Peter Moser on Austria 2005

Had the weather gods not changed their demeanor at the end of summer and provided five weeks of beautiful sunny weather beginning in early October, Austria's 2005 harvest would have been a disaster. In the end, in spite of the cool and wet growing season, the country's white wine vintners were able to produce wines of exceptional quality, in large part through the meticulous sorting of imperfect fruit. Compared to the acidic and rather light wines of the previous vintage, the 2005s are refreshing and crisp but with clear varietal character and significantly more extract.

The reds had more difficulty with the summer's rainfall, and quantity and quality both suffered. The good news, though, is that fans of Austrian red wine can now enjoy the 2004s, which are evolving superbly, especially the native variety blaufrankisch. Blaufrankisch has been cultivated for centuries in Austria; because of its thick skins it is resistant to rot and pests. It also ripens fairly late, which is advantageous in Austria's climate.

The 2005 growing season. The 2005 season began with a very long and wet winter, and the spring remained mostly quite cool. May brought cool nights, but then witnessed a brief period of unusually hot weather at the end of the month before nighttime temperatures once again fell into the mid-40s. Not surprisingly, the flowering was difficult, and the fruit set poor. The end of June was warm but wet, and periods of precipitation continued to frustrate vintners until the end of September.

The months of August and September were the rainiest across Austria since 1982, but thanks to the high humidity the grapes were supplied with sufficient nourishment that the ripening was able to keep up with long-term averages. The weather began to improve during September, except for a few showers at the end of the month. In many vineyards, growers were forced to begin harvesting early, and drastic selection of fruit was a necessity.

Then, at the beginning of October, a five-week long Indian summer set in, allowing the grapes that were still hanging to develop and achieve better ripeness. The perfect late weather was especially advantageous to the Wachau, where the harvest routinely takes place well into October-and, for some wines, into November. Here, the warm, windy weather shrunk and raisined the grapes without the influence of botrytis, bringing about excellent ripeness and high levels of concentration. At the same time, the cool summer was responsible for the refreshing character of the 2005s from the Wachau, and many superb wines of astonishing elegance and clarity could be made. But whereas quality was high, the quantity of wine produced was about 20% less than in an average year. Because gruner veltliner is more resistant to botrytis, this variety often performed better than riesling, which lost some vibrancy and sometimes took on a slightly broader and more rustic character.

Red wines from Austria are once again trendy. Premium red wines from 2005 will not enter the market for a while yet, but no one should expect any miracles from this vintage. The majority of these reds are light to medium in body; with their delicate fruit character and fine-boned structure, the overwhelming majority of these wines will be destined for early consumption. Much more pleasing-and impressive-are the 2004 red wines currently entering the market. This positive surprise followed two rather hot vintages, 2002 and 2003. In 2004, the indigenous early-ripening Austrian varieties performed well. The international grapes cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir (the latter called blauburgunder in Austria) also display above-average results, as does zweigelt. The slightly later-ripening blaufrankisch also achieved exceptional quality. But while I highly recommend that red wine lovers try the 2004 reds, it is also necessary to stick to the high end of red wine production in Austria. Mid-level reds, especially those based on blaufrankisch, are more likely to show weaknesses typical of a northerly wine region: too little complexity and personality and too much acidity. But where fruit was carefully selected from conscientiously farmed vineyards, high-quality wines with clear regional character were the reward.

DAC, a new appellation system. With approximately 2.5 million hectoliters of annual output, Austria accounts for no more than 1% of the world's wine production. But rising wine quality in Austria over the last 15 years has brought the country international recognition for its wines. To be able to compete more effectively on an international level, Austria needed generic appellations for its small, fragmented market, which features a broad spectrum of varieties and a wide range of regions made up mostly of small vineyard holdings. The initiation of an Austrian appellation system called DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) in 2003 has shifted the focus from grape variety to geographic origin. This shift is intended to help the consumer identify a certain flavor profile with a particular geographic origin.

The first DAC appellation was Weinviertel in Lower Austria; it includes only wines made from gruner Veltliner. The Weinviertel wine growing area encompasses Austria's largest vineyard area, with Gruner Veltliner comprising 8,000 hectares (50% of the total land under vine), making this a logical choice for a typical regional wine profile. Weinviertel DAC signifies a pale green-yellow wine that shares a spicy character and discreet fruity flavor. These wines must be dry, they must carry a minimum of 12% alcohol and no more than six grams per liter of residual sugar, and they may not display oak or botrytis influence. A second appellation called Mittelburgenland DAC was introduced in August 2006; these wines can be made only from blaufrankisch, which comprises 60% of the Mittelburgenland's vineyard acreage. A Traisental DAC for gruner veltliner and riesling is currently being planned.

A word on Austrian wine pricing. Prices for Austria's better wines are currently stable but high within Austria, reflecting the relative prosperity of the country, the high cost of production here, and essentially flat production levels. Austria exports more wine than it imports, yet the vast majority of Austrian wine is drunk within the country. Despite today's high prices, sales of Austrian wine to the U.S. are booming, with volume tripling between 2000 and 2005. Exports were led by Austria's elite wineries and were soon followed by bottles from less-known producers, which have also found a foothold in the U.S. market in recent years. In fact, the U.S. has become an important market for Austria's better wines, ranking just behind Germany, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and Italy. With more mid-range wine being sent to America, consumers there can expect it to become easier to find good wines at fair prices. Austria's most important wine, both in the domestic and international markets, will continue to be gruner veltliner.

Vienna-based Peter Moser has been senior editor of Falstaff magazine, Austria's leading consumer wine magazine, since 1997. Since 1989 he has tasted virtually all of the top Austrian wines annually for his Falstaff Weinguide. His coverage of Austria’s 2004 vintage appeared in Issue 123 of the IWC.