The Habsburgs’ White Wines

Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, not Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, were the local whites that flowed into the Habsburgs’ crystal. These largely off-the-radar white varieties hail from a thermal region, also known for its spas, just south of Vienna. Today, without traffic (that can be tricky), it’s only half an hour’s drive due south to Thermenregion from the Imperial Apartments in Vienna’s center.

The Cistercians, having learned a few things about producing fine wine in Burgundy, established Austria’s oldest surviving winery, Thallern, in Thermenregion in 1141. Like Burgundy, this region sits on the 47th parallel.

Thermenregion is the exclusive home of Rotgipfler and Zierfandler. In both 1999 and 2009, these grapes each represented a mere 0.2% of Austria’s planted vineyards according to Wines of Austria. With so little is produced, it may take some searching to find these wines, but you will be amply rewarded when you find them.

In New York, I’ve become familiar with the Stadlmann wines over the last six or seven years. Having appreciated them very much, I visited the son, Bernhard, in Traiskirchen last October. Then, last week, I spent an evening in Thermenregion at the Reinisch heuriger tasting the wines from a broad selection of the region’s producers. Here are my notes on the Rotgipfler, Zierfandler and one blend of the two that were open that night.

Other than gaining a broader view on these varieties from this visit, I also learned I must seek out old Rotgipfler. When well made and from a top vintage, the variety is set to age for 20-25 years. And, apparently, the 1957s and 1961s have been showing brilliantly.

95 Stadlmann 2006 Zierfandler Mandel-Höh 13.5%
This wine shows its warm vintage in its expansive palate and chewy density. In its seventh year, it’s offering attractive fusel aromatics along with its last remnants of primary fruit, which surface now as cherries and lychees. The yeastiness from the sur lie aging (no battonage here) is beginning to dominate the wine’s expression. The mid-palate is plump, the acidity is supporting and the mouthfeel is supple. The long, layered finish provides final proof this is a very fine wine, indeed. 

92 Alphart 2011 Rotgipfler Top Selection Rodauner 14.5%
Supple on the palate with medium acidity rounding out the wine. Muskmelon, kumquat and mandarin orange reverberate across the palate, all underscored by bread crust flavors. The lingering finish suggests this has legs. Hopefully the acidity will hold up.

92 Reinisch 2010 Zierfandler Spiegel 13.5%
This exotic-smelling wine was vinified in large barrels. Roasted apricots, mango, cilantro and baking spices gush from the glass. Regular battonage super-charged the body. While there is substantial weight, there is no heaviness. It finishes medium with nice streaks of minerality.

91 Alphart 2012 Rotgipfler vom Berg 13.5%
Zesty with grapefruit peel and lemon pith, this wine is freshly bottled. Despite the light touch of glycerol and medium body, the bracing acidity gives this wine a very linear feel on the palate. Should drink well through 2016 but hard to resist now.

91 Aumann 2011 Rotgipfler Wiege 14.5%
Intensely spicy, an array of white pepper, fresh ginger, cilantro and mint invigorate the nose of this clean and pretty wine so much that it bore some resemblance to Grüner Veltliner. With such light and fresh aromas, the weighty body and its noticeable glycerol came as a surprise. However, there was plenty of acidic pep to provide balance.

90 Biegler 2011 Rotgipfler Ried Brindlbach 13.5%
Almost searingly lean, this bottling shows an impressive concentration of slate and mineral notes. Chiseled acidity, taut body and excellent freshness. Extremely pure yet subtle fruit flavors of Bartlett pears and honeydew melon shine. 

90 Stadlmann 2011 Rotgipfler Tagelsteiner 13.5%
The Tagelsteiner is a high, 30-year old vineyard. From the engaging nose to the long finish, it’s immediately evident this is a serious wine. Under the lively soft-stemmed herb and yuzu leaf top notes, there was a very prominent leesy, cheesy note in the wine (two bottles tasted) that makes it seem advanced for its age. Perhaps the wine wasn’t showing its best. Still, what it showed was classy.

90 Thallern 2011 Rotgipfler Reserve Student 13.5%
From one of the region’s premium sites, Student, this wine shows plenty of earthiness and flint. Citrus fruit is prominent, especially lemon peel, but there is also a flaky, baked piecrust element. Medium bodied yet showing less flesh than most of the others on the table.

89 Alphart 2008 Rotgipfler Top Selection Rodauner 14%
Now early in its fifth year, this wine still shows some juicy youthfulness on the palate. However, its flavors are quite evolved, tasting of water crackers, blanched almonds and bread dough. There’s ample acidity and concentration to keep this wine going for a while, but it’s hard to say if it will develop well. 

89 Aumann 2011 Zierfandler 13.5%
This tank fermented Zierfandler is vivacious, mineral and clean. Parsley, fennel, passion fruit and guava make an appearance. An excellent value, but for now, you’ll have to lug it all the way home from the mother country or specialty stores in Germany.

89 Fischer 2011 Rotgipfler Premium 13%
This wine shows Rotgipfler can offer serious diversity in style. Exotically spiced and generously ripe, the palate abounds with flavors of golden apple and baked quince. Lees stirring contributed the rich and lightly oily mouthfeel, seemingly emphasized by the very moderate acidity. Strains of cream and butter run from the nose straight through to the moderate finish.

89 Thallern 2009 Wiege (Zierfandler-Rotgipfler) 14.5%
This is a generous wine with moderate glycerol and full body. It’s 14.5%, but the abv is artfully integrated thanks to the well-developed range of flavors, the layered minerality, the waxy texture and the lifting acidity. Focused on subtle, non-fruit flavors including hay, celery, almond and lentil that carry through the medium finish.