The Austrian Wine Vintage 2008
Austrian wine-growers faced strong challenges right from the beginning. With the difficult weather conditions in 2008 – hail, heavy rain and long-lasting fog in nearly every winegrowing area – ripening of the grapes was by no means simple. In the vineyards, growers had to utilise every bit of their experience and know-how in order to pick pure, ripe grapes at just the right time (in some cases, this was very late in the season), especially in light of the unusually early break-out of Peronospora (downy mildew) several months beforehand.
Yet, despite the relatively high harvest quantities - which filled up nearly empty stocks – scepticism about the results of such a labour-intensive vintage developed. But after the first tasting of the young wines, vintners’ moods were completely uplifted. Through their focused quality-oriented work, wines of fruitiness and panache from a wide range of ripeness levels were produced. After fall 2008, even the most optimistic did not expect such gratifying results!
So much has been said about the last harvest season, that it’s best to mention just the important basics. The relatively early bud break and the uncomplicated June flowering period were very positive, while the unusual hailstorms early on brought the first setbacks. Dampness lasted more or less throughout the entire vegetation period, which resulted in the onslaught of disease, especially downy mildew. Because of this, wineries across the board - not just the biologically-run ones - had to deal with considerable yield losses. Plus, sugar ripening in the grapes progressed very slowly because of the very wet, cool weather in September and October. But some very beautiful days during the second half of October and the first half of November thankfully provided pleasant conditions for the harvest.
Range diversity; racy structure
For the dry white wines, all of the extensive work in the vineyards led to pure, authentic wines with fruity varietal typicity and pleasant, racy acidity. The high alcohol levels that marked the 2006 and 2007 vintages barely show up in the 2008 wines. However, the extract content and the overall balance of the wines are very pleasing. The acidity is firmly positioned and is not aggressive. All white varietal wines have demonstrated in their early tasting phase typical and continuously developing varietal characteristics – something that was not evident in other late vintages such as 2004 and 1998. Because of the 2008 vintage’s long vegetation period and late harvest times, very straight, pointed summer wines with plenty of temperament and fruit play are expected – as is often the case with such vintages. Marked piquancy and expressiveness denote wines such as the ever-trendy Muskateller and the crispy Welschriesling, with its sassy acidity and balanced vibrancy. Even the rosé wines, which are once again very much in demand, are showing their merits and guaranteeing their roles as charming companions to warm Spring days and mild Summer evenings.
Multi-faceted Veltliners, fruity Rieslings, attractive Burgundies
Austria’s flagship variety, Grüner Veltliner, shows again this year its astounding range of quality and maturation levels. Abundant are light-bodied, filigreed Veltliners, like those of the Wachau’s Steinfeder–level as well as the Weinviertel DAC - whose peppery spice character is sometimes accompanied by green undertones. Beautiful apple or pear fruit notes in the background lend to a compelling expression. Of course, all of the Veltliner specialists in the Weinviertel and along the Danube have produced premium wines, albeit some in smaller quantities. Dry, mighty Spätlese wines with up to 14 % vol. alcohol are not so easily found, although straight-forward, nervy wines from wine sites known for deep acidity have been produced. For lovers of Grüner Veltliner, there are many variants available – enough to satisfy even the highest of expectations.
It is a bit more complicated for the very late harvested and traditionally slow-ripening Rieslings. But they do feature that highly desirable stone fruit, and the racy acidity structure as well as the occasional touch of Botrytis proves to be no problem for this varietal.
Surprisingly, the Burgundy varietal wines are showing impressive success. This is true especially with those from the northern Burgenland, where necessary ripeness is rarely difficult to achieve. Also an attractive acidity structure has helped to solidify the important consistency and firmness of the wines.
The south as beneficiary
After having an outstanding 2007 vintage - which is showing to be more multi-layered than the 2006 - the Steiermark is now expecting its white wines from 2008 to be well above average - especially because the vineyards in the south were exempted from the fall rains. This meant that the times of harvest could be selected without worry. Powerful Morillons (Chardonnays), nutty Weißburgunders, Muskatellers that are as clear as a bell, weighty Traminers and ideal Sauvignons - which show the perfect mix of piquant spiciness and deep, yellow fruit - are showing beautiful results. Therefore, it is expected that the Styrian winegrowing areas will be presenting the most structured white wines of the vintage.
The Red 2008s: slender and with fine fruitiness
The difficult weather conditions during 2008 marked also the character of the red wines. Fruit-toned but gently smooth red wines are expected – many with certain nervousness and that show more body and extract than those from the 2005 vintage. It remains to be seen whether or not there will be top wines reaching the power of 2006 or the elegance of 2007. Overall, slender, red berry-toned wines are a sure thing, with the early ripening varietals showing favour. Also, the Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, St.Laurent and Pinot Noir varietals are leaning towards a slender, fine blossomy character.
A Sweet and even Icy Finale
The clean, late-setting Botrytis that appeared in the 2008 vintage made for high-quality and especially aromatic Spätlesen and Auslesen wines. Also the Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen - most of which are still maturing in tanks or barrels - reveal impressively clear fruit and beautiful harmony. Shortly before the end of the year – beginning on the night of December 28th - a late cold period was utilised for the gathering of Eiswein grapes. This was indeed a frosty but conciliatory farewell to a challenging vintage.
The year began with little snow and a mild winter – even Steiermark (Styria) registered the third warmest January on record. Also in February, temperatures were nearly 3°C higher than average - in Burgenland, more than 3.5°C higher. At the end of the month in Steiermark, over 20° C was registered. March began and ended warm, although at around Easter time, during the second half of the month, a winter relapse occurred. Rainfall was average to slightly higher than average. April temperatures were not out of the ordinary, but rainfall varied in the different wine-growing areas; a particularly bad storm in the Krems area on April 22nd brought more than double the amount of water to the soil; otherwise, it was rather too dry.
