Austria Outstanding, Abundant 1999s

The 1999 vintage brought smiles to the growers of Austria Danubian growing regions. An ideal flowering in late May and early June was followed by balmy weather through July, broken only briefly by welcome early summer rains. "Things looked great most of the summer," related Emmerich Knoll, "then as we got into August it turned surprisingly cool and we fell a bit behind. Early September was rainy and we began thinking 'Smaragd might be difficult to get.' Then it warmed up nicely and hung on. In the end, we had to do Auslese [i.e., pick selectively] in order to achieve Federspiel."

Sunny, even weather continued until early November. This was not a ripening year with fits and starts like '98, and sugars never galloped ahead. Foliage stayed green late into the season, generating a slow but steady accumulation of sugars, a high percentage of tartaric acid, solid extract, and advanced physiological ripeness. Some growers began picking early-in mid-September-but nearly all of them finished late. "That meant that we could take our time, strategize, and pick small parcels at optimum ripeness," explained Gerald Malat. After a brief rainy interruption early in November, drying breezes arrived and clement conditions continued well into December.

Furthermore, in Leo Alzinger's words, echoed by most growers, "1999 brought that unusual but felicitous combination: quantity with quality." Overcropping was certainly a danger this year, but growers who routinely prune short and, where necessary, green harvest, rendered wines with abundant fat and extract. Generous crops and a strong dollar have combined for price stability, and in some cases actual declines, vis-a-vis '98.

Healthy fruit generally fermented without problems. "It was, in short, an uncomplicated year," says Hans Altmann of Weingut Jamek. As regards the work of the vintner, that's no doubt true. The wines themselves exhibit many complicated variations on fruit and terroir that will stand alongside the wines of '86, '90 and '97 as benchmarks of quality and complexity. The best '99s, in F. X. Pichler's words, "fattened and concentrated extract without taking on too much alcohol." And he echoed most growers in describing the crop as "100% healthy, botrytis-free." The '99s are characterized by modest alcohol combined with full physiological ripeness, and are highly nuanced, clear and expressive at both the lower alcohol levels and at Smaragd level. (For information on wine terminology please consult Issues 56 and 68.) There is a definite similarity to 1997, although the '99s tend to be aromatically more outgoing, a bit livelier and more citric (but no less dense), and more obviously mineral. These two remarkable vintages will long be the stuff of comparison-so much so, cautions Knoll, "that I have a feeling '98 may lie somewhat forgotten between them. But one shouldn't forget those '98s. They may well hold their own in the end."

Nineteen ninety-nine brought an excellent growing season in other Austrian regions as well. Following my report on the areas around Krems on the Danube, I provide some notes on the weather and wines in Burgenland and Styria. While 1999 in Burgenland is highly promising for both botrytis wines and dry reds, most of my report is devoted to the sweet wines of '98. The botrytis that bedeviled many a grower that year in the Wachau and Kamptal came as a noble gift to growers along the shores of eastern Austria's shallow Neusiedlersee.

All wines were tasted in late June at the estates and from bottle, except where otherwise noted. Most are 1999 vintage except in the section on Burgenland, where I focused on '98 and '97 sweet wines. I have designated all vineyards without preceding them with the name of their village or the word "Ried" (vineyard), although one or both of these may appear on the label. Except in rare instances where it clarified my explanations, I have listed the wines, which represent approximately the top two-thirds of those I tasted, in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. Wines designated with an asterisk were particularly impressive. Two asterisks signifies a wine of clearly profound complexity. I have hedged my bets-or anticipated likely improvement-by means of parentheses. Under no circumstances should these "ratings," based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.