Wine and the Politics of Reunification

15th June 2018

Tags: Austria, politics

It’s well-known of course that after the Second World War Germany was divided amongst the victorious allied powers, and remained that way until the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It’s less well-known – except to lovers of Graham Greene or Orson Welles – that Austria suffered the same fate as well.  Until 1955 it was divided; the four powers shared Vienna, and the rest of the country.  The Russians gained most of the major wine producing areas.

The Soviets tended to favour quantity over quality (which had a major impact on the wine industry in Georgia) and this – combined with a desire to produce more to earn more – resulted in a move to planting more vineyards in the plains.  One exception to this was Domaine Brundlmayr, who feared that high-yielding vineyards might be confiscated or collectivised, and so bought hillside vineyards.  This set the scene for their current reputation for quality, because of course these vineyards offer much more balanced and flavourful grapes.

Meanwhile, the Austrian state worked hard to escape the division, and especially the Soviet dominance of the east, including the surrounds of Vienna.  They managed to persuade the Allies that the merger of Austria and Germany in 1938 had been an invasion and that most of them had been the unwilling partners of the Nazis.  They made it clear that never again would they seek an anschluss with the Germans, and indeed would be explicitly neutral in the future.  The Russians remained sceptical, though the death of Stalin in 1953 eased their opposition.

Nevertheless, some tense negotiations were needed.  The Austrian foreign minister, an experienced politictian, was Leopold Figl.  And, according to Roman Horvath MW of Domaine Wachau,  the very high quality cooperative in its eponymous wine region, this is where the wine comes in.  The Russians were hard drinkers; Figl, a farmer’s son from the wine region of Rust, could also manage a drink or two himself.  He was also friends with the management at Domaine Wachau.  So friendly that it is said he had his own key to back door of the cellar.  He conducted the final stages of the negotiations in the Wachau Valley, and when things were getting tense he took all the Russian negotiators down to the cellar one evening after everyone had left.  And he opened a few bottles.  Then maybe a few more.  Most important, he kept his head while everyone else was succumbing.  By the end of the night he had the basis of the agreement he wanted.  The Austrian State Treaty, which reunited the country, was signed Vienna 15th May 1955.  At the ceremony to celebrate the reunification Domaine Wachau wines were drunk – a fitting tribute to the unwitting political roll it had played.

The oldest part of Domaine Wachau, dating from the 18th century when it was owned by the Church.