Braving the Storms

With foul weather affecting the vintage, this year is a rough one for Austrian wine.

This year will not be remembered fondly by Austrian winemakers. Catastrophic weather conditions in some of the main grape-growing regions left behind a messy pulp of battered vines, frostbitten shoots and diseased fruit. A reminder that the climate still has the power to make or break a producer’s heart, back and bank.

It all started in April. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board described the weather in spring as a “frost catastrophe” that left winegrowers facing a “diminished vintage in terms of quantity, although there is a good crop of grapes now hanging on the vines in many regions.” The weather just kept on battering the producers. “After the massive late frosts at the end of April, unstable and muggy weather unfortunately led to ruinous hailstorms as well, starting at the end of May,” said the board. “The Steiermark and Südburgenland [Styria and southern Burgenland] were hardest hit by the hail, but wine-growing regions around Lake Neusiedl and the northern part of Niederösterreich [Lower Austria] also reported damage – a total of some 1,200 hectares of vineyard were affected.”

Photo ©AWMB/ Komitee Kamptal
Photo ©AWMB/ Komitee Kamptal

In addition, the stop-start summer encouraged accelerated vine growth and a prolific spread of a number of mildew diseases that enjoy warm, muggy environments.

Producers in the affected areas have reported losing anywhere between half of their grapes to their entire crop, with overall losses estimated at almost €3 million.

The Grape Divide

Let’s put this in perspective.

This year will be the fifth in a row with a below-average yield, and the pressure is being felt throughout the entire industry – both locally and, more importantly, in the ever-competitive export market.

The quality of the 2014 vintage was average, thanks to a cool year resulting in fresh, early drinking wines but little reserve material. The 2016 crop is unlikely to add much to the reserve stocks. So the two recent stellar vintages remain 2013 and 2015. It will be an interesting juggling act to manage stock levels and wine lists over the coming years.

 

Photo ©ÖWM/ Lukan
Photo ©ÖWM/ Lukan

During a drive through the vineyard towns along the Danube, an industry insider delivered a sad and sobering analysis of how all of this plays out for the many Familienweingüter (family-owned wineries). During years like 2016, he said, the bigger producers field an increasing number of phone calls from small family growers offering their estates for sale, often at bargain prices. The larger players always need more vineyard land to insure themselves against the fluctuations of supply and demand. But at the boutique end, survival depends on a consistent and predictable crop, year in, year out.

 

Luckily for these smaller producers, the Austrian government has created a disaster relief fund to aid frost-affected vineyards, which should go a long way to ensuring survival for traditional, small-scale family enterprises.

It is, of course, too early to tell who will come out intact, but growers suffering from capricious conditions can rest assured their product will never go out of style, and take heart from 19th century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Give me wine to wash me clean of the weather-stains of cares.”

Download the first Harvest Report 2016 (Statistik Austria)

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