Rotgipfler – Austria’s Mystery Grape

Austria's beautiful Thermenrgion.

Austria’s beautiful Thermenregion.

Whilst enjoying my tour of the beautiful Austrian wine lands the other week I was thrilled to discover a grape variety that was entirely new to me.

I relish discovering new wines and grape varieties as they provide me with the new experiences that expand my knowledge and keep my delight in wine alive. It saddens me that so many wine consumers seem to be happy with drinking a very narrow range of grape varieties and wine styles, so I see it as my duty to highlight wonderful more obscure wines.

Well with only 0.2% of Austria’s plantings, Rotgipfler is pretty obscure. It seems that once upon a time the grape was grown further afield with historical mentions of it in Würrtemberg, Baden and Alsace, but now is only known in Thermenregion to the south of Vienna. As far as I can make out it is indigenous to Thermenregion too, but some evidence suggests that it might have originated in Styria further south.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

What we can be certain of though is that it was created by a spontaneous crossing between Traminer and Roter Veltliner. This might well lead you to imagine that it is related to Austria’s great Grüner Veltliner, especially as Gru-Vee used to be called Weißgipfler / Weissgipfler.

Actually it would appear that there there is no link at all between Grüner Veltliner and Roter Veltliner and just the one parent in common for Grüner Veltliner and Rotgipfler.

Rotgipfler, again despite its name, is a white grape. The rot – red in German – part of its name comes from the red shoots, or the red leaf tips or even leaf veins the plant has at harvest time. Reports vary as to which of these is the actual reason for the red name.

Reading about Rotgipfler sine I got back I am somewhat surprised by the lack of respect it seems to have. Jancis Robinson is pretty damning when she calls it ‘ponderous’ in my ancient copy of Vines, Grapes and Vines, whilst she describes it as ‘the marginally less noble of the two white wine grapes’ (associated with Thermenregion).

Personally that is not how I found it, perhaps things have moved on? I also have no time for the concept of ‘noble’ grapes anymore – after all I was taught that Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo were not noble!

Historically Rotgipfler is most famously used as one half of the blend in the local Thermenregion speciality wine of Gumpoldskirchen. The other half is the equally obscure Zierfandler and the wine originates in the beautiful village of GumpoldskirchenI have yet to taste one, but am looking at a bottle of it on my desk as I write this and will let you know what it’s like soon. 

The beautiful Church in Gumpoldskirchen with Johanneshof Reinisch vineyards all around.

The beautiful Church in Gumpoldskirchen with Johanneshof Reinisch vineyards all around.

I was able to taste some wonderful examples of Zierfandler though and would highly recommend trying one of those- the one from Johanneshof Reinisch was delicious as was Biegler’s and the wonderfully exotic and mandarin-like 1969 Zierfandler from the local co-operative.

Interestingly Zierfandler may be the inadvertent origin of the Zinfandel name as both grapes originate in Croatia and a linguistic mix up may have occurred over the grape’s name.

Hannes Reinisch, winemaker at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Hannes Reinisch, winemaker
at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Weingut Johanneshof Reinisch, Tattendorf, Thermenregion, Niederösterreich2012 Johanneshof Reinisch Rotgipfler
Thermenregion
Austria
This impressive estate has been organic since 2004, but will only be certified so from the 2013 harvest onwards.
The wine has an enticing pale peach skin colour and is wonderfully aromatic and scented without being over the top in any way. There are delicate peach skin and honey notes together with pear and the merest hint of red fruits and spice.
The palate is quite textured and creamy, it is fermented using wild yeasts in stainless steel tank and in large neutral wooden vats, which do not give wood flavour, but can enrich the mouthfeel. This will be further enhanced by the 4 months on the lees. It is medium bodied with a nice feeling of weight, but not heavy. The succulence dominates while a clean cut of apricot and citrus acidity cleans it off and makes it refreshing. There is also a lovely taut seam of something mineral flowing right through it to the long finish. This is delicious, beautifully made and very drinkable and is very user friendly being delicious with almost any food – even spicy – or on its own – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Eclectic Tastes and through Astrum Wine Cellars.
Available in the US through Circo Vino.

Foudres at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Foudres at Johanneshof Reinisch.

The beautiful cellar at Johanneshof Reinisch.

The beautiful cellar at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Heinrich Hartl 111

Heinrich Hartl 111

10-great-wines-0012012 Heinrich Hartl Rotgipfler
Thermenregion
Austria
Heinrich comes from a long line of vignerons and is a terrific winemaker and although I did not taste this in Austria I have had it since – I did try his superb Saint Laurent though and can highly recommend that richly fruity and Burgundy-like wine.

