Austria's Amiable 2002s

In two and a half frightening days in 2002 (August 8 through 11), the Krems area received more than half its average annual precipitation.Damage to property and vineyard terraces in the Wachau and Kamptal competed with disaster scenarios in major cities like Prague and Dresden for worldwide newspaper headlines.As growers struggled to drain their domiciles and dig their belongings from the mire, they could at least be thankful that for them the harvest lay two months or more in the future.

As the flood abated, the vines began to grow like crazy," relates Rudi Pichler, and many a normally well-manicured, top-quality site looked like a jungle before the grower could be torn away from domestic damage control and get in to apply shears.This was not the sort of year to stress the vines, other than those few in low-lying areas that were swept away in the raging Danube.Twice as much rain fell in 2002 as in the previous year, and the foliage remained green through October.And long-term averages show that precipitation six to eight weeks prior to the usual harvest date in the Krems area correlates strongly with outstanding quality.

In fact, then, 2002 could have been a truly extraordinary vintage, had the sun that returned in late August remained a feature through the fall.But October and early November were intermittently rainy.As Maria Hiedler put it: Two days lovely, then three days bad." We'd get the entire team assembled bright and early in the vineyard of choice," narrates Leo Alzinger Jr., "then suddenly, five minutes of downpour, all the fruit wet, and the end of picking for that day!And it went on like this day after day.But then, we are very lucky because most of our crew is local and can be reached on short notice by telephone.Others had to pay their crews to do nothing."Experienced, flexible local pickers at Alzinger and Hirtzberger contributed in no small part to the amazing success of those two growers in such a difficult vintage.When it comes to achieving the ultimate in quality, whether with riesling in Germany and Austria or with pinot noir in Burgundy, there is no substitute for both the exercise of individual judgment and the deployment of canny fingers on the part of the pickers.

While many growers commented on the susceptibility of riesling to botrytis and on the need to pick it more watchfully and earlier, there was clearly a higher degree of success with that variety in 2002 than with gruner veltliner.(Naturally, though, there were exceptions to this rule, with Prager and Gobelsburg, for instance, turning out finer ranges of gruner veltliner than they have in any previous vintage.)Given the persistently green foliage, the moisture below ground, and intermittent sunshine, grapes continued to gain in both sugar and extract.It was an arduous, protracted, and expensive harvest, but there were handsome pay-offs for careful selection, amassing of high extract (to buffer the eventual alcohol), and long hang time.Particularly with gruner veltliner, though, there was also a tendency for the vines to pump water to the fruit.As a rule, the 2002 gruner veltliner are rich, creamy, and quite low in acidity.I have rather often qualified my judgments on the best of them with the word "potential," and that is generally on account of my concern that these wines will lack some liveliness as they evolve.

With riesling, on the other hand, there is a tendency for the dynamism and interplay of flavors in these 2002s to belie their analytically rather low acidity.Certainly the top rieslings exhibit more spine and nerve than those of 2000, and more obvious ripeness and immediate charm than the high-acid 2001s.There is a predominance of "cool" flavors this year and of rieslings begging to accommodate themselves immediately to cuisine.Two thousand two, then, should be an ideal vintage to win new friends for Austrian dry white wines and to satisfy those already converted.That ideal is overshadowed somewhat, however, by the weak state of the U.S. dollar and the small size of this year's crop.The rigorous selectivity necessary to cull negative rot, as well as a high instance of stem rot in riesling, meant that much fruit never made it to the press.

As usual, my general introductory comments here pertain to the white wines of the Krems area.Comments on conditions in other regions will be found in my subsection introductions.Notwithstanding the rain, it is clear that some significant successes were scored in Burgenland with both red and nobly sweet wines, although a more detailed assessment of those categories will have to wait until next year's report.As is well known by now, the 2003 vintage has everywhere come in very ripe, a bit short on juice, and record-breakingly early, all of which guarantee some highly distinctive if not excellent results.All of the wines covered below were tasted from bottle and at the estates, unless explicitly noted.For consistency, 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.With rare exceptions, I have listed the wines, which represent somewhat more than half of the total number of those I tasted, in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them.Wines designated "1 star" were particularly impressive. 2 stars" signifies a wine of clearly profound complexity.Under no circumstances should these ratings, based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.