Austria’s 2006 Vintage - Big Wines; Small Quantities

After the young wines were tasted all around Austria, and the first verdicts were in, it was clear: the euphoria over the 2006 harvest was certainly not exaggerated! However, there was a drop of bitterness, as couloure conditions in the vineyards were responsible for substantially lower grape yields, especially with the leading variety of the Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) region - Grüner Veltliner. As a result, last year’s small harvest recorded a below-average yield of approximately 2.3 million hectoliters.

Vineyard, Copyright AWMB / Lukan
Vineyard, © AWMB / Lukan

Crazy Weather

While some wine friends prefer not to look back at this year’s practically non-existent winter, the winter conditions at the beginning of 2006 could not be ignored: frosty, cold, long and unforgiving. A wet, cool spring followed – reaching its low point in May. No wonder that bud break and flowering began later than usual, leaving most growers to count on a late vintage. But at exactly the same time as the beginning of the Soccer World Cup, the conditions changed. During the high flowering period of Grüner Veltliner, temperatures – often accompanied by storms – increased so highly that fruit set was irregular. Many grapes were loose on the cluster, very small, and without pips – which resulted in low quantity harvests. In fact, in some areas, such as the Wachau, Weinviertel and the Wagram, yields were only half of what is usually harvested.

Between the middle of June and the end of July, oppressive heat dominated the vineyards. But on August 1st, an extremely cool and damp weather period set in. This, in addition to built-up wintertime moisture, led to an unforeseen supply of water. Therefore, winemakers had to apply extensive leaf removal work. At the beginning of September, the onset of beautiful autumn weather provided ideal relief, which lasted until the end of October. But fortunately, despite a brief period of bad weather at the beginning of November, the remaining grapes could be harvested without difficulty. There were, however, some shaky moments, such as the heavy rains that fell around September 20th. These made snappy pre-harvests necessary in the vineyards of South Styria (Südsteiermark). But luckily, grape quality did not suffer in the end.

The White Wines of 2006 - a Rare Phenomenon Materializes

Because of the various recorded weather conditions: "a very hot July"; "highly damp soils plus a wet April" and "a rare, beautiful Indian summer in September and October", wines of a phenomenal composition were created. While their sugar levels were as high as those produced during the hot vintages of 2003 and 2000, their sugar free extract and acidity content were at levels similar to those from a “normal” very good year. This rare combination meant that unusually full, outstanding wines were vinified. With their high alcohol content balanced by extract and fine acidity, the wines themselves glide over the palate with a more balanced and smooth expression than one would expect. This extremely unusual construction allows these wines to be compared to those from the great white wine vintages, like 1947 and 1959 – although these comparisons require a bit of a stretch because of the completely different wine growing methods and cellar techniques employed in those days.

Nevertheless, powerful, ripe white wines without botrytis could be harvested in 2006. Not so easy, though, was the production of the summer wine styles à la Steinfeder: This is because the levels mentioned increased quickly, yet "physiological" ripeness required more time. Under these circumstances, though, wineries following the biological wine growing track were very fortunate.

Excellent Quality Across the Varietal Spectrum

Even through the phenomenon occurred in all of Austria’s wine regions, and the heavy reductions in quantity were concentrated mainly to Grüner Veltliner, the quality of the wide range of grape varietals is astonishingly similar across the board - on a very high level. In Lower Austria, the diversity of Grüner Veltliner has proven remarkable, with very strong and balanced wines in the Kabinett category – these show deep fruit and peppery spiciness - and the supreme might of the unaltered Reserve class wines, whose stability and storage potential could reach legendary proportions.

Rieslings such as those from the 2006 vintage, packed full of fruit, very tightly woven and featuring a wonderful bite of nervous acidity - and all without any botrytis influence – have, as far as it is known, never been created in the new age of Austrian wine growing. Also the Burgundy varieties succeeding in this ripe vintage with their characteristic smoothness and deep fruit.

It wasn’t only in Styria that crisp and temperamental Welschriesling could be harvested. The same holds true for Muskateller, possibly the most beautifully produced in a long time, with its expressions of citrus rind, cinnamon and grapey suppleness. Even the “bouquet varieties” fared very well: in a year of generous ripeness and adequate acidity, Traminer proved to be a true diva amongst the Austrian grape varieties. Sauvignon showed smoothness and subtle aromas and flavours, with cassis and elderflower featuring more prominently than the peppery spice.

Power and Structure - the Red Wines of 2006

Because of the development that’s required, the quality of the red wines is perhaps not so easy to classify; nevertheless, it should place as "excellent" or "very good" on the vintage roster. Although there were fears that the vegetation phase would be too short in 2006, (in the red wine areas around Lake Neusiedl, or Neusiedlersee, there was no endless waiting for the harvest), high expectations were met with the first sips. Some red wines, with their strong structure, dark berry depth and powerful tannins, are somewhat reminiscent of the 2002 and 1999 vintages; but 2006 can also be a "little monster" year, exceeding with its opulence and fire even the Sicilianesque vintage of 2003. The best 2006 red wines, after barrel maturation, could likely reflect both the structure of the top 2002s and the impressiveness and smoothness of the most successful 2003s.

With the different varieties, Pinot and St. Laurent – found also in the red wine enclaves of Lower Austria - are showing just as fine as the Zweigelt, which in many areas is reflecting a definition and tannin structure similar to Blaufränkisch. In fact, Blaufränkisch has been successful throughout the country, radiating juice, power and a fine line structure. Merlot in the eyes of French globetrotters could likely be venerated for its smoothness and concentrated body, while Cabernet and Syrah – because of the short vegetation period - could produce somewhat hard, slowly developing wines.

Delicacies with Extra Class

While the 2005 vintage yielded small amounts of sweet wines – which, because of their extreme balance, are sometimes compared with those from the 1995 and 2002 vintages – there had been much skepticism about what the 2006 vintage would produce: botrytis developed very haltingly; and frosty nights, which are necessary for the production of Eiswein, simply did not exist.

But at the end of November, a strong onset of botrytis occurred. And in sweet wine strongholds such as Seewinkel, appropriate amounts of botrytised grapes were able to be harvested. In Rust, however, the botrytis appeared earlier, so there are sufficient amounts of Ruster Ausbruch to be found – many with heavenly levels of residual sugar. In nearby Thermenregion, in Lower Austria, high grade dessert wines are being awaited anxiously, because the weather – in complete contrast to the previous year - was not ideal for step-by-step harvest and selection. Overall, quality-wise, the best of the sweet wine delicacies from 2006 can be compared to those from the highly rated previous vintage.