Austria '06: The Year of Gruner Veltliner

Austria’s 2006 vintage frequently brought quite powerful white wines, particularly in Lower Austria (Niederösterreich). Yields were lower than usual for grüner veltliner but average for many other varieties. This was a growing season of extremely variable weather, which often made work in the vineyard difficult. Happily, nearly perfect conditions in autumn brought high spirits after a summer of toil. In the end, one vintner known for his cautious skepticism actually described 2006 as “exceptional.”

The 2005 red wines offer less reason for rejoicing. Copious rainfall and a cool month of August hindered ripening of fruit. Many vintners did not produce their best single-vineyard wines and flagship blends. For this reason I have not addressed the red wines of this vintage in this year’s coverage, but will include notes on the best of these wines in next year’s report.

The 2006 growing season. After a long winter with abundant snowfall, a rainy and rather cool spring followed. Flowering occurred somewhat later than in recent years and was accompanied by thunderstorms and variable temperatures, which resulted in poor fruit set and drastically reduced yields for some varieties. Particularly affected were grüner veltliner in the Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and especially in the Weinviertel. The positive side to “shatter,” as the loss of grapes due to poor flowering is called, is that varieties that normally have compact grape bunches now have more space between the remaining grapes. This means better air circulation, and thus better resistance to disease and fungus. July brought record high temperatures and was followed by a cool and rainier-than-average August. September and October then witnessed superb weather, with plenty of warm sunshine helping to dry soils. Cool nighttime temperatures supported optimal development of grape aromas. The harvest brought in mostly fully ripe, highly aromatic grapes with high levels of potential alcohol.

From the Wachau to the Weinviertel, summer-like conditions in September brought an earlier harvest than was originally expected at the end of August. Vintners began harvesting their early-ripening varieties like frühroter veltliner and rivaner at the end of September. It was quickly established that high physiological ripeness, with an excellent balance of sugar, acid and aromatic content, had been achieved. The vintage’s spare spacing of grapes within the bunches brought completely healthy fruit; but it also meant drastically reduced yields, especially in grüner veltliner.

Optimal October weather allowed for a continuous and efficient harvest. Growers really did not have time to dawdle, because grape sugars rose quickly and very high must weights of 24° Brix and more were reached by the middle of October. The advancement from light wines to medium-bodied single-vineyard to powerful premium wines was faster in 2006 than ever before. Vintners brought in their most valuable fruit for their premium wines at the beginning of November, only six weeks after the harvest began. The one exception was the few scattered parcels where grapes destined for ice wine remained hanging on the vines. These grapes were threatened by warm weather in November and December, and despite the use of protective netting, it was difficult to shield the fruit from deer and birds. The violent Kyrill windstorm on January 18 and 19 was ultimately responsible for a tiny harvest of ice wine, which for some wineries did not occur until January 26th.

An early look at the wines. Never before have I been able to taste so many concentrated wines of character that were already approachable the summer after the harvest. The 2006 grüner veltliners display pronounced fragrances of tobacco and herbal spice, as well as gorgeous fruit notes of apple, melon, apricot, peach, and sometimes even strawberry. The typical varietal peppery element is also readily apparent, and these wines are firmly structured, thanks to ripe, juicy acidity. The 2006 grüner veltliners are expressive wines with considerable depth. The rieslings of this vintage display classic aromas of peach, apricot and other stone fruits and possess vibrant and well-integrated acidity. A fine interplay of fruit and minerality gives these wines elegance and finesse.

The Burgundian white varieties require a warm and dry autumn more than any other grapes in Austria. Without total ripeness, they would not have achieved such pronounced varietal expression: ethereal aromas, concentrated fruit, power, supple texture and richness of extract. Weissburgunder (pinot blanc), grauburgunder (pinot gris), chardonnay and neuburger were all quite successful in 2006. The vintage also promises high-quality red wines. Incidentally, reds are playing an increasingly important role in Lower Austria, particularly in the wine-growing areas of Carnuntum and Thermenregion. In vintage 2006, these wines display dark, dense colors, abundant fruit, powerful structure, fully ripe tannins, and a felicitous combination of substance and juiciness. The best of these wines will be included in next year’s coverage of Austria.

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 Austria has appeared in Issues 129 and 123 of the IWC.