A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Zierfandler - Thermenregion, Austria

Today we wrap up our little tour of the Thermenregion of Austria by taking a look at the Zierfandler grape.  A few days ago, we took a brief look at this grape in its blended form from the village of Gumpoldskirchen, while yesterday we took a look at its frequent companion and blending partner, Rotgipfler.

Unlike Rotgipfler, Zierfandler's parentage is not 100% certain.  It was long thought that Zierfandler's parents were the same as Rotgipfler's (namely a cross between Roter Veltliner and Traminer), but that doesn't seem to be the case, and in fact, neither of Zierfandler's parents have been identified to date.  The most common alternate name for Zierfandler is Spätrot, which means "late-red" due to the tendency of the grape skins to take on a reddish tinge the longer they hang on the vine.  When Zierfandler is blended with Rotgipfler, as it often is, the blend is usually given the name Spätrot-Rotgipfler, for reasons that should be pretty self-evident.  Zierfandler is considered to be the nobler of the two grapes by the critics who are paid to make those kinds of pronouncements, so you can take it with the same grain of salt that you reserve for any broad, sweeping generalizations that involve something as particular as taste.

Zierfandler ripens very late, later even than Rotgipfler, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing.  In cooler years, the grapes may not reach full ripeness, but in special years, botrytis (the good kind) may have a chance to set in (the grape is fairly thin-skinned to boot). Since it tends to retain a good deal of its acidity throughout its growing cycle, it can make very interesting wines from nobly rotten or late-harvested grapes.  There are purportedly less than 100 ha of land devoted to the vine in the Thermenregion of Austria and only scant plantings in other European countries like Hungary (where it is known as Cirfandli) and Slovenia (where it is known as Zerjavina), so I would imagine that late-harvest and botrytis-affected wines are very rare and hard to come by (with commensurate price-tags, I'm sure).

There's an interesting theory out there that Zierfandler may have inadvertently been the source of the US name for the grape Zinfandel, though the two grapes are completely unrelated.  The story goes that George Gibbs brought shipload of vines into the US in the 1820's and he called some of the vines in that shipment "Black Zinfardel of Hungary."  Now, there is no grape that goes by the name of Black Zinfardel of Hungary, so it's tough to know exactly what he was talking about, but we do know that the shipment came from the Austrian imperial Nursery in Vienna, located about 30 miles north of the Thermenregion, where Zierfandler finds its home.  The imperial nursery was also known at the time to have cuttings of a grape known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, which is the old Croatian name for the grape currently known as Zinfandel.  What is thought to have happened is that the Zinfandel vines were sent over and the label for Zierfandler vines somehow ended up on them.

It's certainly possible that the Zierfandler we're talking about here today was the culprit in this case of mistaken identity, but it doesn't seem likely.  Miles Lambert-Gocs has a theory that the Zinfandel name actually came from some of the alternate names for Blaufränkish.  Blaufränkish is one of those grapes that is cultivated in a wide variety of regions and thus has a lot of synonyms (83 are listed in the VIVC database).  David Darlington, in his Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel, quotes a Lambert-Gocs article (which Lambert-Gocs has summarized to some extent here) where he states that one of Blaufränkish's known synonyms in the 1800's was Blauer Zierfahndler and, further, it is still known as Cierny Zierfandler in Slovakia.  It is much more likely that what happened was that some Blaufränkish was being sent to the US and either the labels got switched in transit or the vines were misidentified after they got here.  It may be possible that these synonyms for Blaufränkish were derived from our Zierfandler, keeping the etymological chain alive, but it's unlikely, considering that Zierfahndler (and Zierfandler) is also a synonym for the Silvaner grape, which is much more widespread and which has been around since at least 1659, meaning that there's a better chance that the name Zierfandler is derived from Silvaner than the other way around.

Anyway, we're here to talk about Zierfandler, not Zinfandel, so let's get back on track.  As mentioned above, Zierfandler isn't widely grown by any stretch of the imagination, but one of the estates that does deal with it is Weingut Stadlmann.  The Stadlmann estate has been in the wine game since its foundation in 1780 by Johann Stadlmann.  The estate and the winemaking responsibilities have been maintained and passed down through seven generations.  As of 2007, the estate has been biodynamically certified by Lacon in Austria.  They produce a few single-vineyard bottlings from their Mandel-Höh, Tagelsteiner and Höfen sites, which are home to 45 year old vines, as well as their Igeln site, which is houses 20 year old vines.  Overall, they have about 13 hectares of land under vine.  

I was kindly sent a sample of their 2010 Anninger bottling, which is their entry level Zierfandler, by Monika Caha Selections.  They tell me this wine retails for about $16 and is currently available in CA, NY and NJ, though they hope to have distribution in about 20 more states by next year.  In the glass, the wine had a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was very reserved here with some lemon citrus and apple flavors, but not much.  It didn't really open up much as it came to room temperature or with a day open in the fridge, which apparently isn't all that unusual for this grape.  On the palate, the wine was just on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid.  It was dry with flavors of apple, lemon-lime citrus, ripe grapefruit, and honeysuckle flowers with a bit of a bitter, lemon peel kind of finish.  The wine also had a nice, refreshing kind of minerality to it.  The wine is aged for four months on the lees, so there was a broad, almost creamy flavor profile here that was nicely undercut by the bright fruit flavors and zippy acidity.  If you served a nice Austrian Riesling with a twist of lemon in it, you probably wouldn't be too far off from the flavor profile here.  

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