Austria 2000: Extreme, Often Excellent

The year 2000 was bound to go down in the record books even before the first grape was harvested. Bud break was the earliest in modern times and the accumulation of sunshine and total degree-days set records as well. "Seventeen ninety-four was the last year in Krems with drought and heat in May and June like 2000," says Erich Salomon. How does he know? Two years before that, the Salomons started making wine at the Undhof and keeping meticulous records. Vintage 2000, it was clear, would be an exception, even coming at the end of a decade with some rather freakish statistics already to its credit. (Ironically, at press time, 2001 shows remarkable similarities to its predecessor, with a searingly hot August and early sugar accumulation followed by a cool, rainy September and now some fortunately breezy sunny October weather for the harvest.)

But early flowering and hot, dry summer weather do not necessarily translate into excellent results. Persistent heat and drought in late summer and early fall led in some instances to galloping sugars that left real phenolic ripeness behind. In other cases, particularly in less water-retentive vineyards, the result was prolonged shut-down of the vines. "You should see the vines of folks who didn't crop-thin," Erich Salomon's nephew Fritz (at Gut Oberstockstall) had already remarked to me in early June of 2000. "They are just weak, the foliage limp. Those vines that were pruned short still look lovely despite the drought." Many growers with drip irrigation utilized it up until early September, the latest any of them could remember.

Higher-elevation vineyards that typically receive cooler breezes were already at an advantage vis-a-vis the heat. And when inopportune and rather steady rain intervened in early October, these sites, with their superior air circulation, were again favored. One legacy of heat stress for many growers was an extreme and seemingly unpredictable irregularity of ripeness, especially in their gruner veltliner vines. "This was the craziest harvest I ever experienced," said Rudi Pichler. In picking his portion of the Kollmutz vineyard, he reports, "we ended up measuring the sugars on each and every vine, more than a thousand vines." The results showed that green berries were often riper than golden or incipiently botrytized ones that had been more stressed.

"You couldn't say there was one right period in which to harvest. Sometimes you just had to work intuitively," Pichler added. The 2001 harvest was an improvisatory and at times desultory affair. In order to avoid gray rot and acetification [also referred to as acid rot, where the juice begins to turn to vinegar on the vine] brought on by October's rains, reports Franz Hirtzberger, "it was necessary to inspect every vine and bunch before picking. Then you had to do lots of separate vinifications" to keep a nose out for negative developments. Many growers also took special precautions with the must, settling it more aggressively than normal, filtering the juice, or treating it with charcoal to remove the taste of rot. Some quite successful, lighter gruner veltliner was already picked in early September. At least one prominent Wachau grower, Nicholas Saahs (Nikolaihof), seems to have finished a more than month-long harvest before certain others even began their several weeks of picking. Where else in the world could this happen?

In general, though, it seems to have proved advisable to postpone harvest to ensure complete phenolic ripeness and to allow fruit swollen during the worst of the rain to recover concentration. But waiting out the rain was easier said than done and inevitably meant a significant sacrifice in quantity. "The fruit was ridiculously ripe, and looked healthy until the middle of October," confessed Fritz Miesbauer of the Wachau's Freie Weingartner cooperative. "But I'll be honest with you: if you broke open many of those bunches, tiny vinegar flies flew off. And you had to separate out the fruit, working selectively in 70% of the vineyards, which is something of a sensation for a grower cooperative. We did this from the 6th of September to the 14th of November." Mold, too, was often a problem.

Despite all the aforementioned hardships, Danubian growers have delivered a vintage of quite high overall quality, especially when it comes to riesling. Perhaps this should no longer come as a surprise. The best wines of the Wachau, Krems, Kamptal and neighboring areas have demonstrated in ripe vintages like 1997 that they do not require especially high acidity to exhibit structure, clarity and brightness of flavor, or ageability. And the best growers in this part of the world certainly demonstrated in 1998 that they could score significant successes in a rain- and rot-plagued vintage.

One could with some justification characterize 2000 as a cross between 1997 and 1998. As in 1997, the wines are ripe and generally low in acidity. As in 1998, they are phenolically incisive, high in mineral extract as well as in alcohol, and in less fortunate instances unflatteringly tinged by the roughness or haze of rot.

With so much botrytis, even if much of it was less than noble, it is not surprising that many growers essayed sweet wines. I found the results generally less convincing than in 1995 or 1998, when the Krems region's cellars were similarly awash in stickies. The high acid and sheer severity of phenolics in 1998 seemed capable of buffering and providing counterpoint to the sweetness, whereas the vinous structure of vintage 2000 was seldom able to bear a load of residual sugar with much grace. Significantly, two Wachau growers with among the region's most remarkable vins liquoreux to their credit in recent years, Toni Bodenstein (of Prager) and F. X. Pichler, did not attempt anything in that form in 2000.

Two thousand was a memorably hot and in some cases outstanding vintage in other areas of Austria as well. Following my report on the growing areas along or near the Danube, I offer some notes on the weather and wines in Burgenland and Styria. All wines were tasted in June at the estates and from bottle, except where otherwise noted. All are 2000 vintage except in the section on Burgenland, where numerous '99s and '98s are covered. I have designated all vineyards without preceding them with the name of their village or the word "Ried" (vineyard) although 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 only about half of those I tasted, in the order in which the proprietors chose to serve them. A rating of "1 star" following a tasting note designates a wine that was particularly impressive. "2 stars" signifies a wine of profound complexity. Under no circumstances should these "ratings," based on a single tasting, be considered in isolation from my complete tasting notes.