How to build an award-winning Austrian wine list

Andreas Hiller, right, with Krister Bengtsson, Paz Levinson and Raimonds Tomsons. From the 2019 Nordic Star Wine List of the Year event.
Andreas Grube
Published 11-October-2022

Around fifteen years ago, Heaven 23 in Gothenburg, Sweden, decided to focus on building an Austrian niche wine list. That list has won several Gold Stars in Star Wine List of the Year the last few years. Here is the story behind Heaven 23's award-winning Austrian list.

"Everything started with the idea that we wanted to niche ourselves, but we didn't know how. We had a classic sort of 'hotel wine list' – most of what you could expect, but nothing really exciting. We felt it was a bit boring; we didn't have the opportunity to surprise our guests," says Andreas Hiller, Head Sommelier at Heaven 23.

Austrian Wine List of the Year Nordic 2019, International Austrian Wine List of the Year 2021 and 2022, and several Gold Stars in Sweden. Heaven 23’s Austrian selection is without a doubt one of the best there is. On Oct.9, they added another Gold Star to the list: the restaurant won the Best Austrian Wine List category – presented by Austrian Wine – when Star Wine List of the Year Nordics Edition was celebrated.

Heaven 23’s journey into Austrian wine started around 2005, when the team decided to go from a more generic wine list to a niche one.

The team started brainstorming; what should be the new focus? Since Heaven 23, and the hotel Gothia Towers where it’s located, have all kinds of guests and events throughout the year – international tourists and business people, fairs and conferences – they knew they had to look for a geographically limited region with a wide range of wines.

Andreas Hiller, Head Sommelier at Heaven 23, hard at work tasting wines.

"We also have a varied food menu, with both meat and fish, so we talked and discussed and erased ideas from the list. Finally, we realized that the answer for us was: Austria," says Hiller.

"Austria is easy to explain, with great width and breadth. We knew that we could get hold of everything from acidic and elegant whites to aromatic and spicy whites and all kinds of red wines. And, of course, great sweet and sparkling wines as well."

Next up, the team started researching the market to see what they could get their hands on. This was in 2006/2007, and back then, wines from Austria were not as present on the market as today.

"We just dug into it. We read Falstaff and all kinds of magazines, googled and made shortlists of which wines were the best in the different regions. And we realized that there was enough wine on the Swedish market to create an interesting list. We actually could work it out!"

Andreas Hiller says that it was quite a quick process to launch the Austrian list and that it took around five or six years to make it great.

What have been the biggest obstacles in creating the list?
"There have been several challenges along the way. Back then, fifteen years ago, the biggest challenge was that our audience was quite old school. Today the biggest challenge is that the volumes are so limited that we have to fight for the best wines. People have really understood the greatness of Austrian Wine."

We want to have a little of everything, even though we don't try to build these huge verticals

How do you work with the list to keep it relevant and interesting?
"It's a bit of a balance there, you have to keep track of what is happening in wine in Austria, and at the same time, we need to be able to present wines that are ready to drink and that our guests want to have. For us, Austria's biodynamic and natural trends have not been that interesting for our guests, but we still want to have it on the list. You always have to think several steps and years ahead."

"We want to have a little of everything, even though we don't try to build these huge verticals. And of course, we want to please our guests, but we also try to buy wines that people may not understand but that we are passionate about, which is also important. There should be all these different things to choose from."

How do you keep up to date?
"The key is, of course, to have close contact with the country. We travel a lot, meet producers, have a close connection to the marketing board, and read a lot. It happens a lot in Austria, which is great to see."

How has the perception of your Austrian-niche wine list changed over the years?
"It has happened a great deal since we chose to focus on Austrian wines fifteen years ago. I would say that the main change is that today, people accept that great Austrian wines can cost some money. Today, people are willing to pay for a Prager or Knoll from a great vintage. It has been lovely to see that development."

Is there anything in particular you are looking to buy right now?
"Yes, right now I'm buying a lot of Grüner Veltliner 2021 from Niederösterreich. In my opinion, this is one of the best Grüner vintages ever. It has this fantastic ripe richness but at the same time, higher acidity than usual. I'm buying as much as I can!"

Check out Heaven 23's award-winning wine list here.

What the sommeliers say

Heaven 23's Austrian-focused wine list has won several Star Wine List of the Year Gold Stars over the years. Here are some of the comments from Star Wine List's international top sommelier jury members:

Marc Almert, Best Sommelier of the World 2019:
" There are a lot of good Austrian wine lists around but Heaven 23 is really showcasing all of Austria, with wines from lesser-known regions and an impressive diversity of styles, for example with a huge selection of mature red wines."

Raimonds Tomsons, Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2017:
"It is an Austrian wine heaven indeed, including a broad diversity of styles – sparkling, white, red and Austria's liquid gold: the sweet wines. The list displays all the classic Austrian varieties and also new exciting varieties to discover. For me this is probably one of the best Austrian wine lists I have seen outside Austria."

Arvid Rosengren, Best Sommelier of the World 2016:
"Exuding passion and dedication to a very honourable cause - championing the brilliance of Austrian wine, this list covers all bases. A really wonderful list that should be a site of pilgrimage for any (Austrian) wine lover."

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