2013: A Great Vintage for Austrian Riesling and Grüner Veltliner

Despite a growing season marked by a dry summer that was statistically among the five hottest of the last century, Austria’s 2013 Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners display exceptionally bright acidity, clear flavor definition and uncanny complexity. To understand how this result was possible in a hot year requires going all the way back to December of 2012, when a cold, long winter was ushered in, something that nearly always pays dividends by ensuring deep, restful vine dormancy and killing off spores and larvae of eventual vineyard pests. There was also, for a change, more than ample snowfall to guarantee a high water table heading into spring.

The 2013 Growing Season

Early April retained a chill and May remained cool, with regular rainfall further building up ground reserves. The vines blossomed nearly a month later than they had in 2012, and under exceptional circumstances. Flooding along the Danube—ultimately nearly as high and destructive as that of 2002—made international headlines, after having arrived with surprisingly little advance notice. The same could be said of a sudden heat wave that engulfed all of Lower Austria’s growing regions in mid-June, resulting in an especially poor set of Grüner Veltliner (and accompanied in parts of the Kamptal by damaging hail). Riesling came away with a desirable and far less extreme degree of millerandage, setting the stage for loose clusters and tiny berries.

Hot, dry conditions gripped most of eastern Austria through August. But in the second week of September, by which time discussion of early picking was on growers’ lips, rain and cool weather returned, delaying the harvest for most growers until the normal window of October and early November while preserving acidity and promoting aromatics. Grapes in rude good health at summer’s end, especially where more water-retentive soils or irrigation had staved off drought stress, only reluctantly gave whatever fungal spores were out there much chance to spread, since heat had probably killed off most of them; and the extended rain was accompanied by temperatures that were mostly inhospitably cool for botrytis.  

F. X. Pichler harvesting his Klostersatz Grüner Veltliner

The 2013 Harvest

“Usually, I’m happy when September brings warm, dry weather,” remarked Vienna’s Fritz Wieninger, echoing the sentiment of most of his fellow growers, “but this vintage needed rain and cooling at that point. And I know this for sure,” he added, “for those who thought their grapes were ready to pick in September—and the must weights were already decent then—the results were not good: green tannins and unripe notes. Physiological ripeness didn’t arrive until October.” The summer’s dry weather and heat had probably resulted in vine shut-down in many locations, inhibiting phenolic evolution and positive transformation of acids even though must weights had risen steadily during August in a small crop of temporarily moisture-deprived fruit. Picking remained, in the words of Willi Bründlmayer “stop and go” in the still-rainy first half of October, but by month’s end warm, balmy weather had set in, leading in his and certain other cases to a late outbreak of botrytis.

For those who were able and elected to wait, November brought clear weather ideal for the completion of the harvest. Differences among Austria’s Riesling- and Grüner Veltliner-dominated regions were not especially marked, although water retention, availability of irrigation, and whether or not vines were in spots where their foliage succumbed to an early October frost were critical local factors. So was any small amount of rain that might have fallen during July and August, and in that regard the Wachau clearly benefited vis-à-vis its neighboring regions, and indeed most of the rest of Austria. The extent of disruption during flowering and consequent crop loss in Grüner Veltliner also varied considerably according to site and sector, the more precocious having been worst affected. Depending on local factors too, and in particular on whether there was late botrytis, some growers chose to pick Riesling ahead of Grüner Veltliner rather than in the more usual order.

“July and August can be hot or not so hot, it doesn’t really matter,” averred Ludwig Hiedler. “What matters is that it’s not too chilly and that you have enough precipitation,” which explains why he concurred that “the September weather was perfect and is no doubt what made the vintage.” But he hastened to add that the mid-summer heat did have one important effect, namely of thickening the grape skins in a season when phenolic ripeness was going to be slow in coming anyway. “For that reason,” he continued, stating another often repeated theme among this vintage’s top performers, “how hard you pressed and the fraction of juice you retained was critical.” If you tried to buffer the high acidity by more aggressive pressing or less selective retention of juice, he opined, you ended up with excessive bitterness. That having been noted, growers who generally favor extended pre-fermentation maceration were unafraid in 2013 to follow that path, which also helps to buffer acidity.


Overlooking Senftenberg vineyards 

The Style of the Wines

In the end, growers have been rewarded with ripe, healthy, extract-rich, positively acid-endowed Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings without notably high alcohol. Moreover, the wines almost universally manage to pass for lighter than their actual alcoholic content would suggest. “We have to take care in the Wachau,” remarked Toni Bodenstein recently, “that for all of our striving after physiological ripeness we don’t forget the importance of acidity, especially with Grüner Veltliner.” Happily, there was no worry on that count in 2013. Healthy acidity levels and consequently low pHs brought the bonus, he noted, of freeing growers to use less sulfur, which ultimately paid dividends in texture and aromatic expressivity. “Plus,” opined Bodenstein, “stability is conveyed by extremely high levels of dry extract associated with a small crop of Grüner Veltliner and the September rain.” Bründlmayer described his 2013s as “difficult children but with the potential for genius.”

Having tasted many of these wines already when they were just coming out of fermentation and the bulk of them last summer, I conclude that they can only have been “difficult” in terms of prominent youthful acidity or of labor-intensive harvest (especially for those who, like Bründlmayer, encountered botrytis). As for genius, that was evidenced by my earliest tastings of the 2013s, and gloriously manifest by the time they went into bottle. In searching for comparably fine vintages in these parts of Austria, I am inclined—as are many of the growers with whom I discussed this subject—to reach all the way back to 1999 or iconic 1997.

