Unpredictable weather has kept Austrian vintners
on their toes, making the 2017 vintage a challenging one

As smartphones and technology keep us curled up inside, we like to think we have mastered our environment, but ask any vintner and he’ll tell you a different story: The smallest meteorological factor can make or break a vintage, and, technology notwithstanding, good wine is still at the mercy of the elements. This year is no exception, but so far 2017 was more lenient than the year before, when destructive weather led to losses of nearly €3 million.

Many vintners are relieved, as the previous five years were somewhat lackluster. Still, it has been touch and go for much of 2017: This year already started precariously with late frost and hailstorms. But unlike 2016, when a particularly brutal cold snap shattered vines, the damage has been manageable. Fair weather reigned during the critical budding phase, allowing shoots to establish themselves before harsher temperatures kicked in.

Summer, in turn, brought intense heat and dry weather, but winemakers responded with constant irrigation and by thinning grapes from the vines – necessary to avoid overburdening when the plant produces too much fruit. Statistik Austria reports show that these measures are paying off: This year’s projected harvest will increase by 12 percent compared with the last five years, countering the recent trend toward low yields, but still considered merely “average” by the Austrian Chamber of Agriculture. Viticultural Association president Johannes Schmuckenschlager counseled caution, pointing out that the predictions are still uncertain and may change as harvests are tallied.

Burgenland comes out on top

Since the summer was so dry, grapes are smaller than usual, but very healthy, as mildew and blight need moisture to thrive. This makes for very pure wines, with no extra measures needed to clean and cull diseased grapes.

Also, higher sugar content from generous amounts of sunshine leads to higher alcohol volume and lower acidity, resulting in intense, full-bodied wines – good for reds but not so much for whites.

Indeed, weather conditions were optimal for certain varieties and regions. “Hot and dry summers are the perfect mix for high-quality red wines,” explained Andreas Liegenfeld, President of the Viticultural Association of Burgenland, who expects a good year for reds to make up for the cold and wet summer of 2014 and the destructive spring frosts of 2016. Liegenfeld was already harvesting the grapes of his own vineyard at the beginning of September – a week earlier than usual, due to early ripening after the intense heat wave in August. His crop was very healthy and had excellent sugar content, good signs that this vintage will be one to remember.

The fact that the summers are getting hotter doesn’t seem to worry Liegenfeld. “As long as southern Italy, Spain and France are still able to produce wine, we are far enough north that this is not a concern for us yet.”

Still, 2017 will be a year where Austrian vintners will have to show their skill after the harvest and carefully ferment, blend and store their wines to counteract heaviness in white wines known for their lighter flavor profiles like Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. As summer temperatures keep rising, it may be time to keep an eye on Austria’s red wines instead.