The prolonged heat wave that assaulted Europe in 2003 was not the only weather factor shaping the vintage in Austria, but despite the extremes they faced, the country's winemakers feel positive about the quality of their reds and whites.
An extremely cold winter kept the Neusiedlersee Lake in eastern Austria frozen for almost a month, until March. Above-average spring temperatures were common in wine regions throughout the country, triggering an unusually early flowering, about two to three weeks ahead of a normal year.
With little rain in the hot summer, sunburned grapes were widespread. During harvest, many vintners selected carefully to avoid damaged grapes. Older vines fared better, as their deeper roots tapped into moisture far below the surface.
The heat continued through the end of September, and picking had to be done in the early morning. This retained the morning dew and brought cool grapes into the cellar. Most wineries began their harvest in the last week of August or the first week of September, on average about two weeks ahead of schedule. First to be picked were Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc for easy-drinking whites, followed shortly by red varieties, including Pinot Noir and Zweigelt. In general, producers waited until October to pick grapes for their higher-quality, single-vineyard Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners.
A weather change in October aided growers struggling to preserve balance in their grapes. Lower nighttime temperatures helped to maintain acidity levels. Several welcome rainfalls were followed by winds that quickly dried any excess moisture, preventing the development of rot. There was a snowfall at the end of October, which is almost unheard of, said Johannes Hirsch, winemaker at Weingut Hirsch in the Kamptal region. However, he said the frost may have helped develop the aromatics in the whites.
As a result of the unusual weather conditions, yields for 2003 ranged from average to below normal. Winemaker Willi Bründlmayer of Bründlmayer winery in the Kamptal attributed the lower yields to the heat's effect on the grapes: "The berry skins [were] very thick and contain[ed] less juice."
A highlight of the 2003 vintage may be the red wines, particularly those from the Burgenland region, where Blaufränkisch and indigenous varieties such as Zweigelt are common. Josef Umathum described the reds from his eponymous winery as having "… very good concentration and ripeness. Fine, elegant and very ready to drink."
Despite the lower-than-normal acidity levels in some cases, winemakers are also happy with their whites, principally the Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners for which Austria is best known. Bründlmayer is particularly optimistic, saying, "We expect the 2003 vintage to give maturity as well as power, freshness as well as structure."
Absent from the vintage will be most of Austria's dessert wines. The botrytis (a fungus that concentrates grape flavors and sugars) needed to produce sweet wines could not develop in such dry conditions. Kurt Feiler of Feiler-Artinger in Burgenland was one of the few winemakers able to collect enough botrytized grapes to make an Ausbruch-style dessert wine. However, he feels that while the wine is elegant, it does not have the concentration of previous vintages.
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