Again the nose is scented and exotic with pear, some light asian spice and honey. The palate is quite creamy – 5 months on the lees here – and peppery with a dash of ginger and cleansing acidity giving a citrus twist and yes it still has that minerality that makes the wine more complex, taut and fine. Another delicious food friendly wine with a delicate touch of the exotic about it – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Merry Widows  and through Waitrose Direct.
Check here for availability in other countries.

I really have come to like Rotgipfler very much indeed. It seems to be delicious and very drinkable and to go perfectly with all manner of foods – or none. I really think it is a grape variety that many of you would enjoy very much if you get the chance to try it, so keep a look out and do give Rotgipfler a go if you can.

Austria part 1: passionate wine makers

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Neusiedlersee from the vineyards.

A little while ago I was lucky enough to have a fabulous trip around most of Austria’s wine regions. I was pretty excited about it as I had long wanted to get a real look at this resurgent wine producing country.

Personally I have always been drawn to the Austrian /  Central European culture and have always enjoyed the food and the beer and liked the look of this part of the world. So, I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with it as well as seeing the wine regions and meeting many of the important winemakers.

For reasons of economy I flew in through Bratislava, which is very close to Vienna and was for hundreds of years the Imperial Austrian city of Pressburg or Preßburg. I didn’t have time for a meal, unusually for me I didn’t have the inclination either as I knew my plans for later that evening in Vienna, so I grabbed a sandwich and a beer at the airport.

I was already somewhere interesting when something as a simple ham and cheese sandwich bore no relation to its counterparts at home. It came on black bread with smoky Black Forest ham, rich cream cheese, loads of pickles and was delicious. The beer too was far better than such a simple thing as a lager would normally be in my life, it had a rich hoppy character and a depth of flavour that would astonish most members of CAMRA.

Arriving in Vienna for the first time in 27 years I strolled around this grand city trying out some of the wonderful coffee houses and cafés for which the place is justly famous. It seemed as though almost every building housed a cake shop – do they really eat that much cake I wondered? Watching the Viennese at play over the course of the evening it seemed that they really did – and later I joined them myself.

Dinner that night was a sort of pilgrimage for me. All my life I have been excited by schnitzels – I know it sounds strange, it even looks odd to me now I have actually typed the words, which is akin to saying them out loud. Hell, it’s cheaper than therapy! I am always drawn to schnitzel on a menu though, even if there is finer fare to be had. I have this theory that schnitzel is the best dish in the world – no not a theory, a belief! So I went to the place where the schnitzel began.

The Wiener Schnitzel is a classic dish, but it seems that no one can actually find much of a history for it. I remember reading that General Joseph Radetzky von Radetz – he of the march / waltz fame – was supposed to have brought it back to Austria after campaigning in Lombardy and Milan. A Milanese Cutlet / Cotoletta alla Milanese is superficially similar and the Austrians were supposed to have refined it by bashing the meat out to tenderise it and make it very thin. Sadly it seems that this is a myth though and no one knows exactly where it came from or when.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller with a €2 piece for comparison.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller alongside a €2 to compare the sizes.

In Vienna there is a restaurant called Figlmüller that not only claims to have invented the schnitzel, but to have done so as recently as 1905. I find that extraordinary as 1905 is only just beyond living memory, my grandfather was 20 and my own parents births were only 22 years away. How can something so famous and so universal be that recent? Anyway I went and had a most excellent Wiener Schnitzel washed down with a rather splendid beer and copious amounts of Grüner Veltliner from the restaurants’ own vineyards.

For desert I visited the Café Sacher inthe world famous Hotel Sacher, which makes probably the most famous chocolate cake in the world. I felt that at least once in my life I should try the original in the actual place that gave the world the sachertorte. The café is rather lovely with genuine old world charm, open till midnight and serves a stunning red Zweigelt Beerenauslese, from Weingut Kracher in Burgenland, which is absolutely perfect with a slice of sachertorte – a better match than coffee actually.

Having immersed myself in the most famous, possibly clichéd, but certainly delicious, aspects of Austria’s gastronomic culture, the next morning I felt ready to explore her wines.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

Touring the Vineyards
The start of my trip was billed as a vineyard rally through Leithaberg and Neusiedlersee. Of course with my new found instant knowledge I knew that Leithaberg was a Districtus Austriae Controllatus / D.A.C wine region near Eisenstadt that covered the lower reaches of the Leithaberg mountain and faced south east towards the beautiful lake called Neusiedlersee.

