Terry Theise Squawk Box: The 2014 Vintage in Austria

Until late August it looked good, on schedule and plenty of it. Then it got rainy and clammy, and this was exactly the worst possible weather, and it didn’t let up for weeks. It rained and rained, and when the sun came out it was steamy, and any grapes with thin skins and tight bunches were obliterated, even when growers had bunch-thinned. So if you had St Laurent or Pinot Noir in your vineyards – kaput, a total loss.

The basic question emerged, and it was similar to the one asked at the same time in Germany (rarely, as the two places don’t align in growing conditions) – do you pick now to spare the crop from more botrytis, mildew and other rots? The grapes aren’t as ripe as you wish they’d be, but a small clean wine may be preferable to a riper less clean one. Or do you wait, hoping the weather pattern shifts, trying to pick riper grapes even if you have to select like a demon and throw a lot away?

The question was less urgent for Grüner Veltliner, because it was already ripening and its thicker skins would better manage the prevailing humidity. Riesling wasn’t there yet. The ancillary varieties (Muscat, Sauvignon, Pinot Blanc, etc.) would have to fend for themselves.

A recipe for a write-off, you may be thinking.

Think again.

2014 is a vintage of (mostly) modest-scale wines that are exceptionally good because they have structure and force.  It was crucial to manage yields, and many growers who didn’t thin during the summer had under ripeness when the botrytis hit. It was also crucial to harvest fastidiously, selecting twice in the vineyard and again on belts and/or sorting tables in the press-house. It was the most expensive and protracted vintage in modern times. If you calculate total cost divided by the amount of useful wine you made, you probably will be losing money on 2014.

A few tasters who saw the wines early, e.g., at Prowein or on private visits to Austria reported very high acids, but I can only assume these folks haven’t spent a lifetime tasting young German Riesling, because the ’14 Austrians have acids somewhere between puddy-tat and cream-puff, though the growers were worried I’d find the wines sour. Not a chance. Whereas most GrüVe in a normal year has acids in the 6.0-6.5g/l range, the ‘14s have 6.4-6.8g/l or so, hardly worth talking about, and very well buffered by abnormally robust extracts.

To be sure, 2014 is a much better vintage for GrüVe than for Riesling, and when I evaluate “the vintage” I’m thinking about GV above all. For Austria’s most important grape, 2014 is a fine to excellent vintage for which no apology needs at all to be made. Rather the opposite: the growers ought to be stoked by the dynamism, torque and energy of (especially) their top wines, the ones that sometimes collapse under their own weight, the bruisers that exceed 14% alc in normal years, and which are absolutely bloody gorgeous in 2014.

The “small” wines, the ones that typically show about 12-12.5% alc are, let’s say, modest but honest in 2014, giving between 11.5-12.0% alc and – most important – showing no flavors of under ripeness or “greenness,” but are simply unassuming little winey-poos that are pleasurable and forgettable. In 2014, it is well worth trading up to the top wines, and cherishing their intense concentrated flavors – mineral, herbs, mint, aloe. I’m not looking for silver linings here; I really like this vintage for Grüner Veltliner, almost as much as I like 2013.

Riesling is a mixed bag. I’d say that “large” (by my mingy standards) wineries with substantial Riesling holdings were most at risk of losing the gamble of waiting to pick. The honorable exceptions are NIGL and BRUNDLMAYER, each of whom made several super-fine Rieslings and no gnarly ones. Interestingly it was the smaller wineries who only have a little Riesling who seem to have made curiously and markedly delicious Rieslings.

I cannot account for the many excellent Gelber Muskatellers I tasted. By all logic these should have been unripe if they even existed at all. In fact many of them were dense and mineral, Muscat for Riesling lovers, and to my surprise I find 2014 better than ’13 for this variety. Yup, I’m saying “Search out Muscats” in 2014.

I’m glad to be able to endorse the best of this vintage, because it looked pretty doubtful going in, and it wasn’t helped when the first grower I visited said it was “a catastrophe, the worst vintage I’ve ever had.”  So, like, sheesh….it would be a long nine days. But I came home happy and relieved.

At least from my place of remove from the actual work of the thing. At least two growers told me “If we have another year like this one, I gotta consider a change of career…” or words to that effect. I show up in May in the full blooming giddy mess of Spring and I sit there and contemplate the aesthetics of the stuff in my glass. I didn’t sweat the blood of the harvest. And then there’s a vicious hailstorm. These people suffer, you know.


Highlights and Superlatives

The winery of the vintage is Bründlmayer by a hair over Schloss Gobelsburg. Taking the entire collections of each estate as a whole, including previous vintages, it’s a dead heat between the two, as Gobelsburg has a marvelous trilogy of 2012 reds that stand as a high-water mark for the estate’s red wines. But our heroes at Bründlmayer have really come on in the past few vintages. Whether this is due to a father-son synergy of Willi and Vincent, a friendly wish to challenge Gobelsburg, or just some harmonic convergence, I couldn’t say. I know I got the charge you get when a wine estate is at the top of its game.

And I have to wonder if I have ever tasted a greater young Austrian Riesling than Willi’s 2013 Heiligenstein Alte Reben. “Profound” can’t encompass the dignity, power and gravitas of that beautiful wine.

The wine of the vintageis Gobelsburg’s Grüner Veltliner Renner. Coming up close behind is Alzinger’s Grüner Veltliner Steinertal Federspiel, and Ott’s Grüner Veltliner “Der Ott.”

The wine of the offering, irrespective of vintage, is clearly the aforementioned Bründlmayer 2013 Riesling Heiligenstein Alte Reben. But here we reach a delightful conundrum, because Gobelsburg’s 2013 Grüner Veltliner “Tradition” may be the best-ever vintage for this most meaningful of wines.

The best Muscat this year is the wonderful Nikolaihof, but only by a jot, as there were almost equally compelling examples from Ecker, Berger and Nigl. 

The great Rosé belongs to Hofer, whose Zweigelt soared above all its colleagues in 2014.

The best weirdoes and sleepers include (in the order I tasted them):
ECKER 2012 St Laurent
NIKOLAIHOF 2012 Riesling Extra Brut (yes! Fizz!)
NIGL 2010 Brut de Brut (addictive sparkler and priced to move)
GLATZER  2014 Grüner Veltliner “Dornenvogel”
SCHROCK 2014 Furmint