Thermenregion: Jewel of the Vienna Woods

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s less than 45 minutes south by train from Vienna’s Central Rail Station to the town of Gumpoldskirchen in the heart of the Thermenregion. It’s a quiet town of quaint cobbled streets, boutique shops and heurigen – the very Austrian institution of specialty wine taverns, with their vine-shaded terraces, fresh local fare, and pints of still-frothy, straight from-the-vat wine, or more frequently these days, sleek glass stems filled with both young and mature wines from bottle.

This is where you’re most likely to have your first sip of the unique (even for Austria) whites rotgipfler and zierfandler, along with some of the country’s best Sankt Laurent and pinot noir, among other specialties found only in the region. But not so long ago, you may well have been able to find these wines outside of Austria.

“Up until the 1960s, wine from Thermenregion was the most exported wine from Austria”, Johannes Reinisch of winery Johanneshof Reinisch, tells me. Though the region lies in relative obscurity today compared with other Austrian wine growing regions like the Wachau or Burgenland, Thermenregion was once the wine-producing jewel of the Hapsburg Empire. With a generational change and renewed focus on quality, its star is once again ascending.

Johannes Reinisch

The story of the Thermenregion is a classic tale of Celts and Romans, monks and monasteries, aristocrats and celebrities, with a few calamities sprinkled in over the last two thousand years.

The Romans were first attracted to the area by the abundance of sulphur-rich, thermal hot springs centered around what are now the towns of Baden and Bad Vöslau (the latter is also the source of Austria’s best mineral water, Vöslauer). Indeed, the entire region sits above a system of geological faults and fractures where the Northern Limestone Alps drop into the Vienna Basin, and super-heated water is able to find issue and seep up to the earth’s surface. Naturally the vine followed the Legionnaires, and early Celtic viticulture heritage was expanded upon thanks to Roman know-how and their indomitable thirst.

The next significant development in the region arrived with Cistercian monks from Burgundy, invited to establish the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz in 1133 by Leopold III, now the oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world. Like the Romans, they brought both expertise and vines from home: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris. Subsequent bequeathals expanded their land holdings, and the monks of Heiligenkreuz founded a wine estate in the village of Thallern, modelled architecturally after the Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy, one of the oldest wine estates in Austria today. From here, the Burgundian varieties spread throughout the region, where they still account for a large percentage of plantings in the 21st century.

The Cistercians must surely have felt at home tending their vineyards here nestled in the gentle, east-south-east facing slopes of the Anninger hills, crowned by the Vienna Woods. Thus protected from inclement weather that sweeps in from the northwest, as in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, and exposed to warm breezes from the Pannonian plain, vines in this area enjoy a mild and easy climate; nearly 20% of Thermenregion’s vineyards are certified organic today, with several producers incorporating biodynamic practices.

Vineyards above Gumpoldskirchen

In the ensuing centuries, wines of the region enjoyed favour among nobles and aristocrats, and later pop celebrities, furthering the area’s reputation. A lively wine trade developed in particular for Gumpoldskirchener, a hearty bronze-coloured, off-dry or sweet wine made from a blend of rotgipfler and zierfandler grown around the town of Gumpoldskirchen. “It was fermented on skins and aged in old barrels”, explains Reinisch, “with some residual sugar. And there was also a lot of sulphur added”. These sweet, robust and stable wines were able to withstand long journeys and age for decades. The style pleased. And in 1855, Gumpoldskirchen vintner Friedrich Faseth walked away with the trophy for the “best white wine in the world” at the World fair in Paris, awarded personally by Emperor Napoleon III at the same time that the Bordeaux cru classification was just getting worked out.

During the phylloxera crisis, the Thermenregion was at the forefront of research and innovation. The mayor of Gumpoldskirchen, Anton Wagner, spurred the establishment of a viticultural school in 1898 in an effort to rescue vines, while many of the rootstocks still in use today to deal with the pest were bred in the region’s vine nurseries.

Success lasted more or less up until the Austrian ‘wine scandal’ of 1986, when a handful of vintners were caught adding diethylene glycol to their wines to enhance body and texture. “After that”, says Reinisch, “everyone was looking for light white wines. But that’s not what this region is best suited to produce”. Austrian, and international, affection for sweet wines had all but evaporated, and Thermenregion was caught in the vacuum.

