Posted on | October 23, 2014
Written by | Jean K. Reilly MW
After years of prizing richness and power, Austrian vintners today seek elegance, fruit purity and lower alcohol in their wines.
Late in the 1990s, a new generation of winemakers threw themselves at the task of producing great wines from the indigenous Grüner Veltliner, a grape that had been given short shrift next to the internationally recognized Riesling. They succeeded handsomely and were rewarded with success in top international markets around the globe.
Tony Bodenstein of Weingut Prager describes the change: “In the 1990s customers liked rich wines. This was new after the lower alcohol content wines of the 1980s. This was the beginning of the sunrise of the Wachau vintner, the world started to pay attention to the Wachau because they are making richer wines.” Wineries such as FX Pichler, Franz Hirtzberger, Knoll and Prager turned out more powerful bottlings, which racked up more and more critical acclaim. This new style of wines was particularly appealing to Americans, raised as we are on heady California Chardonnay.
Race to Pick Last?
As might be expected, there was a backlash. Consumers as well as critics in many markets started to complain about alcohol levels approaching 15%. And fruit profiles were changing as well. In addition to the decadently ripe tones of late-harvested fruit, botrytis flavors were creeping into the mix, a change that had implications for both fruit purity and longevity. Bodenstein summarizes: “There was the thinking that a little bit of botrytis gives the wine openness and harmony in youth. Vintners wanted to say, ‘I was the last to harvest.’ But we are not making wines for the first year or two. We are making wine for the next 10 or 20 years.” Bodenstein believes that a change in focus by critics from power to elegance prompted a change in thinking on the part of producers.
Roman Horvath MW, Director of Domaine Wachau, points to the years 2003 and 2004 as the turning point. The first had an exceptionally hot and short growing season, resulting in many coarse wines with obvious alcohol. Next came the cool and damp 2004, which saw widespread problems with impure fruit flavors due to excessive botrytis. Thus, in 2003 and ’04, you had glaring back-to-back examples of the two problematic consequences of late-harvesting.
Having acclimated consumers to a certain flavor profile in their top wines, however, producers were in a “devil’s bargain,” according to noted importer Terry Theise: “Either they had to pick before the wines were physiologically ripe or deal with alcohol over 14%. There has been a lot of hand wringing over this.” The debate on this issue was passionate, to say the least.
Rudi Pichler of Weingut Rudi Pichler points out that it was after the first generation of powerful wines reached maturity that many vintners did an about-face. “In 1998, we had a heavy infection of botrytis,” he recalls. “Some people used it for their dry wines; these wines won the first tastings. But I think now many of these wines are over the hill.”
The Pure Fruit, Low Alcohol Effect
One winemaker who comes down unapologetically on the side of fruit purity over ripeness is Johannes Hirsch of Weingut Hirsch in the Kamptal region. In search of ever greater fruit purity, Hirsch has progressively scaled back his picking dates. In 2013, one of Hirsch’s single vineyards initially tested at just 11.3% alcohol, below the minimum required for the Kamptal appellation.
While the final cuvée came in over the required minimum, the situation gave the winemaker pause as the broad Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) appellation would be a hard sell at the premium price points his single-vineyard wines command. Hirsch would attribute his lower alcohol to the adoption of biodynamic viticulture, which he believes has allowed him to achieve higher levels of fruit ripeness at lower sugar levels. Several other wineries that have gone down the biodynamic road report similar results.
Many commentators on the wine scene in numerous different markets are predicting a trend toward lower alcohol in wine. After a few hundred years of trying to reach progressively higher levels of ripeness and intensity, this will require a significant shift, not only in viticultural and winemaking practices, but also philosophy. Already, in the UK, low-alcohol wines form a significant and growing part of the market. However, most wines made with the sole intention of reducing alcohol have been disappointing and have yet to attract a serious following in this country.
The current trend in Austria could change that. Twenty years ago, Austria drew the wine geek faction away from oaked, full-bodied white wines to their vibrant, terroir-driven refreshing Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings. Now, they are set to lead the elegance charge. Top single-vineyard wines under 12% alcohol—now that would be something for wine geeks to get excited about.