Austria 2007: Light, Fresh and Classic

After a vintage like 2006, which brought so many potent white wines, wine lovers should be pleased about the moderate alcohol content, vibrant acidity and elegant fruit of the 2007s. The vintners are also pleased, for after three consecutive years of lower than average yields, 2007 also brought adequate quantities.

The 2007 growing season. The winter of 2006/2007 was the warmest since official weather documentation began in 1851. During the entire month of January there was only one truly cold night. It was during this frigid night that Schloss Gobelsburg was finally able to harvest grüner veltliner for its ice wine at -10oC. Winter brought virtually no precipitation in Lower Austria and many parts of Burgenland. Bud break began quite early in mid-April and a cold front during the first week of May caused frost damage to young shoots in a few sites. The weather in May and June continued to be warmer than the historic average and the much-needed moisture finally arrived. As in much of Europe, many regions experienced their earliest-ever flowering at the end of May. July brought several days of record temperatures, with highs around 40°C on some days making vineyard labor possible only during the early morning hours. The extreme heat caused sunburn on grapes in some sites. Some relief was achieved during the two hottest weeks by drip irrigation, where this option was available to growers.

August then brought variable temperatures and precipitation throughout Austria’s wine regions, which is not unusual for that month. September began quite wet, with heavy rains recorded in the Wachau. Cooler temperatures in August and early September ended expectations of an early harvest. But then Indian summer conditions, with pleasant, dry weather, occurred in Lower Austria from mid-September through mid-October. The cool weather throughout the previous weeks proved to be vital for aroma development. The elimination of sunburned fruit during an early “negative harvest” proved to be a vital preparation for an efficient harvest. Overall ripening varied considerably from vineyard to vineyard, and very careful sorting was frequently required.

Although the good weather held until mid-October, the best sites had not yet been harvested. Damp, cold weather with thick fog then set in, making picking challenging. Growers in the Wachau feared for their Smaragd wines during further rainfall, but strict manual selection and several trips through the vineyards brought small quantities of superb fruit for the premium wines. With few exceptions, the harvest was over by November 15.

Burgenland had suffered from even more extreme heat and dryness than in 2003 until August rains brought much-needed relief. The harvest of the early-ripening St. Laurent and pinot noir began in most areas of Burgenland at the end of August. Nearly 80% of the grapes were safely fermenting in the cellars when torrential rains arrived the first weekend of September, a period during which one-third of the area’s average yearly precipitation occurred. The rain changed the situation dramatically, and the ripening of the remaining fruit, which had been three weeks ahead of normal for the region, ground to a halt. The late-ripening varieties blaufränkisch and cabernet sauvignon were not harvested until the end of September and beginning of October. The occasional precipitation in August and the heavy rain at the beginning of September provided higher humidity levels and brought noble rot to the sweet wine vineyards near the shores of Lake Neusiedl. Perfectly botrytized beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese grapes were harvested in September, earlier than ever before. Even the Kracher winery had their first TBA in the cellar by mid-September.

An early look at the wines. The first barrel tastings in January 2008 turned up very fruity wines with moderate volume and pleasant acid structure. On the whole, the dry whites from Lower Austria from the 2007 vintage possess less power and body than usual and are characterized by elegant fruit, vibrant structure, and an attractive combination of finesse and depth.

In particular, the grüner veltliners showed pronounced fruitiness, with aromas and flavors of green apple, lemon and stone fruits, as well as pleasantly savory, lightly herbaceous elements often reminiscent of marshmallow, dill and celery. The variety’s typical peppery spice and balanced acid structure were finely integrated. Grüners harvested early tended to be fragrant, refreshing and easy to drink, while those from fruit picked later have developed into elegant, brilliantly fruity wines that possess very good concentration and creaminess without being too broad.

The vintage’s rieslings were distinguished from the outset by classic apricot and peach fruit, and over the summer developed into juicy, compact, minerally wines with concentrated aromas and vibrant, well-integrated acidity. Weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and chardonnay also did well, although harvest quantities were generally low.

Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of this vintage is the way its wines clearly convey their terroir character. Few vintages are able to express varietal and regional character with such precision. Even in the young wines the fine nuances of the various sites are distinguishable. So one can speak of a “typical” Austrian vintage in the sense of how identifiably the wines speak of their origins.

As to the red wines, the early ripening varieties zweigelt, pinot noir and St. Laurent yielded mild wines with soft tannins; they will offer early, easy-drinking pleasure. Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and blaufränkisch were often not harvested until October, and both the blends and single-variety wines are promising, even if they are unlikely to reach the quality of the outstanding 2006 vintage. The 2006 reds, which in most instances are the current releases for these bottlings, once again demonstrate that Austria can excel with red wines when the climate cooperates. It was the late-ripening varieties in particular that profited from perfect autumn weather. Blaufränkisch brought excellent results and further established its position as Austria’s leading red variety. If the climate in Austria continues the trend toward higher average temperatures, it’s a strong bet that good vintages for Austrian red wine will occur more frequently.

Broader spectrum, attractive prices. Despite the dollar’s weakness, the U.S. market continues to be solid for Austrian wines—in fact, America is Austria’s #3 export market, accounting for 7.8% of total exports in 2007. (Volume shipped to the U.S. increased from 281,000 liters in 2000 to 1,554,000 liters in 2007.). Interestingly, despite the dollar weakness, the average price per bottle of Austrian wine sold in the U.S. decreased slightly last year, due to the larger volume of wines with exceptional value for price– in particular grüner veltliner. Today, 300 Austrian wineries are represented in the American market, and this competition has been responsible for bringing grüner veltliner fans good wines at more attractive prices.

(Editor’s note: Coverage in this issue is limited to Austria’s white wines—and in most instances to items that the producers have shipped, or plan to ship, to the U.S.)

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 recent vintages of Austrian wine has appeared in Issues 135, 129 and 123 of the IWC.