Austria Awe?Inspiring Autumn of 1997

by David Schildknecht

The two dozen growers I visited this year (all of them within about a 12 mile radius of Krems on the Danube) claimed 1997 is the finest vintage since either 1990 or 1986, depending on one geographical and personal perspective. Readers who have followed up the coverage of vintages 1993 through 1996 in five previous issues of the International Wine Cellar with their own tastings will be in a position to assess the momentous significance of such a claim. Those who haven't yet explored the unique virtues of Austria dry rieslings and gruner veltliners, or have been deaf to or incredulous in the face of claims previously made in these pages, are hereby admonished: Do not miss these '97s!

The great dry wines of Austria, about which the uninitiated should consult Issues 56, 62, 68 and 75 for basic background information, are characteristically possessed of a phenolic bite, intense minerality and at times sheer weight that approach red wine proportions and are occasionally offputting to first-timers. 1997 was a year of exceedingly ripe, botrytis-free fruit with soft skins and high sugar. As such, it has lent itself to especially fruit-dominated, highly approachable wines, with gentle but still insistent length. The rieslings of Austria are less dependent on high levels of acidity for structure, balance and longevity than their distant German cousins. True, the '97s are softer than a couple of freakishly high-acid vintages of late, but you'll seldom encounter examples that lack brightness or seem too soft.

Josef Hirsch's 87 year-old father said he'd never seen two such extreme and contrasting vintages back to back as '96 and '97, but the contrast was not apparent early on. Until August, 1997 was sparing in heat and generous with rainfall. Not a few growers worried about a repeat of nail-biting, record breakingly delayed 1996, which had been saved (for the lucky, and then just barely) by a very late burst of October sunshine. Reserves of water, critical for those of the best Austrian vineyards that are not yet drip-irrigated, were thus decently high in August '97. Then came three months of scarcely interrupted warmth and drought. "It's really tough to compare '97 with any other vintage," says Willi Brundlmayer, "because the spring and early summer were relatively cool and the whole heat wave relatively late. So the ripening was unequally divided, in contrast with years such as '93, '90, '86 and '79. In a way, there is some resemblance to '96, but the grapes were healthy and much riper."

Harvest began in early October as it dawned on growers that they were passing up their only opportunity to harvest wines in the lower-alcohol categories, such as the steinfeder of the Wachau. But as more than a few of them opined, it would really have been a shame to pour much of the abundant ripeness of this vintage into a mold that didn't fit. Furthermore, the phenolic maturity required to make great wine was still a week or two away. Serious fruit began coming into the press house in mid-October. The wide daily temperature swings so important to fixing the flavor profile of Austrian wines were especially marked during the sunny autumn of '97.

Nature hiccupped threateningly in late October with two days of heavy frost, in the wake of which, Emmerich Knoll reports, "berries began to shrivel ever so slightly. It was no longer all that warm and we thought, "the development is not going to be too rapid." And so, in the end, this vintage with its long head-start in ripeness over 1996 hung for most growers in their best sites for just as long as had its predecessor. Frost damage to the stems was a potential problem, but the effect on the berries was quite positively concentrating. Harvest in Franz Hirtzberger's cool vineyards at Spitz concluded mid-November.

The best '97s all manage an elegance and fineness (a legacy of the cool autumn nights) that belie their sometimes high alcohol. One also encounters refreshing gruner veltliner with modest alcohol (11.5%-12.5%), elegance, grace and lightness on the palate, yet with tremendous reserves of flavor. 1997s from theoretically lesser sites often display exceptional class. No, '97s do not have the sheer grip and freakishly high extract of certain '96s or '95s, but then those vintages had achieved this by an extreme combination of rain dangerously close to harvest and late heat, which had teamed up to produce thick skins and botrytis. There is more than enough stuffing and there are no hollow spots in the '97s from good growers.

Cool temperatures at harvest help preserve fruit freshness but this, together with the sheer cleanliness of fruit, acted in '97 as a brake on fermentation. Many growers were in some consternation to discover that their wines would not go dry. What sweetness there is in some finished '97 rieslings and gruner veltliners is usually worn attractively, if it's at all perceptible, but there is still worry for the image of dry Austrian wine.

In a defense of Wachau tradition that strikes a balance with common sense (the one necessary element that's usually missing in every ideological "wine war"), Knoll comments: "It's true that there have been certain fermentation 'problems' of late, particularly with riesling. Sometimes it finishes, sometimes not. Why? We don't ourselves entirely know. The higher the must weights, the later the harvest, the longer the juice settles, the more difficulty. That's just a fact. But that is absolutely no reason to strive for residual sugar in one's wines in the name of better tasting or longer-lived wines. If a wine just won't continue after six or seven weeks there's nothing to do about it and it's not a drawback for that wine to go into the bottle with residual sugar. On the other hand, I don't agree with those who claim only wines with residual sugar are really long-lived. In an interim stage, after two or three years, the primary youthful fruit holds up longer in such wines. Completely dry wines may enter a difficult middle age sooner. But when I taste a '90 Smaragd with null residual sugar today, I don't taste that any sweetness is missing."

I'm tempted to say that gruner veltliner had an edge over riesling this year. Loess soils, on which much of the best gruner veltliner is grown, certainly were at an advantage vis a vis unirrigated volcanic Urgestein due to retention of the rains of early summer. But considering the number of truly great rieslings tasted, I'll resist that temptation! Sauvignon, pinot blanc and chardonnay turned in a few spectacular successes as well.

Noteworthy Austrian wines are by no means confined to the growing regions along the Danube, and I have included at the end of my coverage tasting notes on some of the most promising recent and upcoming releases from Styria and Burgenland. Where detailed background on growers has appeared in previous issues, I have generally confined my introductions below to a minimum, allowing for more in-depth accounts of growers whom I visited this year for the first time. Where I find relevant precedents, I have occasionally drawn analogies with wines of earlier years. But '97 is too unique a vintage and the track record for the now-prevailing styles and methods of the best Austrian growers too brief for any global prognoses of longevity to be meaningful. My own extensive tasting experience begins with the '90 and '91 vintages, and I can confidently report that scarcely any of those seem yet to be headed downhill. Moreover, I have in the past reported on memorable 30+ year-old gruner veltliners.

Wines designated with an asterisk were especially impressive on the one or two occasions tasted. But readers who believe that skimming the text for asterisks will maximize their ultimate vinous satisfaction are browsing in the wrong journal: read the notes! Two asterisks signifies a wine of profound complexity. There are more of these in the present coverage than I can remember in any previous report. I have hedged bets or suggested especially likely improvement in the bottle by means of parentheses.

All wines are 1997 vintage, tasted in June from bottle, except in those few instances otherwise noted. All wines are essentially dry unless designated as "halbtrocken," "Beerenauslese," or "Trockenbeerenauslese," or explicitly described in the note as having tastable sweetness. To simplify, I have designated all vineyards without preceding them with the names of their villages or the word Ried (vineyard), although one or both of these may appear in front of the vineyard name on the label.