Rain at the wrong time in 2022 was just one challenge for makers of Austrian wine, who are increasingly affected by climatic instability, writes Stuart Piggott of JamesSuckling.com.
Standing on a terrace high above the Danube at sundown while surveying the natural beauty of this remarkable Austrian wine valley, with its steep terraced vineyards, it was hard avoiding the question, “Is there some trouble in this paradise?”
When I was there in early September 2022, the nervousness of winemakers in the Danube area about the approaching harvest was palpable. And not without good reason. In the new climatic situation in Austria, there are rarely years too cool to ripen the grapes properly, but there are frequently years with extreme weather that challenge wine producers to get clean and fully ripe grapes into the press. The 2022 growing season was seriously challenging in exactly this respect.
It says something about how serious this situation was that the star wines of my recent extensive tastings with my colleague Claire Nesbitt – mostly on location in Austria – were two late-released wines from the 2021 vintage. The FX Pichler Grüner Veltliner Wachau Unendlich 2021 has enormous concentration and richness, but also a staggering freshness and a chalky minerality unique in the region. And if that’s two expansive for your taste, there’s the no less astonishing FX Pichler Riesling Wachau Unendlich 2021, which is so dark and fundamental but has a mind-blowing acidity that feels like it propels you out of the solar system at warp speed. Unendlich means “limitless” in German, and that aptly describes the finish of both wines.
Lucas Pichler of FX Pichler is actually one of the exceptions to the rule that 2021 is clearly superior to 2022, because he succeeded in producing a string of sensational dry white grüner veltliners and rieslings in 2022 that come close to matching or equal the directly comparable wines from the 2021 vintage. 2021 was a vintage that gave wines with wonderful ripeness and excellent balance, rather like 2019.
The problems in 2022 began quite late in the season. Toni Bodenstein of the Prager estate, also in the Wachau, explained exactly what happened. “In late August of 2022, about 80mm of rain fell – twice the amount of August 2021 – and the vines started growing again.” Usually at this point in the season the vines shift from growing to ripening the grapes, but in Austria in 2022 that shift was significantly delayed, pushing back the ripening process.
When those rains fell it was still quite warm, so fungal disease started to spread according to the ancient formula: moisture plus warmth equals fungi. Experience says that this process is anything but homogeneous, and well-managed vineyards will suffer far less than poorly managed ones. 2022 in Austria is a good example of that.
The Prager team’s reaction was to sit out the bad weather. “Many winegrowers harvested in September, but when we did a test picking on October 3 and tasted the must, the tannins were too dominant,” Bodenstein said. “So we waited another week.”
The Prager wines from 2022 prove that this high-risk strategy was the right call, and that there’s no substitute for excellent vineyard management and ripe fruit. The finest example of this was the Prager Riesling Wachau Klaus Smaragd 2022, which is full-bodied and deep, yet so cool and delicate with layers of honeysuckle, apricots, lemon and grapefruit married to thyme and crushed rock.
Rudi Pichler of the eponymous Wachau winery aptly described the distinctive personality of the 2022 vintage dry whites: “In 2022 it was possible to achieve excellent quality, but with fresher acidity and less alcohol than in 2021.”
His wines are excellent examples of this, with alcohol levels anywhere from 0.5 percent to almost one percent below those of the generous 2021 vintage wines. His sensational Rudi Pichler Riesling Wachau Ried Achleithen Smaragd 2022 pulls you into a tunnel of intense wet stone minerality with no exit and no turning back, yet it’s so silky at the finish.
So much for the positive side of 2022. Quantities were much lower for the year, though. This was also because up to a third of the grapes had to be removed due to rot. It is a nice idea that Austria’s signature grape, grüner veltliner, which is planted in more than a third of the nation’s vineyards, would cope with the wet conditions best, but this wasn’t the case.
“For me there’s no question that riesling coped better than grüner veltliner – that’s the way the grapes looked,” said Emmerich Knoll Sr, who runs his eponymous winery in the Wachau.