Unlike in those two earlier great vintages, though, there does seem to be an answer in 2013 to the proverbial question, “which grape has the edge?” since few growers scored quite the same success with their top Rieslings—outstanding though many of these are—that they did with Grüner Veltliner. The main exceptions to that generalization are localized in Dürnstein, Loiben and immediately adjacent Krems-Stein (although attention cannot be too emphatically called to Martin Nigl’s singular Riesling successes from the actual valley of the tiny Krems). A remarkable windfall of this vintage is the exceptionally high number of ostensibly basic bottling, not excluding those in liter bottles, the normal format for inexpensive glass pours within Austria, that demonstrate refinement, complexity and even the promise of further reward for those few of us who perceptively—some would insist perversely—choose to cellar them for at least a few years. This is a fascinating vintage in which to focus on vineyard-borne character. Not only are the wines typically highly nuanced, but often—no doubt in part due to Riesling-like acidity and the prominence of citrus and pit fruits in many Grüner Veltliners—the site in question seems easier to identify than the grape variety. Nearly all of the best wines are approachable, indeed lovable, already, but most will generously replay cellaring, the best among the Grüner Veltliners for two decades.

New parcel in Steiner Schreck of amazing newcomers Dominique and Urban Stagård

My Tastings for this Article

For the present report my impressions from visits at 33 Grüner Veltliner- and Riesling-dominated addresses last year were extensively supplemented by retasting, most notably during my May and June 2015 winery visits focused primarily on the young 2014s, on which I shall report shortly. At that time, I also tasted a significant number of 2013s with more than a dozen growers whom I had not visited in many years or, in some cases, ever before. The notes that follow record my most recent impressions of any given wine and are dated accordingly, but frequently also reflect aspects that I noticed on first acquaintance and continue to consider relevant. In occasional instances where I have not tasted a wine since bottling, I offer a point spread in lieu of a specific score.

While occasional reference has been made in my notes to concurrent impressions of earlier vintages, tasting notes are supplied in this report for wines of vintage 2012 or earlier only where, due to their relatively late release, the wines in question are currently, were until recently, or will soon be on offer at the cellar door. Notes have not been provided for wines that I thought did not merit at least 87 points—which for most of these growers in 2013 were few if any—the rare exceptions being instances where I thought it important to publicize my concerns about a particular wine. Because this is my first report for Vinous, I have offered extended grower introductions to acquaint or reacquaint readers with the recent evolution of these estates and my perspective on them. For that same reason, many tasting notes include on this one occasion brief references to the sites or the approaches that inform them.  

Weinviertel rising star Ingrid Groiss exhibits the multifarious soils of her Fahndorf vineyards

A Few Brief Notes on Nomenclature

Relatively few Austrian growers include on the labels of their single-vineyard wines the name of the relevant commune or village, even though many vineyard names appear repeatedly in different parts of Austria. The justly renowned Gaisberg of the Kamptal, for example, is spread across three different villages; meanwhile, the neighboring Kremstal features two additional vineyards of importance named Gaisberg, one on either side of the Danube. We have adopted the convention of omitting village designations from wine descriptions even in those instances where the name of the village may appear somewhere on the label. But the village of origin for each wine, not just of vineyard-designated ones, is entered into our database for your reference—along, of course, with the relevant growing region. (The sole exceptions to this rule are those generic wines that originate in multiple communes.)

Here are a few other things not included as part of our wine descriptions. Occasionally, you’ll see the word “Ried” on a label immediately before the name of a vineyard. This is merely an old-fashioned way of calling attention to the fact that what follows is a vineyard name—much like “Bric” in Piedmont—so for our reports we ignore it. You may see certain single-vineyard wines referred to elsewhere with the words “Erste Lage,” meaning “premier site.” This refers to vineyards classified as part of a laudatory undertaking by the organization known as Österreichische Traditionsweingüter, which represents most of the top growers in four out of the seven viticultural regions covered in this report. We do not include these two words as part of our wine descriptions for several reasons. First and foremost, the words Erste Lage are not permitted to appear on wine labels, which can instead only carry a tiny “ÖTW” logo. Secondly, not all growers who bottle wines from a given site designated as an ÖTW Erste Lage have registered to label their wines with that logo, and we wouldn’t want to suggest that their soils or exposures are less good.

One last thing you won’t find as part of wine descriptions in this report is reference to a group of appellations known collectively by the abbreviation “DAC,” which currently applies to certain ostensibly most typical wines in five of the seven regions under consideration in the present report (the exceptions being the Wachau and Wagram). In some regions, a majority of the wines reviewed in this report are labeled with an official DAC. Most of the Rieslings or Grüner Veltliners from the Kamptal, for instance, are either officially “Kamptal DAC” or, in the case of wines with slightly higher alcohol, “Kamptal DAC Reserve.” And most of the bottlings by Viennese growers from Gemischte Sätze (field blends) are officially “Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC” or “Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC Reserve.” On the other hand, often only one or two, if any, of the numerous Grüner Veltliners from a grower in the Weinviertel—and usually not that grower’s top bottlings—are registered officially as “Weinviertel DAC.” Since we already supply readers with the identity of the region in which each wine is grown (even if, as occasionally happens, the cellar address is in a neighboring region), including the letters “DAC” where they happen to apply adds nothing material. You can also tell from the information we supply that a given Muskateller, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Noir was grown in the Kamptal, Kremstal or Traisental, or that a given Riesling was grown in the Weinviertel—information  that you can no longer find on such a wine’s label, because the use of those regional names on a label is now permitted exclusively in conjunction with an official DAC. If you are bottling something other than Riesling or Grüner Veltliner—or, in the case of the Weinviertel, anything other than Grüner Veltliner—then the label of that wine must indicate the wine’s place of origin Niederösterreich (i.e., the State of Lower Austria), which encompasses six of the seven regions covered in this report, plus two others south and east of Vienna that are focused on neither Grüner Veltliner nor Riesling.  

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--David Schildknecht