, viticulture was subject to its own legal system, the so-called “Bergrecht”. The best known of these in the Weinviertel was established in Falkenstein in the year 1309 for the Rosenberg vineyard. This involved a “Bergtaiding”, a community court formed specifically for the regulation of Rosenberg, which served as a model for later “Bergrecht” legislation.
Confusion lies in the fact that an older research mistakenly regarded two viticultural courts as identical. It assumed, due to the early date of its establishment, that the community court responsible solely for the Rosenberg vineyard was equivalent to the extremely important Falkenstein court of appeals, which ruled over the decisions of other community courts. The rulings of the court in Falkenstein were considered binding, not only to the northeast Weinviertel, but even in Southern Moravia. In 1609, the Moravian legislature in Brno reportedly selected the court in Falkenstein as the place where appeals could be launched against the rulings of other viticultural courts.
Judgements made according to vineyard law were nearly always paid in wine – only later, and then still infrequently in currency. Tithes were calculated according to harvest volumes and were originally a type of church tax until the late Middle Ages when they became a freely marketable tax increasingly levied by secular lords and masters. In contrast, the “Bergrecht” had to be paid annually.
Because individual growers at the beginning of this period did not have their own presses – these belonged most often to the proprietors of the Bergrecht, whose ranks in the later Middle Ages, along with the landlords, the abbeys and dioceses, continually grew to include more burghers from cities such as Vienna – the grape must had to be delivered in vats as “tax in kind” for further processing. Severity of punishment for misappropriation of grape must is chronicled, among other instances, in the “Land Registry of Upland Vineyards” from Matzen in the year 1619, which determines a ten-guilder fine for syphoning off cargo from a grape-must wagon.
As previously suggested, the growing expansion of vineyard area posed certain problems. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the growth of viticulture accelerated even further. The flourishing nature of ambitious wine-growing communities attracted impoverished farmers, who hoped to improve their prospects by moving to these places. The prevalent mild climate in the High and Late Middle Ages was an additional benefit for viticulture in Lower Austria as a whole and thus also in the Weinviertel. Furthermore, the defeat of the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 led to large parts of Hungary being assimilated into the Ottoman Empire, removing at least partially the region’s largest competitor in wine export. However, the resulting situation developed to a point in the 16th century that any further conversion of farmland into vineyard had to be forbidden. It was feared that famine would arise, if more farm and pasture land gave way to viticulture. In terms of total area under vines, viticulture had expanded to cover an area in the Weinviertel that has still not been attained to the present day. The rise in numbers of residents involved in winegrowing generated an increasing fragmentation of parcels due to equal division of inheritances. A structure of narrow, long vineyard parcels (Riemenparzellen) and so-called “little cottagers” evolved. A certain segment of the populace found its way to the bottom of the social ladder and possessed only small tracts designated as house vineyards.
The international export market grew in importance. Along with Bohemia and Moravia, the Weinviertel shipped wine to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. In later years, even the court of the Romanovs was supplied with Weinviertel wine. One anecdote relates that Czar Alexander I stopped off in Poysdorf on his way to the Congress of Vienna in 1814. He was so taken with the wine of Poysdorf, that from this time forward, wine was shipped to his court in Saint Petersburg and the vintners of Poysdorf became official purveyors to the Imperial Russian Court. To commemorate this, the Classic Car Club of Poysdorf drove to Saint Petersburg to help the city celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2004, bringing a barrel of wine with them.
Superpower politics as practised by the House of Habsburg generated difficulties for viticulture in the Weinviertel as elsewhere. The newly (and repeatedly) established armies of mercenaries devoured great sums of money. To cover these expenditures, a wide range of various new taxes was introduced, which led to increased impoverishment of the general populace. Devastation wrought by military action, above all in the Thirty Years War, added considerable trials to troubles in the Weinviertel. Wine was one of the most heavily taxed commodities and endured the most widely varied levies. This lead to a palpable reduction in consumption, which brought in its wake a reduction in the area under vines.
The situation was ultimately alleviated thanks to the influence of mercantile thinking in the second half of the 18th century. With the general liberalisation of the economy under Joseph II, the free sale of agricultural products became possible. This opened the door and the gates for an institution typical of, though not limited to, the Weinviertel: the Heuriger – the winery tavern. All residents were now permitted to sell goods they had produced on premise to whomever they wished. This opportunity was happily exploited by residents, particularly in the vicinity of Vienna, where direct sales without middlemen offered enormous advantages for both consumer and producer.
One problem affecting the quality of viticulture was posed by the long-prevalent muddled style of mixed-varietal planting, as viticultural specialist Christian Graf Kynski from Matzen assessed in 1879. The space between grapevines was also used for growing everything from garlic, cabbage, green beans, herbs, corn or even fruit trees like peach.
Phylloxera in the Weinviertel
Of course there have always been diseases and pestilence afflicting the growing of grapes, but with the plant louse Phylloxera vastatrix, which infiltrated Europe with the introduction of native American grape vines, a true day of judgement was visited upon the continent’s viticulture. The pest appeared in the south of France between 1858 and 1862 with these vines, while in Austria, American vines that the viticultural college in Klosterneuburg planted in their research vineyards in 1868 were to blame. The appearance of phylloxera there was established for the first time in 1872. It took ten years more for the pest to make the leap across the Danube River and reach the Weinviertel, where phylloxera was documented in Langenzersdorf and Stammersdorf for the first time in 1882. From then on, there was no holding back its triumphal march across the entire Weinviertel. The first attempts at combating phylloxera were made with injections of carbon disulphide, which on the one hand was very costly and on the other hand failed to provide lasting success. A long-term solution was ultimately achieved by grafting native grape varieties onto American rootstocks, which were resistant to phylloxera.
After the successful defence against the phylloxera catastrophe was introduced here in the 1930s with the practice of planting vines in rows. This allowed the planting of some 10,000–12,000 vines per hectare. With conversion to the modern vine-training systems, this figure was reduced to some 2,500 plants, which brought an enormous reduction in the cost of planting vineyards. At this time, growers also began to conscientiously segregate grape varieties in the vineyards, which led to improvements in quality in domestic viticulture. Another decisive step in the direction of modern winegrowing was the introduction of the Hochkultur, a trellis system with high vine trunks. The well-known oenologist Lenz Moser began translating an English-language viticultural manual in 1923, from which he became acquainted with an American method of training vines with a higher trunk. Shortly thereafter he began to experiment and planted the first vineyards according to this method in 1932. A 3-metre spacing between the rows facilitated mechanical cultivation of the vineyards and his success with this was twofold. On one hand, the amount of effort needed to work a vineyard was reduced substantially, while on the other hand yields grew dramatically. Since 1956, a year characterised by particularly severe damage to vines from frost, this method has been promoted in official quarters. Even if Moser was the first to work in this way in Rohrendorf in Kremstal, it is worth mentioning that Franz Fleischmann, a Weinviertel grower from Münichsthal, was quite instrumental in the adoption of the system. Fleischmann, in contrast to Moser who received his information from printed material, had become acquainted with this method of training vines first-hand in South America, and had been using Hochkultur in his own village since 1936, which initially earned him the scorn and derision of his fellow residents. Success later proved him right and an increasing number of growers in Münichsthal followed his example after the World War II. The transition happened quite quickly after the winter of 1956, so that in the Gänsersdorf district in 1969, 80% of the area under vines had been converted to Hochkultur – the landscape of the Weinviertel bears the imprint of this system to the present day.