Despite sounding mysterious, the vineyard rally turned out to be simplicity itself, no hard hat or special training was required. We were taken to two different spots in the surrounding vineyards to meet some winemakers and taste their wines.

Our first stop was right in the middle of the vines with barely a building insight – other than church towers in the far, far distance. The weather was warm with clear blue skies and the spot stunningly beautiful with that feeling of total peace that I associate more with vineyards than anywhere else. Spying a falcon in flight just added to the feeling of being somewhere special.

Leo Sommer

Leo Sommer

Weingut Sommer
There we were met by the impossibly youthful looking Leo Sommer who was representing Weingut Sommer, the winery his family have run since 1698. Leo had set up a tasting for us right where the slope stopped at the foot of a rocky ridge. Looking one way I saw the vineyards sloping gently down towards the lake that shimmered enticingly in the distance. In the other direction the land became much steeper with fewer vineyards.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

The Sommers farm 30 hectares here and they aim to capture the essence of the place in their wines. The summer here is hot and dry, with ripening helped by the warm winds blowing in from Hungary’s Pannonian plain. The nearby lake though manages to temper and balance that heat in the height of summer, while helping to keep the autumn cold at bay during the later part of the ripening season. This is the important Altweibersommer or Indian Summer that allows them to harvest very late in this area.

Looking away from the lake towards the ridge - the van is where we had our tasting.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

A close up of the same scene.

White Leithaberg D.A.C. wines can be made from Pinot Blanc  / Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner or a blend of any of these and we tasted two of the Sommer’s Grüner Veltliners. One had some oak with lees stirring, while the other was all stainless steel, yet they both summed this place up to my mind. To different degrees they both had a richly textured ripeness leading to a taut, stony mineral finish and when looking around this glorious sun drenched landscape with its sandy loam and slate soils, it struck me – this was precisely what these slopes should produce.

In many ways standing here felt as though I was in a little protected pocket by other less forgiving climates – much like Alsace or Central Otago. The more I thought about that when we visited all the different regions the more I realised that is exactly what the Austrian wine regions are – mountains and more extreme weather dominate the rest of the country – we often glimpsed snow-capped ridges , so these places in the far east of Austria are an oasis of temperate growing conditions.

Our next port of call reinforced this view. This time we were nearer the lake, right at the bottom of the gentle slope before the flat land that surrounds the Neusiedlersee and our hosts were Martin Palser and Birgit Braunstein, a married couple who just happen to both be winemakers and each runs their own winery.

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Birgit Braunstein & Martin Palser

Martin Palser 
Down here it seems there is much more limestone and Martin grows Chardonnay on this soil, which makes his take on the Leithaberg D.A.C. very different from Leo Sommer’s wines. His 2011 Chardonnay Reserve impressed me very much with its lovely balance, very Burgundian character and pronounced minerality – I know, I know – and Martin told us that this minerality was the character of the place and was more important than grape variety in his opinion.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

Birgit Braunstein
Then Martin handed over to his wife who presented two red wines made from the region’s signature black grape – Blaufränkisch. Red Leithaberg D.A.C. wines must contain at least 85% of this with up to 15% of St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir. I have enjoyed Blaufränkisch before – even as Lemberger in New York’s Finger Lakes, but none have impressed me quite as much as these two made by Brigit Braunstein. Her 2009 Blaufränkisch Reserve Leithaberg D.A.C. was beautifully fruity and balanced with gorgeously ripe fruit together with elegant spice, the delicious cherry-like acidity that I associate with the grape – and a streak of pure minerality. Somehow the wine managed to keep quiet about the 18 months it had spent in new oak and was superbly integrated.

Standing on their terrace looking across the vineyards to the lake I was struck by the place, conditions and landscape and how they seemed to echo the wines that I had just tasted. The breezes blew the otherwise searing heat away – “air conditioning for the vines” as Martin put it – and these are ripe, cool climate wines. They are keen on biodiversity here and the fields were a colourful riot of cherry trees, wildflowers, grasses and herbs as covercrop between and around the vines, while the sandy loam soil, slate and limestone that it all grows in is key here. The defining characteristic of Leithaberg D.A.C. seems to be the minerality and I felt that it was all around me as well as being in the glass.

All in all it was an excellent beginning to the day, I felt peaceful, invigorated, more experienced and better informed and it wasn’t yet 11 o’clock.

