Visiting the Austrian wine regions of Kamptal, Krems and Wachau and meeting with winemakers in late May, I sensed both optimism and despair. When I toured the vineyards, the reason for the despair was obvious: Two nights of devastating frost in late April — a record cold snap that also struck Burgundy and Champagne in France and much of Germany’s wine regions — had destroyed 30 to 40 percent of the 2016 crop before it even had a chance. Rows of withered vines alternated with healthy ones, lost potential for a vintage that could still be terrific, if small.
The optimism was in my glass every time I tasted a wine from 2015. Last year’s vintage had also been thinned by about a third, by hail, but otherwise the weather had been perfect. The wines are exceptional, and if you’ve never explored the grüner veltliner and Riesling of Austria, now is the time to do it. These are among the best white wines in the world in terms of value and quality, and they’re enjoying the best vintage in recent memory.
I felt almost guilty raving about the 2015s while my winemaker hosts were mourning the recent frost. “When you lose a third of your crop three years in a row, it’s like losing an entire vintage every three years,” said Fred Loimer. “Hail is a thing of 10 minutes; frost lasts an hour. Botrytis comes at the very end of the season, while poor weather during flowering affects the entire season,” he said, lamenting the litany of travails that have affected the last few vintages in Austria.
His Weingut Loimer produces distinctively delicious biodynamic wines from Kamptal in a brick-lined cellar. An original, much larger cellar was converted to an airplane factory during World War II, hidden in the hillside from Allied bombers.
“Fifteen turns out to be a very nice vintage,” Loimer admits.
Here’s why I love the 2015 Austrian whites: They combine the refreshing acidity and minerality that make grüner veltliner and Riesling such exciting, food-friendly wines with exceptional ripeness, adding fruit flavors and body without excessive alcohol.
That is not to disparage the excellent 2014s from Austria, which can still be found on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists. Those wines are fine, just not as comfortably accessible as the 2015s, and the two vintages make for a fascinating comparison.
“I like the style of the 2014s, as there was more complexity with lower alcohol, but I didn’t like the effort or 40 percent less quantity,” said Martin Mittelbach, winemaker at Tegernseerhof winery in the Wachau region, nestled along the Danube River.
There’s so much to say about this region of Austria, northwest of Vienna. I got a terroir lesson from Johannes Hirsch, who pointed outside his tasting room window at Weingut Hirsch to the Gaisberg and Heiligenstein mountains, explaining their soil differences, which date back eons, and how the sandy loess soils in the saddle between the two mountains influence the flavor of the wines. Higher vineyards with granitic soils favor Riesling, while lower plots with loess topsoils favor grüner veltliner.
Then I toured Heiligenstein with Willi Bründlmayer, whose father had wisely purchased several acres of poor hillside vineyards during the Soviet occupation of the 1950s, when cows were considered more valuable than vineyards, and winegrowers didn’t know whether their lands would be confiscated.
“My mother wanted to take a vacation once a year, but if you have cows, you have to stay home and milk them,” Bründlmayer said. So his father traded livestock for vineyards. Today, Weingut Bründlmayer produces wines of impressive complexity and subtlety.
So it’s easy to be wonky about Austrian wines, but here’s the basic takeaway: The 2015 vintage from Austria makes choosing easy for us. Try anything and everything.