Austria 2008: Rising to the Challenge

In many respects, Austria’s 2008 vintage follows 2007 seamlessly. The white wines once again are light on their feet and distinguished by refreshing acidity and well-defined varietal fruit character. Due to the conditions of the growing season, ripeness came late, and the patience of even the best vintners was once again put to the test.

The 2008 growing season. An old vintners’ saying is appropriate for this year: the more difficult the vintage, the more interesting the wines. Weather conditions in 2008 made this one of the trickiest vintages in recent years and demanded very careful selection of only the best grapes at harvest.

Following a very mild winter, the apricot trees bloomed between March 10 and the end of that month, a reliable predictor of early bud break for the grapevines. But this was followed by rather cool spring weather, with the result that the flowering actually took place within the usual time period: between June 5 and 20. Unusually copious rainfall in June and July, in conjunction with warm nighttime temperatures, kept growers on their toes. Then a short warm and sunny period in September was followed by a cool, foggy, and damp autumn, which delayed the ripening process.

Recurring rain and vacillating temperatures throughout the growing season required growers to keep a cool head. Proper canopy management, well-timed disease-prevention measures and restriction of yields were essential for achieving healthy, ripe fruit. From the end of October until the first snowfalls in December, the weather remained stable. Strong winds in November dried the grape bunches and warded off fungal disease. Growers achieved their desired ripeness levels only by waiting patiently. Smaragd-quality wines could be made in the Wachau only through meticulous manual selection and by harvesting in mid-November—or even later. Judicious hand-harvesting necessitated several passes through the vineyard, and the last riesling grapes were harvested in December in Kamptal. Cool autumn temperatures promoted clear fruit expression and accurate varietal character in 2008.

An early look at the wines. The early harvested white wines make a fruity and pleasantly refreshing impression. With lower alcohol levels than in most recent years, these wines offer easy drinking pleasure. Just as in the 2007s, the young 2008s offer a nicely balanced play of acid that is typical of Austrian wine.

The premium wines of the vintage were harvested from late November into early December and were the result of strict sorting of the grapes. These wines initially developed slowly but are now turning into thoroughly juicy, elegant wines with brilliant fruit and vibrant structure. They appear to possess the balance and concentration, and enough richness and smoothness of texture, to offer the potential for 10 to 20 years of bottle aging.

Of particular note is the expressive spiciness and pronounced peppery character of the vintage’s grüner veltliners, a characteristic that is often juxtaposed with ripe apple and melon fruit flavors. This means complex wines with well-defined varietal character that do not rely on heady alcohol for amplitude. Riesling exhibits classic vibrant stone fruit aromas and flavors firmly woven into a fine-boned and piquant acid structure. The Burgundian family is distinguished by the nutty aromas so typical for these varieties.

An additional variety, sauvignon blanc, is receiving increasing attention in the market and was especially successful in 2008. Sauvignon is the darling variety of Styria, Austria’s southernmost wine region. This region has made tremendous efforts in recent years and has truly showcased its strengths in the last two tricky vintages. Step by step, Styrian sauvignon blanc has established its deserved position in the international market.

As might be expected, the cooler weather in both 2007 and 2008 did not make it easy to produce high-quality red wines. Rain brought tremendous botrytis pressure. While there are a few very good reds, these items tend to be available only in very small quantities and from the most experienced producers. Consumers seeking out Austria’s red wines should look for examples from the 2006 vintage, which are in a totally different quality league.

Producers of noble sweet wines report that the 2007s are reminiscent of wines from the 1998 vintage. Aficionados of complex sweet wines with significant residual sugar will adore the 2007 wines, and barrel samples of 2008 are equally promising.

In summary, the efforts of growers were widely rewarded in 2008. Streamlined, refreshing, fine-boned wines with good acid spine are the standard. Owing to their structures, most of the vintage’s better examples will likely offer enjoyment for 10 to 20 years. Powerful late-harvested wines from the best hillside vineyards will prove to be exceptional wines for special occasions. But due to extreme selection in the top vineyards, only half of the usual harvest volume was achieved by most estates.

(Editor’s note: Coverage in this issue is limited to Austria’s white wines—and mostly to producers who are currently sending wine to the U.S. market. Wines reviewed in full are also generally limited to those that the producers ship to the U.S.)

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 recent vintages of Austrian wine has appeared in Issues 141, 135, 129 and 123 of the IWC.