When Johannes Gebeshuber purchased a failing cooperative winery in the heart of Austria’s Thermenregion, his spoils didn’t just include 25 hectares of old vines and a beautiful vaulted cellar. He also became the guardian of an extraordinary wine library, with bottles produced by the Gumpoldskirchenergenossenschaft going back to 1948.
Johannes is a generous sort of chap, as on the occasion of his 50th birthday he invited a small group of journalists to the winery (now renamed Gebeshuber) to sample the estate’s Zierfandler from the modern era right back to that distant postwar vintage.
At this point, hail Mary, a confession. I gladly accepted the invitation, despite being a Zierfandler-hater. One of Thermenregion’s two indigenous white varieties (the other is Rotgipfler), Zierfandler tends to high or very high alcohol (no-one bats an eyelid at 14.5% ABV), and typically offers a profusion of buttery, overbearing tropical fruit flavours. Coupled with the tendency of some producers to smother it in oak, the resulting confection can be extremely heavy and lacking in anything resembling finesse or balance. Growers talk about Zierfandler’s excellent acidity, but this seems overly generous to me. The equivalent of a few car batteries would be necessary to slice through its corpulent physique.
Still, I was prepared to have my eyes opened. And they were prised wider than the girth of the most opulent Gumpoldskirchener.
The village of Gumpoldskirchen gave its name to the region’s most classic wine, which is typically a blend of Zierfandler and Rotgipfler (the latter mildly more restrained than its bigger boned brother). Our tasting focused however on 100% Zierfandler (or “Spätrot” to give it its local alias) as much as possible, as my bête noire is Johannes’ passion.
Modern Zierfandler is typically made as a dry wine (albeit barely clinging to the dry category, as five grams or more of residual sugar is common), but just after WWII it was almost invariably sweet. Johannes offered a simple explanation: “People were sick of being hungry after the war – sweet wines were seen as food, not just as a drink”.
A trio of the oldest vintages started on a very high note. The 1948 Zierfandler Auslese Trocken (theoretically) offered up delicious hints of bitter orange marmalade, sultanas and baked apple, with clear signs of maturity but no loss of freshness. A 1952 Zierfandler Spätlese Goldknopferl blew the 1948 out of the water, with a beautiful combination of candied citrus peel and honeyed sweetness, while 1954 Zierfandler Rasslerin added ripe Guava to the fruit panopoly, and despite its waxy nose also displayed amazing drive and vigour.
Clearly I’d missed a trick with Zierfandler. It could be wonderful given 70 years of ageing, and some baked in residual sugar. Alcohol levels were not stated for these wines, but it is unlikely they stretch beyond 12%
The surprises continued with a 1958 Zierfandler Spätlese Königswein, initially seeming over the hill on the nose, but wonder of wonders, gradually opening to reveal the variety’s ripe tropical fruit character.
Vintages from the 1960s and 70s were more muted, perhaps as suggested by Johannes due to higher vineyard yields common at the time – and I’d wager, the introduction of more interventionist technology and selected yeasts at the coop. Still, a 1978 Zierfandler/Neuberger Auslese showed a return to the glories of the past, rather evolved on the nose but wonderfully fresh on the palate. The 1984 Zierfandler Grimling Spätlese was one of the top wines of the day, with unctuous creamy fruit, yet beautiful honeyed acidity providing poise and electricity.
Johannes also showed a selection of vintages made after his acquisition of the winery. And this was where I started to panic. Surely now the heavy-handed Zierfandler would make itself known, thanks to modern winemaking, later harvests and global warming.
A 2004 Zierfandler Modler, Johannes’s first bottled vintage, assuaged my fears. Dominated by papaya and honeydew melon, it nonetheless had perfect balance and very well integrated oak (tonno, and 100% new in this vintage).
The 2010 Zierfandler Modler was the first wine in the tasting which reminded me of Zierfandler’s less likeable side – big, blowsy, supercharged and tropical, it didn’t have the charm or the maturity of its older siblings.
2011 impressed with delicate nuances, while 2012 (a hotter vintage) felt overly mature and borderline oxidised. 2013 showed more oak influence, but also more freshness and refinement. 2015 and 2016 felt dominated by high alcohol and lacking in finesse. The message was clear – Zierfandler does not calm down until it is out of nappies.
Johannes is certainly giving his Zierfandler the best possible chance to express itself. He’s converted the estate to biodynamic viticulture, with Demeter certification from the 2017 vintage. Fermentation is spontaneous (with wild yeasts) and any other interventions are made with a very light hand. Sulphur levels are low enough that the bottles could be shown at a natural wine fair. The whole operation is admirable, and the results consistently show varietal purity and intent.
Even if young Zierfandler still leaves me a little cold, Gebeshuber has convinced me that it’s a noble variety, able to achieve truly exceptional results provided that one has patience. Assuming that cryogenics advances swiftly enough, I’m looking forward to trying that 2010 again in 2080. I’m quite sure it will be transformative.