Austria 2006: A Legend in the Making?

Posted by CrushWine

(Click here to purchase any of the 2006 Austrian wines discussed in this article.)

You heard it here first: The best values in serious white wines from $15 to $50 are the stellar 2006s from Austria which are arriving stateside throughout the summer and fall.

Make no mistake: You will be hearing a lot about the 2006 vintage in Austria. There's already plenty of buzz that this is probably the best vintage since 1997. In regions like the Kamptal, there are rumblings of "vintage of the century." While it may be a touch premature to make such pronouncements, the truth is that after tasting some 150+ different 2006s from all over Austria, we are obsessed.

This is a vintage with everything, from crisp everyday sippers to rich, hauntingly deep terroir-driven whites (largely Gruner Veltliners and dry Rieslings). What nature gave Germany in 2005, it bestowed on Austria for 2006. At their best, the 06 Austrians provide intense concentration and extract with a balancing acidity and a devastating minerality.

Interestingly, many of the wines that really dazzled us were at the lower price points - bottles at the $15-$20 range deliver so much personality and terroir. (That said, many of Austria's heavy-hitters, like Hirtzberger, Knoll, the Pichlers and Prager, have yet to offer many of their wines.)

The quality of the vintage has pushed many "lesser" wines up a notch - to the next level of quality and intensity - while avoiding the pitfalls of clumsy overripeness.

That's what is so captivating about these wines - while the luscious fruit means these grapes enjoyed plenty of good sun, the superb, ultra-clean minerality reminds one that the best vines had their roots planted firmly, and deeply, into the rocky soils.

The uber-level of ripeness seems the only stumbling block for a few wines; they showed a creamy lanolin-like texture, lower levels of acidity and, sometimes, alcohol that overwhelmed the classic varietal characteristics and heart-breaking purity of the most successful bottlings.

But, have no fear - through tireless tasting we've picked out the best - and the good wines are truly outstanding.

These are wines that deserve to be on everyone's dinner table - not to mention in everyone's cellar - and so we've put together a short list of many of the 2006 Austrian "legends of the future."

The Vintage

The Austrians experienced excellent growing conditions in 2006 which produced exceptionally ripe grapes. The year was hot, and while the grapes reached record sugar levels, extreme shifts in the weather (from hot to cold and vice-versa) also acted to keep acidity levels high. Yes, this is the magic combination. The rather extreme temperatures aside, and some problems with an irregular fruit set early in the year (which really only thinned down the quantity, if anything improving the quality!), Austrian winemakers had an easier time than their German neighbors. While the Germans were hiring additional pickers (in some cases twice the normal amount) in their race against botrytis and freakish sugar levels, Austrian winemakers were able to pick at a studied pace and even take Sundays off. Most noteworthy, there was almost no botrytis - an important factor in producing clean, balanced, terroir-oriented dry wines.

The plentiful sun and completeness of the 2006 vintage has produced stunning wines at almost every price-point - this is one reason we're so convinced this vintage offers something for everyone. Truth be told, many of the wines that really dazzled us were at the lower price points - bottles at the $15-$20 range deliver so much personality and terroir. (That said, many of Austria's heavy-hitters, like Hirtzberger, Knoll, the Pichlers and Prager, have yet to offer many of their wines.) What seems to have happened is the ripeness of the vintage pushed many "lesser" wines up a notch - to the next level of quality and intensity - while avoiding the overripeness that some wines suffered from.

In fact, the uber-level of ripeness maybe the only stumbling block for this vintage. In some cases it seemed the grapes were probably just too ripe; these wines showed a creamy lanolin-like texture, lower levels of acidity and a fiercely protruding alcohol that overwhelmed the classic varietal characteristics and heart-breaking purity of the most successful wines.

With this one caveat, our excitement for the wines has remained unchecked - the good wines are really that good.

The Wines

Salomon (Kremstal)

We'll start with Salomon (totally out of alphabetical order!) because there is just no denying the fact that Salomon's wines - nearly the entire lineup - made our heads spin. At one of the Austrian preview tastings, this is the table where Joe and I looked at each other and we both knew it: Austria nailed it perfectly in 2006. To this point, we have probably tasted no better expressions of 2006 than those crafted by Bertold Salomon and family.

With steeply terraced vineyards, Salomon is quickly becoming one of the leading lights of this Austrian region and their wines are not to be missed. I don't know that I've yet had any other Austrian 2006s that are so fiercely terroir-driven. They are dense, stony, yet very elegant. I can't speak for Joe, but I will have a lot of these wines in my cellar.

Riesling "Kogl"
Salomon's Rieslings are out-of-control gorgeous in 2006; the best may very well begin to challenge the great dry Rieslings of Germany. The Kogl shows rich soft fruits spread out over a long and sensuous midpalate; in spite of this generosity, the wine is still wrapped and lined with minerals, like a Baroque room wallpapered with limestone.
Crush Bottle Price: $24.99

Riesling "Pfaffenberg"
The Pfaffenberg vineyard borders Austria's famed Wachau, and the wine has slightly more weight and drive than the Kogl, with a whole spectrum of stone fruits, a delicate oiliness and a beautifully clean ocean-water element. Where the Kogl is softer and luscious, the Pfaffenberg is incredibly powerful and very finessed. Top-level Austrian Riesling that will age well in the cellar.
Crush Bottle Price: $28.99

