2020 will be remembered as a growing season of opposites, in which rain followed sun and cold followed warmth. Combined with the specific features of the regions, this called for a great deal of intuition and patience from winegrowers. And they have been rewarded – we can expect some invigoratingly fresh whites, finely balanced reds and some sweet rarities.
The lucky number for the world of Austrian wine seems to be the 9, since when the year ends with this numeral – like 1999 and 2009 (‘the Niners’) – the vintage often turns out to be particularly fine. This legendary series continues in 2019: despite heat and drought, the white wines are vivaciously fresh and the reds show excellent depth. And at 2.3 million hectolitres production, 2019 is in line with the long-term average in terms of volume.
UNSTABLE WEATHER IN SPRINGTIME, HOT SUMMER & MILD AUTUMN
The warm winter of 2019, with its meagre precipitation – not much of a winter at all, actually – was followed by an inconsistent spring: April was again very warm, while the coldest May since 1991 brought a great deal of rain and retarded the development of the vines; fortunately there were no late frosts anywhere to damage the prospects. In retrospect, this wet period figured undoubtedly as a stroke of luck because it made a decisive contribution to ensuring that the vines and clusters survived the torrid summer months unscathed. Ultimately, it also contributed to a noticeably different sort of aromaticity than in the previous vegetation cycle, in which this ‘water reservoir’ was not available. The vines blossomed at a normal time and under favourable weather conditions, so that any losses due to coulure fell within narrow limits.
Summer got under way with the warmest and driest June since temperatures began to be recorded, and continued with a July and an August that were almost as hot, although the heat waves were not as extreme as in 2017 and 2018. Thankfully, there was no hail damage.
With the end of August a cooler period began, which above all brought with it pleasantly mild nocturnal temperatures, which also exerted positive effects on the fruit aromas and acidic structure of the wines. Autumn continued very mild and consistent, so that the primary harvest could be conducted according to plan and in an unhurried fashion, especially since there was no more significant rainfall. The grape material achieved full ripeness in all winegrowing regions and displayed the picture of perfect health, since hardly any fungal infections or development of rot had occurred, thanks to the summer’s high temperatures.
The earliest wine harvest of modern Austrian viticulture surpassed the volume of the previous, above-average vintage 2017, at 2.75 million hectolitres. Once again, wines of very good to excellent quality are anticipated.
A VEGETATION CYCLE RIFE WITH CHALLENGES
Following a warm January, February and March were very cool, resulting in vines budding late. One positive effect of this is the fortunate fact that late frosts, like those which have occurred in the previous two years, did not threaten the vineyards in 2018. The second-warmest spring since the beginning of recorded weather led to a conspicuously early flowering in mid- to late May, an early advance in the vegetation cycle that then persisted throughout the hot summer. Apart from a few showers in June and thunderstorms in mid-July, summer also remained very dry. These combined factors of aridity and heat led to a considerable element of stress, especially upon terraced vineyards and recently planted parcels that could not be irrigated.
The consistently hot and dry weather led to the earliest harvest in memory: in Burgenland, for example, the first Qualitätswein (quality wine) was submitted for a federal inspection number on the 2nd of August. Right at the beginning of meteorological autumn, numerous Austrian winegrowing areas experienced relatively voluminous rainfall, which caused growers great concern, especially along the Danube and in the Steiermark (Styria). Fortunately, most of the rest of September and October was mild and sunny, so that the harvest could proceed in good order. Some winegrowers chose to start picking very early, given the temperatures and the September rains mentioned above, while other producers waited still, and preferred to harvest their vineyards later. In both cases, however, in spots where botrytis had appeared early, meticulous selection became necessary, which led to significant losses of volume in many Riesling vineyards in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria).
Imagine the vegetation cycle and vintage as a roller coaster ride: this is precisely the memory that Austrian winegrowers and friends of Austrian wine will cherish of 2016. But all said and done, there is good to magnificent quality in white, red & sweet wines – in some cases with severely limited quantities.
Following a warm and dry winter, vines in many winegrowing regions went into budding rather early. A massive cold snap in the last week of April led to horrible frost damage, and because of the unusual large-scale weather pattern, even higher-elevation vineyards were affected. Particularly hard-hit were the entire Steiermark, the growing districts Neusiedlersee and Eisenberg in Burgenland as well as Carnuntum, the Thermenregion and the westernmost section of the Wachau near Spitz in Niederösterreich. By contrast, there was hardly any frost damage reported in Wien/Vienna or for the other regions of Niederösterreich, where above-average harvests helped to raise the median volume for Austria as a whole.
