In every Austrian wine region, there are references to the high sugar levels, which - unlike vintages such as 2000 or 2003 – are balanced by equally generous acidity. And with this, optimal development potential and longevity can be confidently predicted for the wines. Of course, the harvest volume, between 2.2 million and 2.3 million hectoliters, is a bit under the annual average, with that of Grüner Veltliner markedly lower.
Everything from immense satisfaction to traces of euphoria is being expressed throughout all of Austria ’s wine growing areas. That’s the beginning-of-November verdict for the 2006 harvest, which is nearing completion. The last of the grapes to be harvested – those mainly used for premium category wines - will be brought to the cellars within a short time.
In all of Austria’s wine growing areas, 2006 could be defined as a somewhat unpredictable year. The weather changes were significant, even extreme. An especially long winter yielded plenty of snow (and with it, high humidity), followed by a spring that was just as wet and not very warm. But in mid-June, during the flowering – which was a bit late – it warmed up significantly and very quickly, culminating in a in a very hot period with record high temperatures lasting until the end of July. However, in August, it became very cool and rainy again, with sunshine hard to come by. According to statistics compiled by the Central Meteorology Institute, rainfall was higher than average, particularly in the north of the country. The harvest periods of September and October, though, saw wonderful autumn weather with plenty of sun, warm temperatures and dry soils. The noted differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures, which are so important for the development of aromas, occurred earlier in some regions and later in others. As a result, the harvesting of aromatic grapes with high ripeness was a sure thing.
Vegetation, Ripeness and the Harvest
Fortunately, there were no major problems such as dryness stress, because the weather turned at exactly the right moment. In Burgenland, for example, anxiously-awaited rainfall arrived when needed. And the dry soils with good water retention, such as loess, put their balancing qualities to use during the hot days of July. Moreover, permeable soils proved their value in rainy August. However, with rain falling on grapes that were only half-ripe and still hard, green harvesting and leaf management were quite extensive. But the remaining foliage provided good ventilation and, therefore, left the grapes less susceptible to fungi.
Because of September’s warmth, sugar levels increased very quickly – and indicated that wines would have generous alcohol, higher as with the 2005 vintage. Comparisons with the 2003 and 2000 vintages were often being made. But putting producers throughout all of the regions in a somewhat euphoric state were the naturally high acidity levels that would help provide wonderful balance and long life to the wines.
In Styria, August was not as damp and cool as it was in the northern regions. However, an Adriatic depression at around September 18th brought high amounts of water in only a few days. This increased significantly the susceptibility to rot. But those winemakers who kept calm and waited for a dry-out managed to thwart rot damage through pre-harvesting – and therefore profited from the wonderful autumn weather.
The harvest also was, shall we say, a bit of an unpredictable animal. While some pronounced the harvest as “on time” (neither earlier nor later than usual) – the harvests in the Donauland and Carnuntum wine growing areas were a bit earlier than their annual average. Also, overall, varieties weren’t always picked according to their traditional early-, mid- or late-harvest times. While premium Riesling grapes in the Wachau have been right on schedule – with some winemakers planning to harvest theirs well into November – most winemakers in all of the regions had to make quick harvests in order to avoid over-ripeness, dominant alcohol or Botrytis.
For biologically-focused wineries – no matter the philosophy and region - the weather brought with it high costs for the extra work in the vineyards. Nevertheless, while many wineries had changed or updated their methods – some for the first time - the results proved quite satisfying. Their efforts have paid off - even in a complicated year such as this one. Undoubtedly, it will not be the only one.
Good Vintage - Bad Vintage?
To differentiate simply between "good" and "bad" wine vintages really doesn’t hold much weight anymore. Some years require extensive efforts, while other years are sublime because of ideal conditions and a smoothly flowing vegetation process. Today, flexibility in know-how and care are the key to any vintage – particularly when it comes to dealing with fickle climate conditions or extracting high quality grapes from a very challenging year overall. And 2006 has been one of those vintages demanding from wine growers highly meticulous vineyard care - but rewarding them with grapes that are healthy, ripe and of high quality.