In Austria’s west, May was unusually warm, in the wine-growing areas temperatures were 0.5°C to 1.5°C above the norm. Moreover, a cold weather period on around May 20th quickly changed into early summer heat - in Graz, 34.9 °C was registered at the end of the month. Rainfall was generally lacking, while there was more sunshine than usual. June, however, was characterized not only by a drop in temperatures followed by heat, but also by rainfall that underscored the vintage: up to 300% higher than average in the area south of Vienna; and in the Südsteiermark (South Styria), double the average amount. Sunshine was fairly minimal. July was very wet due to many thunderstorms: Eisenstadt registered rainfall totalling three times above the average amount. Unfortunately, hailstorms occurred in all regions.
Also August was not spared rainfalls, though temperatures were at an average. There were frequent warm day-cool day changes. September was rather cool with a strong cold air wave on September 13th, which sent temperatures down by 10 - 15°C. Moreover, there were plentiful amounts of rain, even though recorded totals showed only average amounts. October was relatively pleasant to cool with some rainfall; certain regions registered bouts of long-lasting fog.
Vegetation and the Vintage
The mild weather conditions lead to an early bud break and, in mid-April, a quick, continuous vine development began. The flowering in June was supported by good weather, and so expectations were high – at first. Soon after hailstorms resulted in the first natural yield limitation which put the first stamp on the vintage.
Hail and Plenty of Humidity
These words capture the character of this vintage, especially for the producers who reflect on all of the work that was necessary in the vineyards. Hailstorms in the early as well as late growing and ripening phases lead to some damages; fortunately, the vines were compensated as growth continued.
While a good supply of humidity was beneficial to the vines, it also increased susceptibility to downy mildew and powdery mildew. This became the focal point of the intensive quality work carried out in the vineyards – and revealed who really did their homework! With careful attention and response, problems could be solved or even avoided – thus allowing for the appropriate ripening of the grapes to take place. Some bio-dynamic wineries could not withstand the extreme pressure and were left with no choice but to accept yield decreases. Over and over again, hailstorms throughout the summer had to be faced. Depending on the temperatures, a higher occurrence of infection or else the shrinking of the damaged grapes occurred.
Ripening and Harvest
The grapes began to soften and ripen at around mid-August. Because of the humidity, the vines were well supplied and, moreover, the grapes provided enough must content for fermentation. Because of the rather cool weather in September and October, the increase of ripeness and gradation was very slow. This also influenced the harvest times in the different regions.
There were big problems with rot only in vineyards which were not attended to properly. With careful pruning and plant protection measures, decisions on when to harvest were made because of ripeness, not rottenness. In Burgenland, especially in the Seewinkel area, the harvest was already finished at the beginning of October, and in the Weinviertel, the last of the grapes were cut on Austria’s National Day, October 26th. But in the Wachau in October, harvesting of grapes for the higher quality level wines barely had begun.
In general, those who had strong nerves and waited for ripening to proceed further had, after a cool September, a relatively beautiful October for completing the harvest. In some regions, however, there was the danger of Botrytis setting in because of long lasting fog together with the warm weather. Additional work – such as the meticulous sorting of damaged grapes – was often necessary.
Careful selection in the vineyard or immediately after delivery was very important this year. Also during the processing, special care was taken because of, for example, the need for correction of the higher phenolic content. The acidity levels of this vintage will need some oenological correction as well.
Evaluations of the Vintage
This year, Steiermark (Styria) got off lightly concerning the weather. But the hailstorms during the flowering period as well as at the end of the summer brought a kind of balance. Therefore, all in all, the harvest quantity this year will be similar to last year’s. Despite extended rainfalls in regions such as Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), the Steiermark had only one major downpour in the middle of September. Therefore, it was ideal to wait for good ripeness to develop. A good expression of fruitiness, beautiful acidity and nicely adequate gradations – and not really lower alcohol - will define the vintage character. "Perfect ripeness, perfect acidity, beautiful fruitiness" is how a Styrian winemaker has described the vintage.
A lot of work was required in order to get good grapes this year! But in return, the winemakers are very happy about the good varietal characteristics coming through in the wines. Fruitiness and a firm acidity structure, together with alcohol that is not too high, are qualities appreciated by consumers, at the Heurigen and in fine dining establishments.
If one could have known how beautiful October would become, then it would have been possible to wait for the harvest. But many growers wanted either to be on the safe side or harvest early because of the health of the grapes. The humidity brought larger harvest quantities despite any damages that were incurred.
Extensive parts of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) had to battle a special problem in September: fog, which would last until noon and even later, together with pleasant temperatures of around 20°C. This caused Botrytis to break out, often over night, making quick reactions necessary. Otherwise the cool September and October brought no significant increases of gradation because the leaves could no longer perform. Ultimately, good fruitiness, agreeable alcohol and a marked acidity structure are prominent (and will be watched further in the cellars). Those who did their homework in the vineyards could choose the right harvest time to gather beautiful and well-ripened grapes.
Rainfall at the end of May resulted in extensive pruning in order to avoid rot. The huge hailstorm on July 7th may still stand out in many producers’ memories. But all of the work undertaken this year has been repaid with beautiful fresh fruit and pleasant acidity. The red wines are well covered, with Blaufränkisch showing marked fruit and spiciness. Also Zweigelt and Pinot Noir are demonstrating distinction and fine fruit tones. The moderate alcohol content will make this vintage a light drinkable one and the high harvest quantities will provide an ample supply of wines.
The last harvest quantity estimate, made by Statistics Austria at the end of October, was put at a little more than 2.8 million hectolitres. The average of each of the last five vintages (2003- 2007) was approximately 2.5 million hectolitres.