Austria 2001: Crazy, Often Remarkable

After calling last year's report "Austria 2000: Extreme, Often Excellent," I immediately remarked on growing similarities with the then-hanging 2001s. Indeed, that title would again have fit this year's finished wines, but I have chosen instead to take my cue from F. X. Pichler. "The 2001s reflect a crazy vintage," he remarked. Sadly, 2001 was destined also to be the last vintage before the devastation of homes, wineries, terraces and vines by the colossal flooding of the Danube, Krems and Kamp in August, 2002 that will stand as an historical watershed for whatever follows. I suspect that next year's report will be as much about the courage and hope of this region's growers, and about salvaging their way of life, as it is about their salvaging the crop of 2002.

Vintage 2001, for all of its occasionally crazed extremes, will offer ample gustatory return for the proverbial search of the marketplace. Following a mild winter, the spring of 2001 brought an early start to the vegetative season and a precocious, even flowering. Unusually cool temperatures prevailed during July, with occasional welcomed showers. August, however, was unremittingly hot and dry, at some times and in certain sites prompting the vines to shut down their labors. Then came another dramatic switch in weather as September brought cold and rain. The above account may sound familiar to riesling-loving readers. Yes, this year's conditions around Krems on the Danube were surprisingly similar to those along the Mosel and Rhein.

September 29 brought an end to the rain. Well-managed vineyards had resisted rot and retained high sugars but also stubbornly high acids. Emmerich Knoll speculates that these acids were pronounced precisely "because they were mostly tartaric, typical for ripe, late-harvested fruit - an acidity that has an entirely different, more penetrating, effect than malic." In early and mid-October, total acid levels were generally far too high in most vineyards to yield harmonious wine. Conscientious growers knew they needed to let their fruit hang, a not uncommon situation in these microclimates. Meanwhile, in some vineyards rot eventually threatened to compromise the purity of vinous flavors. How vintners chose to deal with high acidity and encroaching botrytis defined their success or failure and the personality of their wines in vintage 2001.

October was the warmest on record in the Wachau since 1811. "We harvested in short sleeves," commented Irmgard Hirtzberger. "It wasn't a year to rush things and harvest early. There was absolutely no reason for panic," even if some growers did. As for botrytis, it was not entirely negative. Two thousand one, like 1995 and 1998, brought its share of superbly balanced and potentially long-lived dessert wines from the Danubian growing regions.

It is not uncommon for gruner veltliner this year to exhibit riesling-like acidity and in consequence offer a combination of delicacy, minerality and flavor penetration one seldom associates with this grape variety. Even where gruner veltliner was allowed to hang to high levels of sugar and/or to the point of botrytization, the opulence and richness of the wines are still allied with a remarkable cut of acidity and refreshing juiciness. In all instances, even those 2001s that exhibit light, brisk personalities, aromatic concentration and high levels of extract prevail thanks to the rainy September during which the vines "fed" and the long hang-time during which foliage remained green. Crop control, canopy management and selectivity at harvest were nevertheless prerequisites for achieving top 2001 quality.

Riesling was on the whole more successful this year than gruner veltliner in attaining late but complete phenolic ripeness as well as, at times, a delicious synergy with botrytis. Still, we're talking here about the world's highest-acid great wine grape, and some 2001s - aromatic intensity and high extract notwithstanding - are simply out of balance. In the lower qualitative echelons of Austrian viticulture, numerous vintners will be found to have de-acidified their rieslings with generally unfortunate results. If many gruner veltliners remind one of rieslings, many Austrian rieslings this year remind one of their German counterparts. One riesling strategy pursued with some reluctance but also success was to leave behind significant levels of residual sugar in the finished wines. The effect could sometimes be scintillating. But no matter how a given grower dealt with high acidity - unless it was through chemical intervention in the cellar - the juicy, refreshing character of vintage 2001 remains, even in those wines of profound density and layered complexity.

I suspect that numerous journalists and importers forced to reach an early consensus regarding 2001 might have underestimated the quality of this year's best wines. During my tastings, carried out in June at the estates, vintners frequently commented on the wines having recently emerged from a shell of high-acid hardness or having found their voices. Occasional follow-ups on certain wines in early autumn further convinced me that the wines from this vintage needed time. One suspects, too, that the best of them will amply reward patient cellaring. But, on the other hand, as in 1998 or 2000, those wines deleteriously tinged with rot sometimes also need time to reveal the extent of that taint, so vigilance must be advised.

Two thousand one was a vintage of mixed success in other areas of Austria as well. Following my report on the growing areas along or near the Danube, I offer some early notes on Styria and Burgenland, the latter including some recently bottled reds and dessert wines from 1999 and 2000. I tasted selected wines from the vast Weinviertel region, where diminished ripeness and quality appear to have been a greater concern in 2001 than elsewhere in Austria.

While the appearance of more and more Austrian wines in smaller American markets and the activities of regional U.S. importers are promising developments, the retail price increases I've noticed for many estates vis-a-vis vintage 2000 are cause for concern. All the wines covered below, around half the number I tasted for this article, are 2001 vintage except in the case of Burgenland. All were tasted from bottle (they are generally presented in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them) unless explicitly noted. Wines designated "1 star" were particularly impressive. "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. Due to space constraints, most noteworthy wines that did not merit a star have been listed as "also recommended" at the end of the appropriate grower profile.