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A year in the life of an Austrian winegrower

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The diary of 12 months living with and for the vines

‘Living with the vines’ is the Austrian winegrowers’ motto – behind every bottle of wine lie months of work and countless manual operations. Year in and year out, winegrowers passionately devote themselves to this ongoing challenge – from pruning to harvest, from pressing the grapes to pouring their wines in the Heurige or Buschenschank (local wine taverns). The result of their labour is a unique product of unparalleled cultural value: wine from Austria.

Winter pruning – January and February 

While the vineyard is enjoying the winter sleep, the winegrowers get to work on pruning the vines, the annual cutting back of last year’s (and sometimes multiple years’) wood. Winter pruning is the first vital step to ensure the quality of the grapes in the autumn. The fruiting arms are cut back to a specific length, i.e. with a specific number of buds from which the new shoots will grow. For this, the winegrowers consider each vine individually, because no two plants are exactly the same. The vigour, age and health of the plant determine where the cut should be made and what yield can be expected as a result. Pruning usually starts in January and continues over several weeks into February.

In the cellar – January and February

There is also work to be done in the cellar in the first two months of the year. In order to keep the barrels full to the brim, winemakers need to top them up and make up for the volume lost to evaporation. Repeated tasting of each vessel is done to check the quality of the wine, its evolution and determine the precise composition required, later on, for a final blend. Certain wines are drawn off the yeast at this early stage and prepared for bottling.

Focus on the vineyard – March and April

Spring is the time to carry out the necessary improvements or repairs to the wire trellises and posts, plant new vineyards and replace dead vines.

The vegetation period begins at the end of March. Vine roots become active taking up water from the soil and causing the plants to ‘bleed’ as sap starts to seep from the cuts in the fruiting arms. Ideally, this is when the initial training is done because when the sap is flowing it is easier to bend the arms and fix them to the wire without breakage (which might happen when the wood is too dry). Training ensures even budding and a good distribution of shoots.

Now is also time to start cultivating the soil, breaking it up, loosening it and sowing plant material along the rows, between the vines. If necessary, fertiliser is applied. Eventually, rows with vegetation are mulched, i.e. after mowing, the grasses and herbs are left where they fell, protecting and adding nutrients to the soil.

Budding finally begins in April. The buds break and the green tips of the shoots emerge. This is the time when every winegrower dreads late frosts, which could damage the young, sensitive shoots. They employ a variety of methods to protect the vineyards from frost damage. If temperatures drop only slightly below zero,

Smoking, where winegrowers set fire to bales of straw in the vineyard, is an effective technique if temperatures drop only slightly below zero. The smoke prevents heat loss overnight and ensures that the shoots warm up gradually once the sun rises. Another way of shielding plants from frost is sprinkling: the sensitive parts of the vine are covered with water, which then releases heat as it freezes. Other, alternative measures are the use of helicopters to stir up the cold and warmer air or lighting “frost candles” to increase the air temperature within the vineyards’ perimeter.

Bottling and networking – March and April

In the cellar there is also work to be done. The Klassik lines, Gebietsweine (regional wines) and other fresh, fruity early-drinking wines are bottled, labelled and prepared for sale and shipping.

At this time of year, winegrowers nurture their business relationships, taking part in trade fairs, industry events and visiting export markets.

Canopy management – May and June

This is a period of vigorous growth in the vineyard, which means intense canopy management, which is a decisive factor in the subsequent quality of the grapes and wine. Suckers (shoots) on the stem and duplicate, stunted or superfluous young shoots are removed. This process – referred to as Ausbrechen, or ‘breaking off’ – optimises the number and distribution of bunches on the vine. The aim is to create a well-ventilated canopy, while also regulating the yield. This is followed by tying the remaining shoots to the wire trellis.

Cultivating the soil beneath the vines is also necessary, as well as further measures to protect the plants from multiple weather hazards and fungal diseases.