After a relatively moist spring, summer 2016 also featured a great deal of precipitation, but no protracted heat waves. Many rainy days brought considerable danger from malign infestations, as well as peronospora and oidium. In the last week of August things changed for the better, and a period of sunny and stable weather set in, which essentially held up all through the primary harvest. Even if there was a bit of botrytis here and there, the time of the harvest could be deliberately fixed in most cases.
Austrian winegrowers and devotées of their wines can find plenty to be glad about in the 2015 vintage. Wines already tasted are impressive for their deep and ripe fruit, complex aromatics and sense of equilibrium, while wines still maturing in the cellars nurture expectations of top class and great potential. Winegrowing regions endured significant hail damage only in very isolated instances. The 2015 vintage leaves no doubt: very promising!
VINEYARD WEATHER OVER THE COURSE OF THE YEAR
After a period of fair weather in springtime and good conditions during blossoming, an uncommonly hot and dry summer set in. As we all know, one heat wave followed on the heels of the latest... In some places the vegetation process came to a standstill, especially affecting younger vines that could not be irrigated, which suffered from stress. Fortunately, in most growing regions the rains arrived toward the middle of August – just in the nick of time.
Then came a marvellous, even-tempered autumn; numerous sunny days, but with relatively cool nights – this is one basic difference between 2015 and years like 2011 and 2006. The rains arrived punctually this year in September as well and then came again in the middle of October; except for this last, somewhat humid period, the beautiful autumn weather held well into November. So in general, grapes could be harvested at the ideal point in time without hurry or stress, since afflictions from parasites and fungi occurred very seldom – even noble rot developed only in infrequent instances.
The difficult weather conditions during the Summer and Autumn of 2014 were no secret. And they certainly left Austrian winemakers with their hands full as they did everything they could to pick healthy, ripe grapes in the vineyards. Ultimately, after loads of extra effort and much added expense, pleasurable, lean wines were finally achieved – but only through a small harvest, which, at approximately two million hectoliters, is again well below the long-term average.
After a very mild Winter and a dry, beautiful beginning of Spring, an exceedingly cool, wet month of May served as a first warning. There was favourable weather during the flowering period, however, after a brief heat wave, the wet conditions returned and lasted more or less throughout the entire Summer. August in particular was extremely cloudy and lacking in sunshine, although there were still some signs of a good vintage ahead. The final confirmation of a difficult vintage, however, was a very wet September. Only in October did the tide turn just a bit for the better.
At close to 2.4 million hectolitres, the total volume of the current Austrian vintage is just under the 5-year average, even though the main variety, Grüner Veltliner, had suffered from coulure damage due to bad weather during the flowering period.
Despite the challenging weather conditions, all of the wine regions – through fine-tuned vineyard management and carefully selected harvest dates – have delivered very high-quality white wines. Also Austrian red wines have exceeded initial expectations, yielding more than satisfying results.
COLD AND WARM; WET AND DRY
While not extreme, the Winter was colder than usual and, with high amounts of snow as well as sufficient rain, bestowed plenty of moisture to the soils – which ultimately turned out to be a blessing. The low temperatures in March and April resulted in a significant bud break delay and flowering that was even later than in the two previous years. In June, the wet, cold weather was followed by a first heat wave that strongly impaired pollination of the main variety, Grüner Veltliner. But these coulure damages differed significantly from region to region. For example, losses were notable in western Wachau, big areas of the Kremstal and Kamptal and, especially in northern Weinviertel and Wien (Vienna), yet in the Wagram, they were sporadic.
Immediately after immense floodings that occurred in June, extreme summer heat set in, bringing with it a series of never ending hot days through July and August. This made the Summer of 2013 one of the five hottest in 100 years. In fact, August's drought-like conditions brought the vegetation process nearly to a halt; young vineyards in particular were affected. Fortunately - as mentioned before - the soils were very moist. Additionally, as September came, so did some rain.
Conditions in September and October were very balanced, though night temperatures were somehow cooler than in previous years. The grapes ripened on a steady, continuous basis, and the desired sugar gradations were achieved gradually. As the occurrence of botrytis was low, nearly all harvested grapes were healthy.
For the sweet wine segment, it was a matter of wait and see. Ice wines were able to be made, but from grapes that could be harvested only during a brief period in December. The overall sweet wine harvest was, in terms of quantity, very low.
With all of the figures in, the total volume of Austria's 2012 wine vintage is 2,154,800 hectoliters, which is well below the long term average.
This is due mainly to last May's late frost – an unusual event that brought heavy losses, especially in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria). But because overall weather conditions during the year were quite favourable, the quality of the wine is very high, and this for all regions and grape varieties. The beautiful dry weather at the end of the vegetation period and during the main harvest season ensured the gathering of perfect, healthy and ripe grapes, both white and red.