Quality, admittedly, had also slipped, the common victim of complacency aroused by easy sales. Most growers were selling wine through their heurigen, banking on the proximity to Vienna and hordes of day trippers, or exporting. Indeed more Gumpoldskirchener was being exported in the early 1980s than could possibly have been produced. Red wines were hard and rustic, in no small part because Austria’s most important winemaking school, Klosterneuberg, discouraged the practice of malolactic fermentation.

A turning point came in the mid-2000s when a group of these top producers, including Reinisch and Bernhard Stadlmann, began a collective, painstaking effort to make massale selections (taking cuttings of the best vine material in old vineyards) of the region’s most important varieties, especially rotgipfler and zierfandler. Several high-quality biotypes were identified and replanting of vineyards undertaken. Mastery of dry white styles, and increasingly sophisticated red winemaking has elevated quality immensely.

And as these vines mature, quality will continue to evolve with them. The future looks very bright for these Thermenregion oddities. Already the world’s ongoing search for regional specialties has led inexorably here to the vineyards of the Vienna Woods, and both whites and reds of the region are appearing on smart wine lists from Paris to San Francisco (Canada, not so much, yet).

In the meantime, if you can’t get your hands on a bottle of Thermenregion wine, consider a visit instead. It’s a charming area with hundreds of walking and cycling paths through the vineyards, numerous spas and wellness centers, and of course lively wine taverns with delicious atmosphere to soak up. And all just a short ride from Vienna. Besides, it’s so much fun to say Gumpoldskirchener.

Regional Primer: Topography, Climate, Soils

Thermenregion is more accurately two separate wine regions that were yoked together under the new wine laws of 1986, now encompassing some 2200 hectares under vine.

Map courtesy of the AWMB (Austrian Wine Marketing Board)

The northern sector around the villages of Traiskirchen, Perchtoldsdorf, Pfaffstätten and Gumpoldskirchen itself, has historically been the source of the Thermenregion’s finest white wines. Gentle hills rise up to about 450m, where the highest and coolest vineyard in the region, the Kestenbaum (“chestnut tree”), is located. It’s markedly cooler on this area; cool air continually drains out from the Vienna Woods, and on average grapes are harvested almost two weeks later than the lower, southern sector. Fossil limestone-laced, cool clay soils are also well suited to firmer, lighter whites. As a general rule, and logically, topsoil depth decreases with increasing elevation, and yields also diminish. Reinisch tells me that his chardonnay and pinot noir yields in the Kestenbaum are a paltry 15 hl/hectare, less than half of what’s permitted in a Burgundy grand cru.

To the south around the main wine town of Tattendorf, the well-drained, rapidly-warming, alluvial and gravelly-loamy soils, flatter topography, and warmer, and Pannonian climate with 1800-2000 sunshine hours yearly is better suited to red wine production. In addition to pinot noir, Austria’s most significant plantings of St. Laurent are found here, including the largest contiguous St. Laurent vineyard in the world (!), 50ha, which belongs to Klosterneuberg.


Rotgipfler: one of the two specialty grapes of the region and grown almost exclusively here, rotgipfler (“red gipfler”) is so named because of the red colour of its shoots in the early stages of growth (unlike the white shoots of weissgipfler, a synonym for grüner veltliner). It is a natural crossing of traminer (savagnin) and roter veltliner, which, according to Reinisch, was first discovered in Styria, and later brought to Thermenregion in the 1830s. There are now about 113ha planted, representing just 5% of total acreage. It performs best in deep soils and is generally harvested in the same period as chardonnay. Compared to zierfandler, rotgipfler produces a fatter, rounder wine, reaching up to 14% alcohol or more, you might say a commercially, widely appealing style.

Rotgipfler’s young red shoots.

Zierfandler: zierfandler on the other hand, has higher acids and more tannin/extract. Also a natural crossing of roter veltliner and a relative of traminer, it is a late-ripening, lower yielding variety, often picked around the same time as cabernet sauvignon. It has to be fully ripe, “or it’s too tannic”, according to Reinisch, while pinkish-red-coloured berries (like pinot gris) give it more colour, too. It is best suited to lighter, shallower soils due to susceptibility to frost and botrytis, and thus is generally found higher up hillsides. Zierfandler is practically exclusive to the Thermenregion, where there are 72 hectares planted (2016 statistics). It’s the wine lover’s wine, usually tasted after rotgipfler in a producer’s lineup. “Rotgipfler is something for people who don’t like to risk, closer to chardonnay, no big troubles, quite good intensity”, says Fred Loimer, a top Kamptal-based biodynamic producer who farms several vineyards in the Thermenregion. “Zierfandler is for risk-takers, a crazy old grape, but bringing the more interesting wines, more acidity, aromatics, character, smokiness”.

