Austria's Surprising 2003s

That much of Europe set hundred-year records for heat and drought in 2003 is by now well known, and Austria was no exception. Still, the gustatory consequences of this freakish season, at least in Austria, are by no means the overripeness, fat, and lack of structure many observers expected. One reason is that temperatures, particularly in August, were so high that vines shut down for days at a time. Not only phenolic ripeness and flavor, but even the accretion of sugar, was to some extent inhibited. This is not to deny that encouraging or allowing flavors to catch up with sugars—a classic problem for California and Australian viticulture—eventually became critical to quality here too. That is why most of the best of this vintage was harvested late, much of it even after growers were surprised on October 24 by, in Emmerich Knoll's words, "the novelty of several inches of snow, and then bitter cold." Some sites and bunches were damaged by this frost but the rest had benefited from the last possible measure of plant metabolism, and even into November flavors continued to concentrate. This brings us to the more profound reason for the freshness, elegance, balance and structure exhibited by the best 2003 Danubian rieslings and grüner veltliners. Compare 2002: In that year, the Krems region experienced catastrophic late summer rain and flooding. Yet the wines of this vintage are little marked by that trauma because the best of them were still two months away from being harvested when the waters abated. Similarly, when the horrendous heat of summer 2003 dissipated in early September, the best wines were more than a month away from picking, and in that month cool temperatures and generally clear skies made possible a sorely needed build-up of flavor even as sugar levels for the most part merely marked time. The result is that the best rieslings and grüner veltliners of 2003 reflect the autumn chill at least as much as they do the dog days of summer. True, acid levels in 2003 were analytically low, and in Austria just as in France and Germany, special permission was granted to acidify. But it was by no means clear that such tinkering with the inner workings of one's wine,­ even if performed on the must,­ would convey gustatory benefits. Nor was it clear that the flavor and structure bestowed by nature were inherently wanting. Ludwig Hiedler's observations were seconded by—and reflected the practice of—most vintners I visited: "Acidification was frankly just to stabilize the pH and to prevent susceptibility to bacteriological infection. So if you had reasonable pHs there was no need to acidify. This [added] acid was all going to precipitate out anyway, taking buffering extract with it, and you'd end up with thin wines." Furthermore, not only did grape acids stabilize after early September, but in numerous instances acid levels actually rose in the course of fermentation, both through the formation of succinic acid and on account of some tartaric acid having precipitated in the grapes, only to be released during fermentation.

One oversimplifies only slightly then in stating that the formula for 2003 success lay in delayed harvest and minimal intervention. Early picking was in order only where low alcohol was required (as for the Wachau's category of Steinfeder), and in such instances flavors were usually "green," if not always unattractively so. The grape skins of 2003, thickened by summer heat, then ultimately ripened in cool conditions and needed little encouragement to release their flavors. So gentle, watchful pressing and vinification, with little or no skin contact, were the order of the day.

But 2003 was hardly a vintage without challenges. On the contrary, as Hiedler pointed out, "Already as the juice flowed, it was clear you would have to rethink your approach in the cellar and adopt different ways to preserve the purity and [potential] personality of these wines." In the vineyards, too, typical approaches had to be reconsidered. Many a conscientious grower eased up on his or her green harvesting regimen this year, believing it would only have driven sugars higher sooner, exactly the opposite of what was wanted. Riesling,­ that quintessential late ripener,­ held a qualitative edge over grüner veltliner, the latter in lesser instances coming off as slightly rough and rustic. Old vines with deep root systems also possessed a substantial natural advantage in 2003.

One often hears it suggested that in overly warm, exceedingly high-sugar vintages the typicity of individual sites will be less recognizable, but my experience with the best Austrian 2003s confirms Toni Bodenstein's claim that "precisely the opposite is true. Differences in terroir are least noticeable when vegetative conditions are optimal. The more extreme and stressful the conditions for the plant, the more marked the differences. And 2003 was a high stress year." The ways in which different soils and sites, parcels, rows, or even individual vines reacted to the extreme summer—to say nothing of the vintners, some of whom simply panicked and picked—created the wide variation in quality and style among 2003s. The best wines from this vintage can stand beside those of 1999 or even 1997 in distinctiveness, richness, complexity and refinement, and probably in ageability as well, but such successes are significantly fewer in 2003 than in those two benchmark and similarly botrytis-free years.

Apropos botrytis, its absence this year was sorely felt in Austria's easternmost growing region of Burgenland. While vintners in many parts of Germany were scoring record must weights as much by sheer dehydration of riesling berries as through noble rot, Burgenland's vintners simply weren't able to coax from their abundant varietal arsenal any significant number of TBAs. Some could console themselves with red wines of at times record-breaking statistical proportions, and my early look at these suggests that, where flavors kept pace or caught up with sugars, the young wines are indeed impressive as well as forward. In general, 2003 will be a year of impressive results for all of Austria's red wines, including some astonishing accomplishments in unexpected places (such as the Kamptal).

Further comments on growing conditions are included in my regional introductions below. As usual, I begin with coverage of the areas around Krems, then move east and south, concentrating almost entirely on the new vintage, save in my consideration of Burgenland. (There, my visits to growers are sporadic and many reds and vins liquoreux are only released two or more years after the harvest.) All the wines covered below,­ except where explicitly noted, were tasted from bottle in the course of my June visits to 42 estates. For consistency, I have designated all vineyards without preceding them with the name of their village or the word "Ried" (vineyard), even though one or both of these may appear on the label. Except in rare instances where it clarified my explanations, I have listed the wines, which represent approximately half the total number of those I tasted, in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. Wines designated "1 star" were particularly impressive. "2 stars" signifies a wine of clearly profound complexity. Under no circumstances should these ratings, which are based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.