Vintage Report – Drama in Three Acts: 2016 in Germany and Austria


Having just completed my summer rounds of nearly 200 German and Austrian wineries, I thought I’d offer some general observations on the 2016 vintage in advance of my comprehensive estate profiles and reviews.

The weather extremes experienced in so many recent vintages have been accompanied increasingly by years featuring remarkably similar meteorological and growing patterns that stretch from the Mosel to parts of Austria nearly 400 flight miles distant. Vintage 2016 vividly evidenced both meteorological extremity and trans-regional commonality, having consisted throughout Riesling growing Europe in three dramatically distinct and statistically exceptional phases. In the end, ironically, the drama that preceded it led to a 2016 Riesling harvest as stress-free as many Austrian and German growers could recall, and to grapes whose very gradual ripening and modest eventual must weights would have seemed more familiar to growers of the mid-20th century.

Act One – April Frost, Record Rainfall in May & June

As it traveled across France, Germany and Austria, a three night-long wave of late April frost led to significant crop losses in many Riesling-growing sectors of Austria as well as a few in Germany, though most growers had anticipated greater penury than in fact ensued. (It was a different matter in other parts of southern Germany and in southern Austria that were truly devastated: On the heels of frost, Styrian vineyards were blanketed with snow, and those in southern Burgenland were subsequently savaged by hail.)  Depending on the measures taken against frost, late April in Riesling-growing territory resembled a vast Christmas display, a scene from the Inferno, or one from Apocalypse Now, with hillsides illuminated at night by thousands of candles; crowned at dawn by burning straw and otherwise enveloped in smoke; or skimmed by helicopter flotillas.

A June, 2016 shot of the Brück vineyard in the Wachau’s Spitzer Graben, looking across Peter Malberg’s new winery and house. Peter Malberg and neighbors including Martin Muthenthaler and Josef and Georg Högl were helpless when all but the very highest reaches of that vineyard succumbed to late April’s unprecedented wall of frigid air. And if you look closely at the Muskateller vines in the foreground (farmed by a member of the Domaine Wachau), you’ll see that they are totally bereft of embryonic bunches.

Flowering, unlike bud break, was anything but early in 2016, on account of record rainfall in May and June, by the end of which month as much precipitation had been recorded in most German and Austrian Riesling growing areas as had accumulated in all of 2015. It was the most miserably and worrisomely wet late spring and early summer that any grower could recall, and a majority of Riesling vineyards were plagued with peronospora, just as were those all along the Loire and in Burgundy.  

How well growers fared during this distressing and depressing first act of the 2016 viticultural drama depended on a combination of skill, tenacity and luck. Savvy vineyard management almost surely played some role in reducing the threat of peronospora, but for most growers that plague represented an unavoidable stroke of bad luck in the face of which vines had to be treated again and again. For those practicing organics, that nearly always meant using copper sulfate, especially since phosphate salts had just been officially reclassified by the EU so as to render their use incompatible with organic certification. Growers in steep slopes such as those along the Mosel, where spraying has to take place either by hand or by helicopter, faced particular challenges. The helicopters had to spray much more often to be effective; and where hand-spraying was the sole option, it was sometimes humanly impossible to reach all of an estate’s vines in time. With peronospora, “in time” is measured in hours: a part needed to repair the Zillikens’ tractor was one day late in arriving and it cost them half of their crop. Even on slopes or flatlands amenable to machinery, it often became mired in mud, leaving crop survival dependent on human stamina.

After his backbreaking, sleep-deprived 2016 experience, Kai Schätzel in Nierstein sold off his state-of-the-art equipment and improvised this tractor-trailer combo for traversing his vineyards to treat their vines whatever the weather   

Luck in combating peronospora often depended on one’s neighbors, with Mosel growers once again relatively disadvantaged, this time due to the morselization of their vine acreage. “I sprayed several rows deep into each of my neighbors’ adjacent parcels,” confessed one top-notch grower whose 2016s turned out superbly, “but in several small plots that just wasn’t enough and I lost those crops completely.”

Act Two – At Long Last the Weather Turns ... with a Vengeance

The weather warmed heading into July, but rain continued, threatening tropical conditions that would only exacerbate already unprecedented fungal pressure. Then, just when it looked as though 2016 would go down as a true disaster, skies cleared, introducing a hot, dry August and September. Before this second act of the 2016 drama was over, sunburn was rampant (especially damaging to growers who had stripped foliage with too little discrimination in their war against wetness) and some vineyards, notably ancient terraces on the Lower Mosel and those of the Wachau that aren’t reached by drip lines, suffered damaging drought stress, the least likely challenge any grower could have imagined facing in a year of record-breaking rainfall. But this experience is consistent with a theory widely offered by growers to explain why vines had not only flourished in 2015 but delivered high acid musts. In the spring of 2015, they allege, vines had set themselves up, metabolically speaking, for summer drought, in response to lack of rainfall throughout the winter and spring. If spring conditions do indeed determine how vines set their switches, then in 2016 they prepared themselves for water without end, only to experience the vegetative equivalent of whiplash when it was abruptly and protractedly shut off.

