Winemaking in countries like Austria, where the weather is dependably undependable, can sometimes be a harrowing endeavor. This came to mind last week when I received a report on the 2016 Austrian grape harvest.
In 2014, when Michelle and I visited Austria’s Wachau Valley during the harvest season, the challenge was rain. Look closely at the accompanying photo, and you’ll see little droplets on the lense, mixed in with the gorgeous buildings and terraced vineyards that line the Danube River.
This year, the problems began in the spring, and now the grape growers and winemakers are praying that more harm isn’t done as picking time nears. Here’s a report from the trade group Austrian Wine USA…
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Viticulture got off to an optimistic start in 2016, with respect to the vegetation period. Unfortunately, overnight freezes from the 26th to the 29th of April brought catastrophic consequences for many farmers in Steiermark and eastern Austria.
Grape growers, too, were badly affected by the frost damage. A relatively early budding was met by unusually heavy night-time frosts, especially in the Steiermark but also in Burgenland and certain regions of Niederösterreich, where devastating damage must be reported. Secondary buds, which subsequently sprouted in the damaged vineyard sites, have naturally shown a very modest fruit set.
A spell of sultry weather during late springtime and the summer months was characterized by high temperatures on the one hand — frequently above the 30° C threshold — but at the same time continuously interrupted by rainfall, heavy at times.
This served to drive the development of vegetation smartly forward in the damaged areas as well as in those that had remained unaffected by hail. Because of this intermittently “tropical” greenhouse climate, winegrowers were challenged in particular to guard against vine diseases such as peronospora and powdery mildew, as well as to keep the rapidly growing green cover underneath the vines in check and effectively address wild growth in the foliage canopies.
Now that the harvest season has drawn closer, a clearer picture has emerged among growers and vintners.
“The frost catastrophe last spring leaves Austrian winegrowers currently facing a diminished vintage in terms of quantity, although there is a good crop of grapes now hanging on the vines in many regions,” said Johannes Schmuckenschlager, President of the Austrian Viticultural Association.
“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. The Steiermark and Südburgenland were hardest hit by the hail, but winegrowing regions around Lake Neusiedl and the northern part of Niederösterreich also reported damage — a total of some 1,200 hectares of vineyards were affected. According to Austrian hail-insurance authorities, the total damage to viticulture alone stands to date at 2.5 million Euros.
“Now, winegrowers are hoping for a dry and pleasant September, so that the remaining grapes can quickly achieve full ripeness while remaining as healthy as possible,” Schmuckenschlager added. “If this happens, we could anticipate another vintage of excellent quality.”
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Wine of good quality — even if in limited quantities — could be the happy ending to this rather sad story. Let’s keep our fingers crossed this month for our winemaking friends in Austria.