A calm, warm beginning of Spring led to an early bud break. But then a very rare natural phenomenon took place during the night hours of May 17th -18th: a frost made its way down from the north and over the wine regions in Niederösterreich; heavy damages occurred in the Pulkautal (Weinviertel) as well as in parts of the Kamptal and Kremstal regions. Ultimately, this lead to significant harvest losses. Spring continued, however, with very quiet and sunny conditions, and the first peak temperatures - up to 38 degrees C - were reached during the last week of June.
In July, there was a cool period lasting for around ten days, and it contributed in part to a surprisingly high amount of rainfall. This phase was extremely positive because, as the weather soon turned for the better and then climaxed with a very hot and dry August, there was ample water storage in the soil for the thirsty vines. The dry conditions continued until the end of the main harvest in mid-October. This was replaced by a sudden onslaught of cold temperatures that lasted until the end of the month, but at that point, most of the harvest already had been completed.
After a short dry spell due to the rather low quantities of recent vintages the Austrian vintage 2011 presents itself with elegantly balanced white wines and reds from perfectly ripened grapes.
With the pickings for the last ice wines at the beginning of February 2012, the harvest of 2011, which finally replenished empty Austrian cellars with a yield of more than 2.8 million hectolitres, was brought to an end.
The wine year 2011 started with a relatively harsh winter causing also frost damage here and there, leading to crop losses in the affected regions such as for example the Weinviertel. Then, however, spring came, punctually and all-out. The above-average warm and sunny period lasted until early flowering, which proceeded under optimal conditions. One small drop of bitterness was the slight frost damage caused by a cool week at the beginning of May.
In the second half of June the general weather situation changed and an utmost instable and humid phase, lasting throughout July (much to tourists’ regret) followed. Just when fears for the grapes' vegetative development were raised, a sunny and warm August, largely without longer heat periods, turned tides. Anyhow, painstaking work in the vineyards proved to be essential in order to prevent sunburn of the ripening berries. For terraced vineyards with poor soils irrigation was a blessing
The most important time slot before the main harvest was characterised by a wonderfully warm Indian Summer, going on without any precipitation until October 8th. By this time harvest was already almost fully completed in the Burgenland. These very pleasant conditions were also given for the rest of October. Austrian winemakers slightly feared drought stress which the vines were partly exposed to. The situation was aggravated by extraordinarily high temperatures at night, which led to a relatively quick reduction of acidity. The main harvest could be scheduled very well, since at the beginning the cooler morning hours could be made use of in order not to bring in too heated crop.
The harsh Winter of 2009 was met by the pleasant arrival of Spring in 2010. However, cold, wet periods soon followed, and 2010 saw significant rainfall and a lack of sunshine overall.
Depending on the grape variety and wine-growing area, the flowering period occurred during weather conditions that were sometimes - and sometimes not – favourable, and had a direct effect on the yields. The occurrence of couloure at this point was a key factor in the vines bearing fewer bunches as well as each bunch yielding a smaller amount of grapes. This led ultimately to the lowest grape harvest in 25 years.
With only 1.7 million hectoliters, the total harvest quantity in 2010 did not even meet the annual domestic consumption average - approximately 2.5 million hectoliters. Although not every grape variety suffered yield loss, Austria's leading white variety, Grüner Veltliner, was considerably affected. Also other varieties such as Chardonnay, Traminer and St. Laurent yielded lower quantities. But again, the different wine-growing areas must be considered: in Steiermark (Styria), for example, harvest totals were down by only around 12%, while other areas had 40% losses because of bad weather conditions.
NO DISADVANTAGES WITHOUT ADVANTAGES
After the rather unsteady flowering period, there was a deceptive stretch of heat in July. But this was all too quickly replaced by a cool, rainy August and a September that showed few signs of Indian Summer. In October, there were several “windows” of dryness that allowed, at carefully chosen harvest times, grapes to be brought into the cellars dry, healthy and ripe. Especially treasured were the undamaged grapes set loosely on their bunches: this deterred the development of Botrytis, and the growers could breathe easier until harvest time. Also, cool temperatures - especially during the nights – made an essential contribution to the rare “wet year but healthy grapes” phenomenon.
Winemakers with strong nerves were rewarded for their patience because extract, content and fruit nuances increased week by week into the later harvest period. And good results have been achieved. With more than enough sugar-free extract, the white wines are presenting themselves as fruit-accented and with acidity that is racy, but not aggressive. Varietal character and expression are clear and Botrytis, if any, remains – with a few exceptions - in the background. Overall, this kind of white wine vintage is defined by fresh, sleek-style wines – in other words, again a genuine “Austrian” vintage! Thanks to the right amount of patience as well as the acceptance of lower grape quantities, full-bodied wines with 13% or more alcohol, plenty of depth and dense structure were achieved, but in volumes lower than in previous years, of course.