Image Credits: Wiki
Words By: Rhys Mather
Austria is commonly associated with classical music or The Alps, but you may not know the country has a thriving wine industry. Small, artisan vintners produce relatively low quantities of wine when compared to their European neighbours – but this allows them to focus on quality, earning Austrian wine world renown. Wine critic, Jane MacQuitty, writing for The Times, describes:
“The vibrant, aromatic, terroir-influenced white wines from this small, landlocked country are increasingly sought-after by adventurous wine drinkers, and to judge from the thousand bottles on show it’s easy to see why”
However, this wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century Austria was the 3rd largest wine producer in the world – but in 1985 a scandal rocked the industry that almost destroyed it overnight; millions of gallons of Austrian wine were poisoned.
In order to understand how this happened you need a quick lesson in, (stick with me here), how Austrian wine is rated. Austrian wine is graded by sweetness, with the sweeter wines fetching the highest prices – in 1985 the cream of the crop was ‘prädikatswein’ or ‘superior quality wine’. Grapes were left on the vines until the end of harvest in order to ripen and turn into incredibly sweet, full-bodied white wines. These wines were extraordinarily popular, and equally profitable.
In order to be labelled as prädikat there must be no external sources of sugar added to the wine, thus the late harvest of the grapes is a necessity. So, alarms were raised when Austrian vintners began producing inordinate amounts of prädikat that far outstretched their growing capabilities. Following an arduous investigative process – warrants were obtained for a vineyard after a winemaker was found purchasing large amounts of a chemical called diethylene glycol and attempting to write it off on his tax return as fuel for his tractor. The vintner’s wine was confiscated and analysed – the results confirmed investigator’s suspicions, the wine contained large amounts of diethylene glycol.
Diethylene glycol (DEG) is a colourless, odourless compound with a sweet taste that mixes perfectly with water and alcohol – it was also little understood and essentially undetectable by common chemical tests in 1985. When DEG enters the body, it causes necrosis of the liver and damages neurons, making them unable to adequately carry electrical signals. DEG poisoning commonly results in death or paralysis, like in 2006 where DEG tainted cough syrup killed 216 people in Panama. It’s commonly used as a solvent in antifreeze and paint-stripper. Austrian vintners were adding DEG to lower quality wines in order to make them sweeter and more full-bodied, while avoiding chemical tests for sugar – allowing them to mimic and label the product as prädikatswein.
Image Credits: Wiki
After this revelation millions of litres of Austrian wine were confiscated, and entirely new methods of diethylene glycol testing were invented. Thanks to these tests the horrifying scope of the contamination was revealed – vineyard after vineyard, producing both high and low-quality wine were implicated and millions more litres of wine were taken to be destroyed. Many wineries declared bankruptcy within months of the scandal breaking. Some Austrian winemakers attempted to destroy their tainted wine by pouring it into sewers, which had the opposite effect of alerting authorities to their activities – as the wine contained so much DEG it killed the bacterial colonies involved in sewage treatment. The resulting raw sewage flowing into rivers devastated local animal life. In 1985 the New York Times reported:
“Anton Schmied, from Mitterstockstall, whom the police picked up for dumping 4,000 gallons of laced red wine down the town sewer. The poison in his wine reportedly wiped out the microorganisms that clear the town’s sewage so that it spewed untreated into nearby streams, poisoning the trout.”
At the same time doctors were linking illnesses with the consumption of Austrian wine. While there are no confirmed fatalities from DEG poisoned wine, press at the time report cases of liver failure, paralysis and severe abdominal pain after drinking Austrian prädikatswein. Some bottles were found to contain nearly 500 times what is considered a harmful dose. The only reason more people weren’t harmed was the ethanol in the wine inhibited the effect of DEG.
When all was said and done, approximately 270 million litres of wine were found to be mixed with DEG. Subsequently, several dozen wine makers and dealers were arrested, including a chemist named Otto Nadrasky. Nadrasky was the chemist who first suggested the idea of using DEG to illegally sweeten wine, and it quickly took root as common practice in the industry for at least a decade. Over 30 producers were sentenced, with many receiving sentences of 10 years.
In the aftermath of the scandal the Austrian authorities were left with nearly 300 million litres of the poisoned wine and there were no obvious methods of disposal. However, a few unlikely solutions were found. An electrical power plant in Carinthia found a way to burn the contaminated wine to produce electricity, similarly, a cement factory modified their ovens to use the wine as coolant. Austrian authorities also mixed the wine with salt and used it to melt ice during the winter, which was found to be more effective than using salt alone. Within a few years the tainted wine reserves were depleted.
Austrian economist, Karl Aiginger, famously remarked on the incident “In a year. Its all forgotten.”. His prediction was almost comically inaccurate as in the years following Austrian wine exports were down to less than 5% of what they were in 1984. Austrian wine imports were banned by dozens of countries – and comically the Japanese government also placed a ban on Australian wine due to a mistranslation. Many wineries that didn’t participate in DEG poisoning were forced to close as the market vanished overnight. The Austrian government quickly passed stringent new laws on wine production which required every bottle to undergo chemical and quality control, they would then be sealed with a stamp that displays the date of testing. Wine makers also shifted their focus now that the reputation of sweet wine was in tatters, and they began cultivating grapes for the dryer white wines that Austria is known for today.
It took 16 years before the export market recovered from the poisoning, but it now enjoys prosperity with Austrian wine being universally touted for its quality which is ensured by the world’s strictest wine laws. While the scandal of 1985 nearly destroyed the industry, without it Austrian wine would be very different, and the change it brought is positive. People stopped buying wine from supermarkets out of caution and bought direct from local winemakers, and the collapse of several large vineyards allowed dozens of smaller vintners to fill the void. It’s a comfort to know that even poison won’t stop people enjoying good wine forever.