Austria 2004:A Viticulturist's Year

Vintage 2004 was a year for the diligent grower in Austria, and those who did not meet the challenges of the growing season were destined to fail. A year that began with bright expectations ended as the vintage with the longest picking period ever recorded in Austria: in some regions, it took until December to finish. In light of the unfavorable weather conditions in autumn, the results are surprisingly good, although the relatively few truly outstanding wines are the exceptions to the rule. The nature of the vintage is light, fruit-driven, food-friendly wines with crisp acidity.

The 2004 growing season. The variable summer weather was fated to confuse observers. If one examines the temperatures from the 2004 growing season, it becomes clear that this was not a cool year at all, but significantly warmer than the long-term average. Because the spring and early summer were cool and rainy, the warm weather from the end of July to mid-September took on greater significance.

Until the beginning of autumn, conditions appeared to be nearly ideal, the vineyards were in top form, and the harvest was predicted to begin in early October. But the autumn ultimately disappointed, as cool, rainy weather plagued Lower Austria and the northern portions of Burgenland in the second half of September. Botrytis came very early and necessitated strict selection at the harvest. A vintner's ultimate success depended on how well he implemented the right measures at the right time in the vineyard. It was a year for diligent viticultural practices-for spraying more frequently than usual and at precisely the right time. And of course vineyard treatments made the growing season an expensive proposition for many estates.

As wet, cold weather returned in October after a short sunny period, many vintners had begun to harvest. An excruciating period of waiting commenced. The rain caused the berries to swell, grape sugars dropped, and the threat of rot increased daily. Day after day, harvest workers were sent back home, a frustrating and costly measure for Austria's wine growers. Vintners who eventually lost their nerve began to pick at the end of October even though truly favorable weather conditions did not return until the middle of November. Once the fruit dried out, the best grapes from the best vineyards were mostly harvested from mid-November into early December.

The sugar levels in the grapes were generally low and many vintners could only harvest at Federspiel ripeness (now 11.5% to 13%, as the maximum was recently raised from 12.5%), even in November. Even so, the regulating organization Vinea Wachau remained firm and despite the drastic situation did not allow concentration of the musts via reverse osmosis or other techniques, or even chaptalization. Botrytis played a decisive role in making Smaragd wines possible in 2004, because without noble rot the necessary grape sugars could not have been reached. Despite this, the wines do not often show the strong caramel notes that would indicate over-botrytization, as do some Smaragd bottlings from the 1998 and 1996 vintages.

The quality and style of the wines. At the level of the country's best vintners, Austria's 2004 vintage can generally be described as very good, in a classic style with clear, refreshing fruit and substantial early appeal. The 2004s generally display themselves as fruitier than the 1998s. One can summarize that vintners who were able to wait until mid-November for their Smaragd wines were ultimately successful. Many of the wines I tasted in barrel in the early spring displayed honeyed tones and a syrupy texture, but this is not unusual for unfinished Smaragd wines. Once bottled, the wines had developed more fruit and elegance. With the 2004s, the alcohol content in all categories is as much as a degree and a half lower than in the previous two vintages, which has made them very food-friendly: try gruner veltliner with fried dishes like chicken or tempura. In this age of global warming and ever-higher levels of alcohol, Austria's 2004 vintage is thus an exception and, as you might imagine, has produced a style of wine that is making sommeliers in Austria very happy. The wines' acidity is generally harmonious and, because of the prolonged hang time, milder. In the end, the noble rot lent greater complexity to the wines. Overall production in 2004 was down about 15% from the recent average, not only due to botrytis, but also owing to the two previous hot vintages, which limited vigor in 2004.

Red wines from "the republic of the Alps." When it comes to Austria, most people think about steep mountains and fashionable ski resorts. That may be an accurate description for the western part of the country but Austria's eastern regions, especially those adjacent to Hungary, such as Burgenland, enjoy totally different climatic conditions. Much of eastern Austria is flat, dry and quite hot in the summer; temperatures above 100o were recorded in 2003, 2002 and 2000. So if the climate offers a good opportunity to produce interesting, ripe red wines, why are these wines so little known? In fact, until 20 years ago, even the Austrians didn't pay much attention to the country's red wines, which were produced with basically the same techniques as the whites. The result, not surprisingly, was wines with pale color, little body and high acidity. No wonder Austrians bought their reds from Tuscany rather than from Burgenland.