Act Three: A Textbook Fall…

So here was the scene by mid-September: A year with scant Spätlese on the Mosel or Smaragd in the Wachau was entirely conceivable, but sugars had caught up to normal if by that one means relatively long-term normal, and they were slowly but surely advancing. Flavors and incipient aromatics were another matter: for those to develop favorably demanded additional hang-time and, if the beliefs of many growers are to be credited, an autumn with chilly nights. As if to order, Nature cued a cool, breezy and largely rain-free October and early November. Sugar and acid levels, both modest, changed only very slightly, but transformation in flavor was delightfully evident. The result was one of the least stressful and most leisurely harvests of recent decades, or that some growers could ever recall. “You had time to strategize, and to rest-up on weekends,” was how many put it.  What an improbably welcome way to conclude what had begun as one of the most nail-biting and fatiguing seasons in any grower’s memory.

Leisurely pace and felicitous weather notwithstanding, few growers in Danubian Austria pushed much past the first days of November. There was a bit more October rain here than in most of Southwest Germany, leading to concerns about rot. With must weights and flavors both favorable, it seemed prudent to pick (though those holding-off into November included the Knolls, who ended-up with their finest collection in many years). And quite a few Austrian growers harvested Riesling ahead of Grüner Veltliner, since the robust skins of the latter offered the better insurance against botrytis. In the end, though, any rot was amenable to sorting, and in Germany there was little rot noble or otherwise. The top Wachau Smaragd bottlings reflect that region’s increasing insistence that wines of this category be rendered from impeccably healthy grapes, and what relatively few Riesling Auslesen were rendered on Rhine or Mosel generally originated with fruit concentrated more by the desiccating effects of breezes than through any influence of botrytis. (But yes, a few of the usual suspects such as Molitor and Weil harvested Trockenbeerenauslese.)

How Do The Wines Taste?  

The first thing to notice about nearly all 2016 collections is that they reflect potential alcohol levels from one half to a full degree lower than in 2015, with consequent dividends in levity. (There are rare exceptions, where an extreme toll of peronospora on vine yields resulted in prematurely high must weights.) In that respect, as well as in the slow pace at which sugars accumulated, the grapes and wines of this statistically extreme vintage would seem familiar to a Riesling grower of forty years ago. And modest alcohol prevails this year even at addresses – whose numbers are increasing in Germany – where a fashion prevails for playing “how low can you go?” with residual sugar. A second striking trans-regional feature of these wines is surprisingly low pH levels considering their modest and at times downright low levels of acidity. That phenomenon is explained by the wines’ relatively low dry extract, which translates into low levels of buffering material. Add to this a favorably high ratio of efficacious ripe tartaric acid to remaining malic acid and you have a recipe for wines brimming with juicy animation and refreshment. (That this characterization applies equally to some collections among the minority of Riesling growers whose dry wines routinely undergo malo-lactic transformation – a Malat in Austria or Kühn in Germany, for example – is itself an indication that their grapes were low in malic acid.) Inexplicably, though, flattering textures and admirable impressions of stuffing simultaneously prevail. Must acidification was no doubt common in Germany once one leaves the ranks of those growers whom I routinely visit, but among the latter few were tempted, many having learned a valuable lesson from their experience with 2003, a year in which pH levels were high enough that adding acid out of fear for bacteriological contamination could at least be considered rational.     

If one felt required to sort vintages into “cool” or “warm” it would be hard to decide which best characterizes 2016. I rarely experienced any sense of deficient ripeness, though regular evocations in Riesling not just of white peach or apple but also of fresh lime, honeydew melon, cress, and green herbal essences might represent some tasters’ idea of cool season characteristics. And if how often you feel compelled to resort to mineral descriptors is one measure for you of a wine’s appeal as well as its profundity (this is certainly true of me), then 2016 won’t disappoint. If you’re sorting on a scale of introversion or recalcitrance, then 2016 comes off as extroverted and open. Some growers reported that they couldn’t figure out early-on what sort – much less what quality – of wines they had rendered from this unusual three-act vintage, but by mid-summer, nearly all of those whom I visit were enthusiastic and confident about showing-off their young wines. “Extroverted” does not mean ostentatious or loud. The best 2016s combine generosity and easy accessibility with nuanced complexity and youthful harmony. Precisely on account of those traits, they are apt to be widely spoken of and written about as Rieslings or Grüner Veltliner less-suited to cellaring than those of riper, higher-acid, higher-extract vintages. I think such a conclusion unwarranted.         

A Glance Back  

Given the considerable disparity in character among 2014s by region – not to mention between Germany and Austria – I am alert against over-generalization. But certainly when it comes to Austrian Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, the more I taste, the more convinced I am of the following facts: Collectively, 2013-2016 represents a remarkably felicitous streak. But if, as time goes by, any one of these four vintages comes off as less intriguing or peaks disappointingly early, it will be 2015, the most ballyhooed among them. And notwithstanding bad early press, 2014 has resulted in a great many rivetingly and compellingly complex and animating Austrian Rieslings and Grüner Veltliner. As I mentioned in covering that vintage and its successor, a cursory consultation of the meteorological record and of the looks on growers’ faces soon after harvest already suffices to pretty accurately predict how any given vintage will be greeted in the press. To assess not the vibes surrounding a vintage but that vintage’s actual character, including its strengths and weaknesses, demands that one actually taste the wines – and not before they have had time to reveal a personality.

In Germany, the comparison among recent vintages is less clear, and 2013 is dramatically different and radically less successful than in Austria. Suffice it to say that for a given German Riesling grower, any one of vintages 2014-2016 may have turned out to be the most successful or promising. Even on the Mosel, where many excellent growers struggled or were unable to overcome the challenges of vintage 2014, the wines of those growers who did succeed, keep tasting more and more impressive.   

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