Historically, and still today, rotgipfler and zierfandler were always blended (or more often grown and picked together in the same vineyard) and sold as Gumpoldskirchener, hence the lack of varietal name recognition both in Austria and internationally (and, admittedly, the names are frightening for foreigners to pronounce). But varietal bottlings are on the rise, including single top vineyard examples. Both can age impressively.

Other important white varieties include Chardonnay, Neuberger, and pinot blanc (weissburgunder), along with grüner veltliner, of course.

Sankt Laurent (St. Laurent): St. Laurent is a natural crossing in the pinot family (precise parentage unknown; pinot noir x?) brought from Alsace via Baden-Württemberg in Germany, first documented in Austria in 1863. Named for St. Lawrence Day, which falls on August 10th and is about the time when veraison (berry colouring) begins, it’s a difficult grape in all senses, with irregular yields, early flowering and late ripening. It demands warm sites and stony soils such as are found in the southern sector of the Thermenregion. It’s also susceptible to reduction (wet wool/onion smells) and brettanomyces (barnyard) in the winery, requiring winemaking vigilance. Deep colour defies the association with pinot noir, though fine tannins, high acids and predominant dark cherry flavours are more in line with its ancestry. In my experience, St. Laurent is best with some bottle age; fifteen and twenty year old examples have been extraordinary, turning more “Burgundian” with time. Five years is a minimum. There are currently 150 hectares planted.

Other red varieties include pinot noir, blauer portugeiser (aka Vöslauer, after the town of that name), Zweigelt (a Blaufränkisch-St. Laurent crossing), cabernet and merlot, the latter two of which were brought to the region by Austrian sparkling wine pioneer and Thermenregion native, Robert Schlumberger.

Recommended Producers and Wines

Top producers: Johanneshof Reinisch, Stadlmann, Loimer, Alphart.

Wine reviews

Weingut Fred Loimer (imported by Le Sommelier in Ontario)
First rate, biodynamic producer based in the Kamptal, Danube Valley. Recognizing the potential and opportunities in this formerly important region, Loimer began vinifying grapes from the northern part of the appellation about a decade ago.

90 2017 Gumpoldskirchener Zierfandler-Rotgipfler
80%-20%. Zierfandler-rotgipfler. Light smoke, solid weight, fullish body, seems warmer climate. Clean, orchard fruit, easy-drinking with character. Fine concentration. Tasted May 2019.

91 2015 Gumpold Chardonnay
A single vineyard, the Brindelback site, but a fantasy name. Full lees fermentation in wood, with a touch of new wood, given a year on full lees before racking into stainless on fine lees for another year. Gentle wood influence, a real limestone expression. Sharp acids, tighter and sharper than expected on the palate. Freshness is high. Solid, solid. indeed Tasted May 2019.

90 2016 Gumpoldskirchen Pinot Noir
Mostly Dijon clones, the standards, plus some Alto Adige clones. Light, high-toned fruit, minimal oak, all juicy, light, delicate fruit. Light tannins at first, but they grow on the back end – there’s more depth here than at first glance. Acids are firm and juicy – this is really quite nice. Tasted May 2019.

92 2015 Anning Pinot Noir Gumpoldskirchen
From the two best vineyards, young vines (2004 and 2007), 100% whole bunch. Lovely waxy, herbal, twiggy, firm and fine-grained tannins, pleasantly astringent. (“stems add more precision and freshness”, says Loimer). Savoury, sapid, long finish. Excellent stuff.  Tasted May 2019.

Johanneshof Reinisch (not imported in Ontario)
Into the fourth generation of this family-run operation with three brothers at the helm, bottles first appeared under the Reinisch label in the early 1960s. The family currently farms 40ha split between the northern, as well as the southern sector around the winery itself in Tattendorf. Modern, organized, a top reference.

89 2018 Rotgipfler
A blend of 3 sites, 80% from Gumpoldskirchen. 75% in steel, 25% in large oak. Wild ferment. Released early April. Harvested one month earlier than the average, in the first week of September. Ripe fruit, clean, white and yellow-fleshed, apple, pear. No wood detected. The palate is fleshy, round, soft, with a vague impression of sweetness, yet only 2 grams of sugar. Immediately pleasing, wide and broad.  Tasted May 2019.