Gruner Veltliner "Von Stein" Reserve
Salomon's "Von Stein" Reserve does its name proud (it translates to, roughly, "from stone"), with a quarry's worth of minerality (I mean, rocks and rocks and rocks), gorgeously ripe citrus and melon fruit, soft spices and herbs, flowers... the list goes on and on. This wine proudly wields a crystal clear acidity and a persistence that has got to be pushing the two-minute mark. Definitely young and tightly wound at the moment, when this wine finally loosens up a bit, watch out.
Crush Bottle Price: $46.99

Riesling "Kogl" Reserve
Salomon's masterpiece in Riesling. With grapes picked about two-weeks later than the regular Kogl, this wine has the ripeness level akin to a Spatlese or Smaragd. In a line-up of wines that were intensely concentrated, this wine took it to the next level and was nearly devastating in its purity. Just utterly amazing concentration and density, with a mile-long midpalate of slick, wet stone and still very classy - graceful on its feet with laser-beam focus. A wine to stock-up on for dry Riesling fanatics; for those who aren't, buy one and you will become a dry Riesling fanatic.
Crush Bottle Price: $48.99

Hiedler (Kamptal)

Riesling "Heiligenstein"
Hiedler's style is very unique - generous and exuberantly fruit-forward, with a punchy soft focus yet still balanced and with a good spine of minerality. A sort of dazzling contradiction of a wine, with rich fruit and an expressive florality that's all held in check by a vibrant mineral tang and soft bittersweet herbal quality. Lovely, lovely Riesling.
Crush Bottle Price: $46.99

Hirsch (Kamptal)

Gruner Veltliner "Heiligenstein"
This is an estate that's flirting with greatness; surely they're one of the premier producers in the Kamptal. Their Gruner from the Heiligenstein vineyard is an absolute classic - a wine splashed with ripe yellow fruits, citrus skins, tons of white flowers and that Austrian alpine minerality. A really impressively structured wine with a driving acidity. Can I write it again? An absolute classic.
Crush Bottle Price: $24.99

Hofer (Weinviertel)

Gruner Veltliner "Freiberg"
The Weinviertel strikes again. Yes, this up-and-coming region is producing some wines of incredible value. The Hofer is quite possibly the value of the vintage, with an unbelievable concentration and classic "Weinviertel Gruner" characteristics - beautiful yellow fruit and citrus wrapped in intense notes of white pepper, herbs and forest floor. Amazing. If you can buy a truck-load of this, you should - it's that good. Maybe better.
Crush Bottle Price: $19.99

Mauer (Weinviertel)

Gruner Veltliner "Urkristal"
Another Weinviertel classic. We featured the 2004 in a past email and so many people who bought 6 or 12 soon came back asking for more. Unfortunately, there was none left. We haven't tasted the 2006 yet, though the importer has already reserved us as much as they can. If the 2004 was exuberant and definitely one of the most complex Gruners we've tasted, the 2006 should take it to the next level. I'm already looking forward to September for two reasons: 1) A break from the oppressive summer heat and 2) to taste this wine.
Crush Bottle Price: $29.99

Nikolaihof (Wachau)

Gruner Veltliner "Im Weingebirge" Federspiel
If all the masters of the Wachau are going to put out wines like this, watch out when the other big-boys start landing. Wow. Nikolaihof made a masterful Federspiel that is definitively 2006. This is a wine of considerable richness with a texture that is compelling yet driven with precision by that Austrian make-your-heart-melt-it's-so-beautiful acidity. While the wine is definitely in its youthful state, give it some time to breathe and this will wow any dinner table.
Crush Bottle Price: $33.99

Gruner Veltliner "Im Weingebirge" Smaragd
Haven't had enough? Same grape, same vineyard - just one notch up on the ripeness level. This is one of the Smaragds that we thought worked in this big vintage. Make no mistake, this is a massive freight train of a Gruner, but it is power and depth with a sturdy architecture and an acidity that I believe will in the long run balance out the ripe, deep fruit. Even though the wine was very closed when we tasted it last month, you do get a sense that this bottle has a super-saturated density and some very serious stuffing. Lots of spice and rich earth - a Gruner to put down for a few years.
Crush Bottle Price: $61.99

Rudi Pichler (Wachau)

Gruner Veltliner "Wachauer" Federspiel
One of the first wines to be released by Rudi Pichler, a distant cousin of F.X. Pichler. The "Wachauer" bottlings are his entry-level wines, sourced from numerous sites within the Wachau. Rudi Pichler is certainly one of Austria's greats, and while we haven't had the pleasure of tasting this wine yet, frankly, we can't wait. All of Rudi's wines are very allocated so we do not have much to offer. Pichler fans - buy now!
Crush Bottle Price: $29.99

Setzer (Weinviertel)

The Setzer's farm some unique terroir in the Weinviertel - further to the south than most and just to the east of the Kamptal. Definitely an estate to watch, with some pretty amazing wines - more proof that the Weinviertel shelters some serious winemakers.

Gruner Veltliner "8000"
The 8000 in the name of this wine references the vineyard's density - there are 8000 vines per hectare. For those not fluent in typical vineyard densities, just know that is very dense indeed. The density translates into a big Gruner - lots of yellow fruit, some citrus, brown spice a touch of white pepper. Very clean, very linear and very long.
Crush Bottle Price: $39.99

Stadt Krems (Kremstal)

Grüner Veltliner "Sangrube"
Last but absolutely not least (except in price). Just a delightful wine with the concentration of a $20-$25 wine - never mind that we can deliver it to you at a super compelling price. An utterly charming Gruner - light, crisp, exceedingly clean and fresh. We think the 2006s from Kremstal are very compelling wines.
Crush Bottle Price: $18.99