And that’s the way the Knoll family’s wines taste. As impressive as their best grüner veltliners are, none of them can match the Emmerich Knoll Riesling Wachau Vinothekabfüllung Smaragd 2022, with its stunning nose of King Alfonso Mango, pineapple and apricot, plus the electric energy that drives it across the palate. We think grüner started falling behind riesling during the dry and hot weather of the early summer.
As for reds, we haven’t tasted many 2022 vintage wines yet, because most are still maturing in cask. However, we did taste a good number of the 2021s and found plenty of exciting wines that indicate this is as impressive a vintage for reds in Austria as it is for dry whites. None was more spectacular than the Moric Blaufränkisch Burgenland Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben 2021, with its generous floral complexity, staggering depth of finest berry fruits and spectacular spectrum of spicy aromas. It’s enormously concentrated and precise on the perfectly proportioned medium-bodied palate.
“2021 was a wonderful vintage for the blaufränkisch grape, particularly for the old vines,” Roland Velich of Moric said. “We got the balance that we look for.”
Some of the late-released reds from the difficult 2020 vintage really surprised us with their restrained ripeness and fine tannins. The best of them are great examples of how the top reds from the bläufrankisch grape are moving in an ever more elegant and cool direction. None does this better than the Dorli Muhr Blaufränkisch Carnuntum Ried Spitzerberg-Obere Spitzer EL 2020, which is simultaneously bright yet has enormous shadowy depths.
It’s now normal for the top producers of the Steiermark, often referred to in English as Styria, to release their single-vineyard wines at least two years after the harvest, so 2021 is the current vintage for the majority of these. We love the way the best of them marry aromatic vitality with mineral drive. None more so than the Wohlmuth Sauvignon Blanc Südsteiermark Ried Edelschuh GSTK 2021, with its fabulous aromas of honeysuckle, chamomile, peach and orange curd. This is so creamy and caressing on the full-bodied palate with lingering floral-tea character.
Almost as amazing was the Tement Sauvignon Blanc Südsteiermark Ried Zieregg Kapelle GSTK 2020 and its notes of grapefruit, pineapple, nutmeg, thyme, sage and salted butter. The fruit and minerals on the full-bodied, delicately creamy palate are counterpointed by smoke and burnt sage undertones. 2021 is clearly a great vintage for the region, but so – exceptionally for Austria – is 2020.
International demand for Austria’s dry whites and finest reds remains healthy, and there is no question they’re widely recognised as unique European classics. In spite of the problems associated with the 2022 vintage, the best Austrian wines that just came on to the market or will be released shortly confirm this high status.
Here are five outstanding Austrian wines to consider.
Five bottles scoring 99 points or more.
FX PICHLER GRÜNER VELTLINER WACHAU UNENDLICH 2021
Welcome to the tropics with all these wonderfully aromatic fruits and flowers. Enormous concentration and richness, but also a staggering freshness that electrifies this full-bodied grüner veltliner.
FX PICHLER RIESLING WACHAU UNENDLICH 2021
This beams you to dark side of the moon where you are surrounded by the milky way and nearby stars. In spite of the gigantic concentration of fresh pineapple and pink grapefruit, this is a dark and fundamental wine. Very full-bodied for riesling.
FX PICHLER RIESLING WACHAU RIED KELLERBERG 2022
This dry riesling has gigantic concentration, but also gigantic elegance and finesse. Still a little shy on the nose, but this has been made to age for decades. But the most extraordinary thing about the wine is the mind-blowing stony intensity at the extremely focused and salty finish.
FRANZ HIRTZBERGER RIESLING WACHAU RIED SINGERRIEDEL SMARAGD 2022
This astonishing dry riesling has an extraordinarily complex nose that’s brimming with spice, mandarin orange, mango and persimmon. Still very tightly wound on the medium-bodied palate with a whiplash acidity that could wake the dead.
HIRSCH RIESLING KAMPTAL HEILIGENSTEIN-ROTFELS EL 2022
An extraordinary dry riesling in which peach, floral honey and crushed stone minerality are exactly matched. Overwhelming concentration and brilliance, the wine is as crystalline as any white wine can be.
(Header image: Wachau Valley in Austria (Photo: Getty Images))