Harvest 2018 is in the cellar in Austria, and the news is good. From auspicious beginnings to brutal heat and lack of rain, the 2018 growing season was quite a ride, but our Winery Partners were up to the task. Mother Nature doesn’t always make it easy for farmers, and the challenging conditions of the 2018 vintage required quick thinking and adaptation, but the result was a bountiful harvest of perfect grapes.
Off to a Good Start
One of the biggest threats to grape vines is late spring frost, which can have devastating consequences on yields, but that was not a concern this year. Budding commenced unusually late in 2018, long after the last of the frost threat. Immediately after bud break, Austria was hit with an intense heat wave which fueled rapid development, and, according to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, “led to the one of the earliest flowerings since record keeping began.” This head start put the vines ahead of their normal cycle by two weeks, and the berries were already well into development by the first week of June.
Hot & Dry
The next two months were characterized by intense heat and drought. Moisture was scarce, and when it did come, it was in the form of brief, violent downpours or destructive hailstorms. The extremes of the weather put intense stress on the vines and caused some severe, if localized, damage. The Wachau lost entire parcels to hailstorms, while other areas, such as the northern Weinviertel, had no rain at all, causing stress for young vines and those planted in shallow soils.
Despite the challenges, most of Austria’s vines soldiered on into August relatively unscathed, and continued to develop rapidly. The intense heat and early flowering had put the vegetation cycle so far ahead of schedule that some younger vineyards had reached full ripeness by the third week of August. Peter Veyder-Malberg, who celebrated his tenth harvest this year in Spitz, Wachau, described it as “the earliest I have ever seen.”
The early harvest presented its own set of challenges. Keeping the harvested fruit cool in the August heat required the use of special equipment, and heavy rain in early September complicated the harvest schedule. But Austrian winemakers are nothing if not adaptable, and by keeping cool and thinking on their feet, they filled their cellars with an above average yield of incredibly high-quality fruit.
For a year marked by extremes, 2018 is set to produce some compelling wines. Due to the accelerated timetable, most of the wine in Austria has finished fermentation, and preliminary barrel samples are promising. Hot, dry vintages like 2018 can produce wines with high alcohol and reduced acidity, but thoughtful winemaking and a deft hand in the cellar can find greatness in even the most challenging vintages. Emmerich Knoll III, fourth generation winemaker in Unterloiben, Wachau, and head of Vinea Wachau, the region’s growers association, tells us, “We are very happy with straight, relatively elegant wines with good power. Acid contents are medium, but for the wines that have finished their fermentation, they seem very well balanced.”
Familie Reinisch has similar good news from the Thermenregion, where the dry conditions ensured that there was no opportunity for any fungal diseases to take hold. Reinisch’s organic farming practices leave vines at the mercy of nature more so than conventional viticulture, but “The quality of the fruit was amazing,” said Michael Reinisch. “There was nothing to sort out because the grapes were so healthy.”
Even with such a healthy crop, success was by no means guaranteed, and the Reinisch brothers had to make adjustments in their cellar practices to accommodate for the conditions. “Cooling the grapes down after picking helped us to start the fermentation gentle,” Michael says, “and we kept the time of skin contact in the press for the whites shorter this year to ensure the freshness.”
The 2018 vintage was as successful for red wines as it was for whites, so alongside Reinisch’s specialties, Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, we can look forward to some excellent red wine offerings like St. Laurent and Pinot Noir as well.
Decided by Nature
Winemaking is an exercise in constant adaptation. While the soil, grapes, and vineyards are constants, the increasingly unpredictable weather is the variable that decides the character of any given vintage. The vintner is tasked with telling the story of their land through their wine, and staying true to that mission requires knowledge of the land, experience, and the ability to adapt. Each vintage lends itself to certain styles and grape varieties, and it is the mark of a great winemaker to recognize these differences and adjust accordingly.