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Heavy rains and flooding earlier this month resulted in severe localized damage in the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal, three of Austria's most prestigious wine regions for Riesling and Grüner Veltliner.
Less than 10 percent of the vineyards in the three areas -- or 1,200 to 1,500 acres out of a total of 18,500 -- were destroyed, estimated Michael Thurner, project manager at the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. But there was a lot of damage to homes, wineries and equipment. At this time, the total cost of the damage is unknown.
Fortunately, the best vineyard sites, which are on higher ground and steep hillsides, were not affected by the flooding. However, the heavy rains and water-laden soil wreaked havoc on the stone walls in the terraced sites. Extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming to build, the walls will require several years of work to repair.
Toni Bodenstein, winemaker and a co-owner of Weingut Prager, reported that 70 walls had been damaged in their vineyards. "We have to rebuild it by hand, and it will take generations," he said.
Furthermore, the excess moisture poses a risk of rot, particularly if ensuing weather is warm.
Nonetheless, despite the problems, a few growers said the vines look good so far. Willi Bründlmayer, of Weingut Bründlmayer in Kamptal, felt his vineyards looked better at this stage than they have in previous vintages, but his optimism was tempered by "a certain sorrow, exhaustion, fatigue in the area as well as solidarity, new friendship and hope, since everyone has relatives or friends affected."
Much of the damage occurred to wineries and homes near the Danube and Kamp rivers. According to Bodenstein of Prager, the 36-foot flood level of the Danube in Wachau exceeded that of the 1954 "flood of the century" and was more than four times the area's normal flood level. Rainfall during a 36-hour period from Aug. 11 through the Aug. 13 totaled more than 11 inches, roughly half the annual average. Both Bodenstein's home and the Prager winery were heavily damaged. "All the cellars have overflowed -- 20,000 bottles in a mud bath!" he exclaimed.
Johannes Hirsch, of Weingut Hirsch in Kamptal, escaped damage to his winery and vineyards, but was not so fortunate with his 500-year-old house. "It will take a month to get back to normal -- we still can't drink our [normally great] tap water and the phone/fax/e-mail has just been working again since a couple of days," he said.
There were reports that other vintners had also lost homes and wineries, but these are as yet unconfirmed.
With the 2002 harvest about to begin, those Austrian growers who have lost vineyards, equipment and wineries are facing more than the usual challenges. As Hirsch put it: "There are winemakers around here not knowing where to start harvesting in two weeks."
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