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Mysterious, capricious, neglected for decades: Roter Veltliner is a rare, old-Austrian speciality that has been on the upswing again for a few years. It had almost disappeared in Austria for a long time - but the trend towards autochthonous varieties has aroused new interest among winemakers. Daniela Dejnega describes the current development, Marcus Hofschuster has tasted the wines.

The name of the Roter Veltliner suggests otherwise. But we are dealing with a white wine variety that is not related to Grüner Veltliner. The fact that the berry skins turn bright red when the grapes are fully ripe is one of the special characteristics of the variety. Roter Veltliner is considered the oldest autochthonous grape variety in Austria.

ÖWM / Anna Stöcher

Enigmatic original grape

Along with Traminer and Heunisch, Roter Veltliner is one of the original Central European varieties, even if it is only of regional importance. It almost certainly came to Austria from northern Italy with the Romans, but its genetic origins remain an unsolved mystery to this day. In the genetics of other varieties, however, Roter Veltliner plays a major role. In Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, but also in Neuburger and Frühroter Veltliner, it has been proven to be a parent.

Red Veltliner experienced its heyday under the Habsburgs, where it found a home in all the wine-growing regions of the Austrian monarchy. Even today, a few vineyards planted with Red Veltliner in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia bear witness to this. In the second half of the 20th century, its cultivation area in Austria shrank to less than 200 hectares. It was not until the 2000s that some winegrowers hesitantly began planting it again. Roter Veltliner vineyards are now scattered throughout Lower Austria - especially on the Wagram, the variety's parade ground, but also in the Weinviertel, the Kremstal and sporadically in the Kamptal.

Late ripening, sensitive and labour-intensive

In general, Roter Veltliner prefers warm sites, it ripens late and its yield fluctuates. In addition, its grapes are usually very compact and sensitive to botrytis. There is a great danger that the berries will burst open in autumn and that rot will spread rapidly. Due to the vigour of the vines, the amount of work in the vineyard is enormous, intensive foliage work and yield regulation are necessary. Winegrowers like to call the Red Veltliner "Diva". Its shoots tend to attach poorly to the wire frame, which is why more wire pairs are needed than usual and knitting in is a laborious affair.

For all these reasons, within a few decades Red Veltliner disappeared from most vineyards in favour of lower-maintenance varieties such as Grüner Veltliner. Only a few winegrowers held on to it tirelessly, for example the Mantlerhof winery in Kremstal. Red Veltliner has always been of great importance to the winery. Junior boss Josef Mantler tells us with a certain pride: "When hardly anyone cultivated Red Veltliner any more, my grandfather continued to hold on to it. My father then made it known as a varietal speciality in Austria and internationally."

The Mantlerhof belongs to an association of ten organic wineries that want to draw more attention to Roter Veltliner again by joining forces. They founded the Slow Food community "Roter Veltliner Donauterrassen" and put a lot of energy into researching and developing the variety. This brought them recognition as a "Slow Food Presidio Project" in 2020. In order to make the autochthonous grape variety even fitter for the future, the winegrowers select and propagate particularly vigorous vines in their vineyards. In this way, Roter Veltliner is to become more independent of weather influences, global warming and the intervention of the winegrowers. The goal is to collect knowledge, share it and pass it on to the next generation.

Climate Crisis Winner?

Roter Veltliner is happy about a lot of warmth. That is an understatement: It also tolerates great heat and drought excellently. The reddish-coloured, rather thick berry skins protect the late-ripening variety from sunburn. Thus, it is seen by some as a beacon of hope in times of climate crisis. The grape variety likes nutrient-rich loess soils, as they are typical on the Wagram, but also does well on well-drained, sandy to gravelly subsoil. And it is precisely on the poor soils that naturally slow down its lush growth that Roter Veltliner produces very exciting wines. Toni Söllner from Gösing am Wagram, who has also chosen the Red Veltliner as his favourite variety and now cultivates two and a half hectares again, confirms: "Deep and at the same time light-footed wines tend to come from the gravelly soils, as they offer the vines much less nutrients than the fertile loess."

Keeping the balance?

By nature, Roter Veltliner tends to be richly melting and powerful. Extract and fullness characterise the wines whose grapes, on the right site with suitable care, have a decidedly vital acid structure. The acidity of red wines tends to be higher than that of Grüner Veltliner, and the opulence of overly extract-rich wines underpins the lively acidity with sufficient freshness - drinking fluency and balance are ensured.

Josef Fritz is also someone who has been committed to Roter Veltliner for many years and very early on consistently developed it into the leading variety of his winery. The winemaker from Wagram is noticing increasing interest in the market: "Red Veltliner can be positioned very well as a regional speciality. The wines are also maturing excellently. True, Roter Veltliner impresses again and again with its storage potential. When young, the typical aroma spectrum ranges from ripe pome fruits to honeydew melons, almonds and oranges to exotic fruits. With years of maturity, the wines clearly increase in complexity, herbal and floral notes emerge, the balance becomes ever finer. Top wines can easily cope with ten to twenty years in the cellar; some can still positively surprise even after five or six decades.

Roter Veltliner

Daniela Dejnega is an editor at the Austrian trade magazine "Der Winzer" and has been writing about wine as a freelance author for 15 years. The wine academic has also completed studies at the Vienna University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences.

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