Weingut Birgit Eichinger
Funny things wine trips. You live in close proximity to people you barely see the rest of your life, you lose all track of time and get dragged from one place to the next at breakneck speed with barely a backward glance – until you start writing anyway. You get given far more meals in a day than is strictly required – and sadly get to like them. What does stand out though, what makes all the suffering (really?) worthwhile is when we visit somewhere that touches the heart and a good few of the visits on this Austrian trip did just that, but one of the most memorable was to Weingut Birgit Eichinger.

Brigit Eichinger

Brigit Eichinger

There aren’t many women winemakers in Austria, so Brigit Eichinger is pretty unnusual – strangely the only other one we met was also called Birgit, Birgit Braunstein – what’s more Birgit Eichinger and her builder husband Christian have only been running their estate since 1992 when they started with 3.5 hectares. The winery was built in 1994 and they have been adding vineyards when they can and today they farm some 15 hectares in Strass.

Strass is in Kamptal which in turn is part of Niederösterreich, which is in many ways the heartland of Austrian wine as it includes the famous regions of Wachau, Kremstal and Wagram amongst many others and so certainly defines my view of Austrian wine – the whites anyway.

Site matters here as there is no one single terroir. Many of the vineyards have loess over gravel and loam, but others have sandstone, slate and schist, so as in Alsace matching the grape variety to the site makes real differences to the wine. There is even volcanic rock on the Heiligenstein slope from where Birgit produces a stunning, spicy, pure and intensely mineral Riesling.

To qualify as Kamptal D.A.C. a wine must be made from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, so Birgit’s deliciously floral and exotic Roter Veltliner – also known as the Roter Muskateller and no relation to Grüner at all – and her Chardonnay are simply labelled as coming from the wider area of Niederösterreich.

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The landscape here is spectacularly beautiful – actually everywhere we went was – with the terraced vineyards cascading down the slopes towards the small town of Strass where Birgit’s winery sits at the foot of the Gaisberg slope.

All the wines were superb and I know that many of us would have purchased a few bottles if we had had the space in our luggage. The Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in particular showed their class with a concentration and yet lightness of touch that gave them a feeling of tension and sophistication that certainly brought a smile to my face.

Birgit’s beautiful wines are available in the UK from John Armit Wines and in the US through Weygandt-Metzler Importing for other teritories check here.

The whole trip was a delight – apart from being locked out of my hotel room and two of my colleagues missing their flights – and my enthusiasm for the country and its wines has been totally rekindled. I will write about some of the other places I visited and wines I tasted in Austria soon.

If Austrian wines have passed you by then you really do owe it to yourself to give them a go. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had by exploring the wines of Austria.

Gru-Vee Baby – or Grüner Veltliner conquers the world


Beautiful Wachau Vineyards

Sadly I have yet to visit Austria’s vineyards, but I greatly admire the wines they produce and what I have seen of Austria appeals to me immensely.

I am especially drawn to Austria’s signature grape – Grüner Veltliner. Some of you will know that I am keen for people to drink a wider spread of grape varieties than the normal small group of suspects, so I am excited that Grüner is starting to break through in the UK. Apparently it has become so popular in the United States that the trendy set over there call it ‘Grü-Vee’ – strangely predictive text makes it more time consuming to type or text Grü-Vee than to actually give the grape it’s proper name.

In her book Vines, Grapes and Wines, Jancis Robinson states; Grüner Veltliner ‘produces wines that are almost always good, but never great. It is incapable of not giving great pleasure and delight, but would never warrant intellectual study. Producing a wine for quaffers rather than connoisseurs.’

I sort of know what Jancis meant, the grape does produce a type of wine that is easy to enjoy, it can be very direct and pleasurable and for me this puts it on my list of the white grapes whose time has come – indeed in many ways it is the standard bearer of these grapes. I really do think that the quality of most wines has improved since Vines, Grapes and Wines was published in 1986 as growing techniques and winemaking skills have developed and this is especially obvious in fresh, dry white wines.

I could list a huge array of white wines that have improved beyond all recognition during my time in the wine trade, chief amongst them would be the wonderful whites of Galicia in Spain, Italy’s Verdicchio, Friuli and modern German wines as well as the seldom seen wines of Slovenia, Jura, Savoie, Luxembourg and the French Moselle region. I could also add Switzerland and the Alto-Adige in northern Italy to the list for good measure, but it is Austria’s Grüner Veltliner that is starting to enjoy real success and is hopefully breaching the walls of the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio obsessed wine market.

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