There was little time for gentle spring sentiments at the beginning of last year’s warm season. Already a week after Easter an early heat wave swept over the country, and except for a cool week each during May and August, four searingly hot months followed. Hail storms in mid-May, which devastated parts of the Vienna vineyards and reduced yields there drastically, were the only negative aspects of an otherwise highly promising early growing season, with good and easy blossoming in dry and warm conditions.
The hot and almost rain-free summer caused the plants to build up a considerable advance on the normal vegetative cycle, despite the fact that some younger vines suffered from the dryness. In view of the predominantly Mediterranean climatic conditions (the Styrian capital of Graz recorded top temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius) the growers had to demonstrate great flexibility: during “normal” years the grapes have to be liberated from overhanging leaves in order to assure ripening, this year necessitated the reverse, and many producers decided to provide the grapes with foliage “parasols” in order to prevent sunburn and other signs of stress. The competition between vines and other plants in the vineyard also had to be limited to a minimum in 2003.
Earlier than ever before, and in conditions that reminded more of Sicily than of Austria, the vineyards on the eastern banks of Lake Neusiedl were harvested already from 20 August onwards, for Sauvignon, and 25 August for Pinot Noir. In the hotter parts of the country Zweigelt and St Laurent had to be harvested soon afterwards; the year 2000, with its shrunken, raisin-like berries was an experience none of the growers was keen to repeat. During the last week of August, the weather suddenly changed, and temperatures dropped as low as ten degrees. The Indian summer that followed during September was warm once more, but nights remained noticeably cooler and fresher, causing a slowing down physiological ripening, ideal for the development of more complex aromas in the grapes. There were no further significant incidences of rain until mid-October, assuring the perfect health of the grape material.
White, red and dessert wines
Even during a hot year such as 2003, which favours high alcohol and low acidity, the white wine country Austria shows a wide variety of white wine types. This may not be an ideal vintage for lighter, fruit-driven and fresh whites, but suitably early harvests made it possible nevertheless to preserve the racy acidity making some of these wines justly famous. The dryness, however, raises questions. In 2000, similar conditions led to elevated tannin contents and occasionally correspondingly bitter aromas. A propos 2000: will this year’s whites be comparable with those of 1992, the last great hot vintage? It may still be too early to give a definite answer, but the cool September nights may just have saved the day by making sure that acidity did not sink too far. The strong increase in fruit aromas during the last three, four weeks, which gave the grapes such depth and harmony, was as fascinating as it was surprising. Varietal character also seems to be quite clearly pronounced, and Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnay are quite easy to distinguish even as grapes. The aromatic varietals such as Muskateller show wonderful qualities this year, while the jury is still out on Sauvignon Blanc, which may have suffered from stress. Traminer, too, could be marked by often very low acidity. Ideal PH values will favour especially white wines fermented in barriques, such as Burgundian varietals or the ever-capricious Rotgipfler.
The 2003 vintage will feature only low quantities of dessert wines, as occurrences of botrytis were extremely limited, and even mid-December frosts did not suffice for the production of ice wines.
Expected red wine qualities are very much easier to outline. Those who did not succeed in making a wonderful red wine this year have only themselves to blame. Even the Burgundian varietals show themselves enormously deep in colour, and dark, profound aromas are matched by an unusual richness, creating red wines which will be as subtle as they are powerful. First tastings show wines with appreciably more firmness and bite than 2000. Skeptical voices complaining about too much sun seem to miss the point that varietals like Blaufränkisch, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah cannot have too much sun, especially in our parts. Zweigelt and St Laurent show deep, velvety fruit, while Pinot Noirs will still have to prove that their fine structure did not suffer from the summer heat. There will be red wines full of body and generosity, and especially Blaufränkisch and Cabernet Sauvignon, which present a sensational fruit this year, carry the hopes of many of the country’s top producers.