Wine can be as simple or as complicated as one chooses to make it. Simple: Is this producer reliable, does it taste good, does the price fit? Great, buy it!  Complicated: Vineyard characteristics, vintage characteristics, producer tendencies, appellation rules, a foreign language like German.

The fact that the world of wine keeps getting bigger – more wineries, new regions, a changing climate – makes it hard to keep track as a professional, let alone a consumer, of what the heck one should expect from a random bottle of wine on a retail shelf.

But a little knowledge can go a long way, especially when it comes to Austria. The country makes superb Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, along with reds like Blaufränkisch, that should be on buyers’ radars due to their high quality to price ratio (QPR). Rather than cover the whole country, however, let’s just bite off a small but important chunk.

Here’s a mouthful: Österreichische Traditionsweingüter. This German phrase (the language of Austria), means Association of Austrian Traditional Wine Estates. Founded in 1992, the name was adopted by a small group of like-minded vintners from the Danube areas of Kremstal and Kamptal to represent a trade association of invited members, usually top producers, from a region. These wine farmers, whose families had been growing vines in the same locations for generations, wanted to formally observe, classify, and codify into wine law the region’s best vineyard sites. After years of viticulture, they suspected which places produced wines with the greatest elegance, character, and longevity.

Thus, for the last two decades, members of the group, which now encompasses vintners from Traisental and Wagram (Wachau has a separate classification system), have analyzed one another’s wines, the results of which led to the “Klassification 2010” in which 53 vineyards were designated as “Erste Lage” or “first site.” (Think Burgundy’s Premier Cru.)

The point was for the producers to do all the complicated work--identifying and understanding diverse soils and microclimates of the different vineyards, and the impact of these factors on the varieties—in part, to simplify the consumer shopping experience. How? Because a consumer who sees the Erste Lage symbol on the capsule and label, a numerical 1 followed by ÖWT, will know the wine derives from a quality vintner and vineyard who have been vetted for decades by their peers.

The classification of the best vineyards for traditional white grapes Grüner Veltliner and Riesling is still ongoing; once the group concludes the Erste Lagen analysis, they’ll move next to classifying the “Grosse Lagen” or “great sites” (think Burgundy’s Grand Cru).  For consumer purposes, the Gross Lagen will represent vineyards that have developed due to their history and overall recognition as icons of the four appellations. These wines will carry a different logo and represent only the tiniest percentage of classified wines at the top of the quality pyramid. But the association is years away from finalizing that work, so for now, you can shop for Erste Lagen wines from this list of member producers.

Producers to Find

Kamptal DAC

Schloss Gobelsburg

Weingut Brandl Zöbing

Weingut Bründlmayer

Weingut Fred Loimer

Weingut Jurtschitsch

Weingut Birgit Eichinger Straß

Kremstal DAC

Weingut Petra Unger Furth

Weingut Türk Stratzing

Weingut Sepp Moser

Wagram DAC

Weingut Leth

Weingut Fritsch

Traisental DAC

Weingut Markus Huber