After 1985 [the year of the diethylene glycol drama in Austria, when a number of negociants were caught adding the primary ingredient of antifreeze to their wines to raise their alcohol content and make them resemble glycerine-rich sweet wines], everything changed in the Austrian wine industry. A young and well-trained generation of winemakers took the reins, and by 1988 the Austrian bureaucracy had officially given the green light to plantings of varieties like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot to produce quality wine. Austrians have shown a good deal of enthusiasm for their new red wines. Ten years ago they only drank 25% red wine; today they consume 50% red and 50% white. The share of red varieties in Austrian vineyards reflects this trend, having increased from 18% to 35% in the last five years. Today there is a small but growing number of wineries that specialize in red wine production-some with more than a thousand French oak barriques-and are offering stunning quality. With indigenous varieties like blaufrankisch, zweigelt and St. Laurent, Austria is also already contributing some unique wines. Names like Heinrich, Pockl, Umathum and Gesellmann-just to mention a few-have a bright future.

Austrian wine pricing. Most Austrian wines available in the U.S. are expensive, and there are several reasons for this. First, with a dollar/euro exchange rate of less than one, Austrian wine is even more expensive than necessary. But even at a 1:1 rate, prices would be high, and thus prices are almost guaranteed to remain high for the foreseeable future. Austria's veltliners and rieslings are a kind of extravagance in the market. Most portfolios of these wines available in the U.S. consist of the very best wines selected from the top 5% of Austria's total production. In terms of liters produced Austrians could consume all of their own wines easily. Prices for the best bottles in Austria are very high as well. Compared to their neighbors in Germany, Austrians pay three times more for an average bottle of wine. Austria's economy is still healthy, and people are willing and able to pay the high prices requested, simply because they crave the quality that only the top examples can offer.

There is also the matter of investment. Most of Austria's leading producers have invested substantial money in the last ten years to build new wineries and to improve their vineyards. The average size of the better-known estates is 20 hectares, so even the larger producers bottle only about 6,000 cases a year. Some producers have invested up to 5 million euros in recent years, so they have little flexibility to lower prices. In fact, if the Austrian economy slows down, their heavy level of debt might drive some of these producers into bankruptcy. Another important issue in Austrian wine pricing is the cost of labor. Since Austria joined the European Community, labor has become much more expensive. As a winery cannot employ people from Eastern countries for the basic work in the vineyards anymore, production costs have risen steeply. Some insiders claim that production costs have gone up by 40% in just the last three years. Working on steep terraces that are harvested by hand has become extremely expensive, but that is where the highest-quality grapes are grown.

Of course there are very good Austrian wines from the middle segment of producers: producers that are less known and not generally represented in the U.S. today. Many of these are excellent food wines and, at least when it comes to the versatile gruner veltliner, display distinct varietal character as well. Bottles in this middle category could sell for less than $10, and would provide another image of Austrian wines. But like Bordeaux, which is also defined by the pricing of its first growths and limited-production "garage wines," the top range will always be expensive.

How I taste. Most of the wines I sample for the Falstaff guide are tasted in March and June, prior to bottling. However, the overwhelming majority of notes in this report were based on my subsequent retastings of finished wines in September and early October. Although I use the 100-point system in the Falstaff guide, I have recalibrated my scale somewhat, after consultation with the editor of the IWC, to make my scores more consistent with those of other wines reviewed in these pages. (My scores in the Falstaff guide are in the context of Austrian wine, while in the IWC they appear against the backdrop of wines from around the world, including wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy grapes.) My ratings in this article also take advantage of the fact that I was able to retaste many wines a bit further along in their development. I would like to give special thanks to my translator, Julia Sevenich, who is herself an expert on Austrian wine.

Vienna-based Peter Moser, who comes from a family of vintners in Kremstal, has been senior editor of Falstaff magazine, Austria's leading wine consumer magazine, since 1997. Since 1989 he has tasted virtually all of the top Austrian wines annual for his Falstaff Weinguide, which has appeared twice in English as The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide. He also regularly represents Austria on the Grand Jury Europeen.