Flowering starts towards the end of May – the precise timing depends on the grape variety, location and weather. The ideal conditions for this are warm, dry weather. By June, the flowers are gone and have given place to berries. Unfavourable weather conditions during this phase can result in coulure or ‘shatter’, where blossoms or tiny berries fall off, resulting in a tangible loss of yield.

Another phase of intensive canopy management, carried out manually, follows. Some leaves around the bunches are removed in order to create optimal light and aeration conditions for the grapes to ripen, a process called leaf thinning.

Hospitality resumes – May and June

Wines from the previous vintage that have been ageing longer in the cellar are often released in May. Cellar-door sales, along with other hospitality and education activities, makes the bustling early summer period even busier. Traditional Heurige and Buschenschanken (wine taverns), on site accommodation and a myriad of wine tasting opportunities are just some of the ways in which producers can welcome visitors to their properties.

Tipping and Thinning – July and August

The canopy still needs care and attention during the summer. The long shoots are given a summer trim in what is called ‘tipping’.

Excess bunches are also removed (green harvest) in order to improve the quality of the remaining fruit. Removing leaves and suckers in the fruiting zone ensures good aeration. This enables the grapes to dry off quickly if it rains, reducing the risk of fungal diseases. The key, as always, is to maintain the right balance. If too many leaves are removed, the grapes are exposed to the harsh sun and could get burnt, which could result in bitter notes and harsh tannins on the final wine.

Veraison follows, with the grapes changing colour and becoming increasingly sweet and soft.

Harvest preparation – July and August

Before harvest begins, Riedenweine (single-vineyard wines) from the previous vintage are often bottled.

Preparations for harvest then begin in earnest: the press, baskets, destemmer, fermentation tanks etc. are cleaned and readied. In the vineyards, the winegrowers monitor how ripening is progressing by checking the must weight and pH value, and constantly tasting the berries in order to ascertain the ideal harvest time. As the sugar content in the berries increases, acidity decreases. Achieving the perfect balance is critical for the subsequent quality of the wines, which are typically characterised by their freshness, but also by their intensity and complexity.

Harvest – September and October

Harvest time has arrived!  As in most wine regions, grape harvest in Austria is generally happening earlier every year due to climate change. Early ripening varieties are often ready to pick by the middle of August. Still, the main harvest starts in September and usually lasts several weeks. During this exhausting, but supremely beautiful, time of the year, winegrowers work around the clock. They hope for dry, stable weather so that the harvest can be brought in quickly and smoothly.

Pressing and Fermentation – September and October

Grape processing gets underway in the cellar. White wine varieties are pressed immediately (whole-bunch pressing) or separated from the stems (destemming) and then pressed, separating the juice from the skins, stems and pips. Depending on the winegrower’s philosophy and preferred approach, the alcoholic fermentation starts either spontaneously, relying on natural yeasts, or triggered by commercial selected yeasts.

Red wine grapes undergo alcoholic fermentation in contact with the skins and sometimes the stems. It is the contact of the fermenting must with the skins, pips and stems that gives red wine its colour and tannins. To facilitate better extraction of these components, the cap (floating skins, pips, stamps and dead yeast) that emerges as a result of the fermentation process is punched down more or less frequently.

Wine maturation – November and December

In November, peace descends upon the vineyards. In preparation for the dormant winter period vines are storing up nutrients for the next growing season. The winemaker is entirely focused on the work in the cellar. A given time after fermentation is complete – shorter or longer depending on the wine style and winemaking approach – the wines are drawn off, separated from the sediments and transferred into barrels, tanks or other containers for ageing (they can however also be aged in contact with the sediments). They are left to develop, with the winegrower intervening more or less frequently depending on the desired result.

Festive season – November and December

With the Christmas season just around the corner the work primarily revolves around selling and delivering wine.

Eiswein harvest – November and December

If temperatures drop low enough (to -7°C and below) the year may well close with an Eiswein (ice wine) harvest. However, temperatures often do not reach the necessary minimum until January or February.

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