87 2018 Gumpoldskirchener Tradition
60% Zierfandler (a part of which is aged in acacia), 40% rotgipfler. All Gumpoldskirchen. 12.5% Alc. More reserved, mineral nose, also very floral. This is pretty, with white flowers, spring blossoms. There’s nice acid cut here, but also a perception of sweetness – 15 grams, as per tradition. 6.3 acid. Broadly appealing, but I’d have preferred genuinely dry. Tasted May 2019.

88 2017 Chardonnay Ried Lores
In Tattendorf, around the winery, vineyard planted in 1986. Barrel fermented and aged 9 months, 80% new wood. Good quality but fairly standard issue barrel fermented chardonnay, with a mix of sweet white and yellow fruit and wood spice. The palate shows solid depth and concentration, though caramel flavours emerge on the finish. Tasted May 2019.

89 2017 Rotgipfler Ried Satzing
20% fermented in amphora, the rest in big oak cask. There’s nice reduction (flintiness) here, very subtle but noticeable, adding a sulphide dimension to delicate white fruit flavours. Acids are clean and sharp, and 14.5% alcohol goes virtually unnoticed. The finish drives through the back palate. Oak very subtle. Nice focus overall. Satisfying, minerally, also broadly appealing. Tasted May 2019.

90 2017 Zierfandler Ried Spiegel
20% amphora, 20% large oak cask. Typically light golden coloured even at this young age. Juice is oxidized at pressing to eliminate excess polyphenols. Nice spicy perfume here, floral, waxy, sweet herbs, pea shoots. The palate is large-scaled, with 15% alcohol ,even though well worn admittedly, also with phenolic drag, gentle bitterness and surprising acids to hold it all together. I’d like to see this in 3-4 years – plenty of stuffing here to ensure long life. Tasted May 2019.

92 2017 “S” Zierfandler-Rotgipfler
Zierfandler from the Spiegel and Rotgipfler from the Satzing vineyards, picked on the same day and fermented together in large oak, about 60%-40% per the traditional recipe. Released five years after harvest (bottle aged), this 2017 won’t see the market until 2023. Direct press into barrel, fermented on gross lees. Nicely reductive, smells expensive, classy. Dry, firm, tacky-tannic, with notable astringence, balanced by an impression of sweetness and the glycerous nature of alcohol. Classy. Tasted May 2019.

94 2009 “S” Zierfandler-Rotgipfler
The first vintage of this special selection, made in the year Johannes’ father passed away as a homage of sorts. Showing really well now – lovely orange blossom, orange creamsicle, lemon blossom, very few signs of oxidation. Classy and composed, deeply flavoured, ripe but balanced – texture is beguilingly silky. Great length. Really fine wine. Great depth of flavour. Very pretty, excellent, really. Tasted May 2019.

87 2017 St. Laurent
5-15 year old vines, 80% in large wood, 20% in used barrels from the Vienna forest. Reduction is heavy, peppery, hair spray, alongside dark berry fruit. Acids are high. Tastes like old school European wine, (eastern European); tannins are light and mild and length is decent. On the crunchier side. Tasted May 2019.

92 1992 St Laurent
A revelation in the ageing curve of St. Laurent, made from vines planted in ’56 and ’58, and a parcel in the 70s. Fermented in steel, pumpovers twice a day, aged a year in barrels. ’92 was a warm vintage. This has turned very Burgundian, mushroom, porcini dust, also reminiscent of old sangiovese. Really sapid, savoury and elegant. Holding colour well. Pale-medium garnet. Salty. Pure finesse. On by the glass at Steireck in Vienna. Tasted May 2019.

93 2016 St Laurent Ried Frauenfeld
40 year old vines, fermented in large French and Austrian oak, 100% whole berries, 10% whole cluster. The lightest soil, only 20cm depth, lots of stone. Considerably less deeply coloured than the Holzspur, also more perfumed, light, with elegant red berry notes, raspberry, and juicy, sapid, succulent acids, and filigree, fine texture. Very good length. One of the prettiest, nicest, cleanest, most elegant young St. Laurents I’ve tasted. Tasted May 2019.

