The very changeable year 2004 got off to a positive start – with plenty of precipitation. Especially in the eastern wine growing areas there was a lot of snow, and after the heat wave of 2003 the vines could recuperate under a white duvet.
Unfortunately, the weather continued just as wet and cool, and budding was delayed considerably in some cases. The sun refused to come out even in May and June, blossoming occurred late, and was partially marred by persistent rain. A natural limitation of yields at this early stage was the result.
When a persistently cool and rainy July delayed ripening further, pessimism began to spread among the producers. The change came with a radiant August and a similarly beautiful September, which even created some sun damage on younger vines. With the beginning of September cool nights began to accelerate the creation of deep aromas in the grapes. The rain returned just as the harvest of early varieties had begun, and it continued for most of October. In the Danube valley and its subsidiary river valleys, but also in the Weinviertel and the Northern Burgenland, persistent fogs and high pressure episodes created additional complications, as the resulting high humidity gave the grapes hardly a chance to dry off between rain falls. This created ideal conditions for noble rot, and the harvest of the ripe premium white wines and late red varietals such as Blaufränkisch and Cabernet around Halloween was often a race against time, and against spreading Botrytis.
One man’s loss is another man’s gain: the sweet wine producers could hardly suppress contented smiles. Late and quickly, they harvested great amounts of concentrated nobly-sweet grape material. The low temperatures necessary for ice wine, however, failed to materialize by mid December. Only Eisenstadt was an exception here.
In view of the changeable weather conditions, the most important white varietals will show a considerable bandwidth of qualities. Strong fungal attacks required painstaking protection and very careful green harvest. Targeted and sustained work in the vineyard, however, also made possible very high sugar gradations by early October, even if sugar levels did not continue to rise afterwards, and the grapes did not concentrate through evaporation because of the high humidity.
Because of their almost ideal acidity, the first young wines taste fresh and racy, though never too aggressive. In concert with good extract values, these will become well-balanced and animating wines, perfect vehicles for varietal typicity. Especially Grüner Veltliner and Sauvignon Blanc will profit from this, but also Muskateller and Chardonnay. Some of the late-harvested Riesling are not yet ready.
The quality of those premium white wines traditionally harvested in November is still an open question. Apart from the pressure of botrytis, there are great losses in quantity, but sophisticated vintners might achieve superbly interesting and complex wines. In Styria, some producers have already announced that they will not bottle single-vineyard wines, others will only create very small batches of these. Otherwise, we can hope for many fresh and lean wines, in the well-known “classic” Styrian style. The late and sudden noble rot has created a multitude of sweet wines in the bastions of nobly-sweet wines in the northern Burgenland; here, qualities and quantities are reminiscent of 2002 or even 1998, though it is still too early to pronounce on the style of these wines.
It is a fairly reliable rule of thumb to assume that in Austria, hot and dry years favour red wines, while cool and humid years are better for whites. Fortunately, there are also years that offer ideal conditions for white and red: such years were 1999, 1997, and 1993. After the controversial vintage 2004 we are observing a different phenomenon: cool and changeable weather resulting in top qualities for some red wine types. This is true particularly for Zweigelt, St Laurent and Pinot Noir, which are were harvested before the great rains around Lake Neusiedl, but also in the Lower Austrian red wine islands of Thermenregion and Carnuntum. These are very attractive wines with beautiful colours, power, and great length. High sugar levels resulted in alcohol similar to 2003, but the aromas will probably prove to be much deeper and more complex in 2004.
In Middle and Southern Burgenland, too, the main varietal Zweigelt has created some very powerful and substantial red wines, while the late-ripening Blaufränkisch is lighter than in previous years, though not without spice and character. French varietals such as Cabernet and Merlot presented more problems, and suffered from short maturation periods. Only few of them will have sufficient substance for barrique vinification.