Catchword for 2006 - "Coulure"
Because of low temperatures or rain during the flowering period, a kind of irregular fruit set – a natural phenomenon known as coulure – occurred. According to the vine variety and time of flowering, the amount of berries that do not develop or never reach full development can be significant. And in 2006, this took place in varying degrees in all of the wine growing areas, although to a lesser extent in South Styria. Especially for Austria’s flagship variety, Grüner Veltliner, yields of grapes that made it to full maturity were lower than usual. However, it is important to note that the occurrence of coulure does not signify a deterioration of quality in the fully-developed grapes.
On the contrary! The positive effect of coulure is that a natural thinning process takes place - especially with "compact" grape varieties. Even in regular years, grapes that usually grow tightly together on the bunch can “loosen up” due the loss of the small, unripened berries. As a result, the loosely clustered grapes left on the bunches are not squeezed together; this means that they are able to dry more quickly, making them less susceptible to disease and fungi. The levels of Grüner Veltliner coulure were different throughout the wine regions mainly because of the varying positions of the vineyards sites.
In the Wachau, the fall of 2006 has been referred to as “pure gold”. And in the Kamptal, the phrase “vintage of the century” has been used, albeit with reasonable caution, of course. High gradation and beautiful fruit ripeness - thanks to the drying soils in September as well as cool nights that followed warm days (generally not before the beginning of October) - were highly beneficial for aroma structure. Positive reports about the harvest have come also from the Kremstal, Traisental and Donauland/Wagram areas.
Very good qualities of smaller yields are expected in the Weinviertel as well. The sequence of dryness, rain and dry warmth brought overall satisfaction to the winemakers there. While the weather in southern Weinviertel couldn’t have been better, the northern Weinviertel experienced a soewhat difficult time because of frosts. Nevertheless, even in the north, conditions in September and October put things just right for wine.
The traditional varieties in the Thermenregion wine growing area - Zierfandler and Rotgipfler - as well as the Burgundy varieties, show an ideal balance of sugar and acidity. The rains in August did not affect Pinot Noir and Sankt Laurent, because the berries were still relatively hard at that time. And from the Carnuntum area this year, not only are the red wines set for impressive character, but so are the white wines.
Also in Vienna, the weather conditions were similar to those in the surrounding wine growing areas. At the beginning of September, light rot began to appear, but fortunately it was stopped by the dry Indian Summer. Therefore, the grapes harvested were healthy and ripe.
The situation was not so different in northern Burgenland. Avoiding over-ripeness was important as well – although here, it was for the purpose of not producing wines with too much alcohol. The wine growing areas in the east had less rain than those in the west, and the harvest was referred to as “a good, normal average.” Overall, harvest conditions for both white and red varieties proved ideal. Around Lake Neusiedl (the Neusiedlersee), in the Mittelburgenland area, as well as in the south, the widely grown Blaufränkisch variety showed fine quality in colour and taste. When the outstanding attributes of this year’s Blaufränkisch are emphasized, ideal pH levels and remarkable ripeness are at the top of the list. This varietal is being lauded right across the board. For Zweigelt, evaluations are ranging from "exceptional" to "difficult, but very good". Sweet wine varieties are still at the beginning phase of harvest, but estimations are highly positive. The highly desired – and necessary! - noble fungus, Botrytis cinerea, is developing in the vineyards slowly, but beautifully.
In the region of Styria, an Adriatic depression towards the end of September caused a bit of a stir. While Southeast Styria experienced generally small amounts of rainfall, the regions in the west were heavily drenched. With the threat of rot bearing down hard, the harvest – still going on in mid-October – saw grapes undergo highly meticulous selection. Especially Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon (Chardonnay) are showing exceptional flavours; overall, minimum gradations were easily reached. And the grape varieties Gelber Muskateller and Welschriesling are proving highly aromatic and balanced, thanks to the ideal temperature differences between day and night.