92 2016 St Laurent Ried Holzspur
60 year-old vines, 100% whole berries, fermented in large oak, 10% whole cluster. 50cm topsoil, slightly heavier than the Frauenfeld, yields at just 20-25hl/ha. Deeply coloured. More tightly wound, darker fruit character. Tannins are still light and acids are high – the greater concentration doesn’t lead necessarily to better wine. Closed for now, but wait 5-10 years. I think this has the stuffing to go. More power and depth than the Frauenfeld, although I prefer that wine on the day. Fascinating side-by side. Tasted May 2019.

91 2012 St Laurent Ried Frauenfeld

A little more new oak in 2012, and no whole cluster. More resinous than the supremely delicate 2016, also deeper colour (despite being 4 years older). Very spicy, wild and savage, more in line with expectations. Acids are also high considering the ripeness and concentration. Still needs time, 5-10 years. Tasted May 2019.

92 2007 St Laurent Ried Holzspur
A cooler year, this has gone a touch minty and herbal, starting to develop the porcini dust character, very attractive indeed. I love the sapidity here, the succulence and salinity, and the great length, I prefer this to the Frauenfeld in this mini side by side, but who knows. I love the elegance that this grape can display over time. Patience! Tasted May 2019.

Weingut Stadlmann

Weingut Stadlmann (not represented in Ontario)
The Stadlemann family traces its roots to the town of Krems, though have been in Traiskirchen in the northern Thermenregion since 1778. Production is split 90%-10% white to red, with the the majority of vineyards in the northern sector. Reds are producer further south around Vöslau. The former heurige activity ceased a decade ago to allow the family to focus exclusively on wine production, now offering one of the most reliable portfolios in the region.

88 2018 Grüner Veltliner
Cold settled and fermented in large old oak cask (like all wines; some steel ferments are later racked into wood). Green tinge. Fresh, young, white wine with modest varietal character, just basic fermentation aromas. Slight matchstick. Acids are very high, green even. Laser sharp focus, unlike any loess or even gneiss-born versions of the grape.  A ‘cold’ gruner, lean and chalky. Length is decent. Mid-level complexity. Tasted May 2019.

87 2017 Rotgipfler Anning
Ripe and fleshy fruit off the top, though acids are again quite vivid and bright, malic, green apple-driven, with decent length and depth. Lightly lees-influenced, and still has that sweet, oily impression in the absence of sugar. A sweet-sour wine in this case. Tasted May 2019.

89 2017 Zierfandler Anning
Less fruity, more stony than the rotgipfler in the same range, with citrus flavours, high acids, sharp and tart-lean, long finish. A more linear grape, skinny and long. Tasted May 2019.

91 2017 Rotgipfler Tagelsteiner Vineyard
A site under the Vienna woods, just south of Satzing, though on deeper clay than upper Satzing, necessary for rotgipfler. Sweet, fleshy, full, very concentrated, rich and toasty, with some smoky lees character. Oily-mineral, dark spice, orange fruit, shifting into the exotic. Very good length. 3.5 rs, 5g acid. Tasted May 2019.

91 2017 Zierfandler Igeln
Made in the same way as the Mandel-Höh. 40 year-old vines. The vineyard has more clay, and deeper soils than the Mandel-höh. 13.5% alcohol. Wild ferment. Exotic tangerine flavours, some residual sugar (5 grams), opens earlier than the Mandel-Höh. Sweet-edged, fleshy, orange orchard fruit profile. Very ripe, fine complexity. Tasted May 2019.

92 2017 Zierfandler Mandel-Höh
50 year-old vines. Flinty-petrolly, peat, floral-herbal character. Just more class and depth of flavour, the finest length. Reverberates across the palate, echoing flavours, ripples of acids linger on cold green tea/matcha flavours, also that same tannic sensation. Top notch. Tasted May 2019.

93 2015 Zierfandler Igeln
Further development of the that tangerine character, candied orange, candied lemon, inviting and exotic. Evolving really well now – there’s no sense in drinking this wine within the first two or three years apparently- becomes so much more interesting. Tasted May 2019.

Weingut Alphart (not represented in Ontario)
Florian Alphart is the 9th generation of winemakers in the family, since 1762. 30 hectares of vines are divided between Pfaffstätten and Gumpoldskirchen, all in the northern part of the appellation where whites dominate.

91 2015 Brut Reserve Methode Traditionelle Blanc de Blancs
From Gumpoldskirchen, a high elevation, cool site producing higher yields; bunches are shaded to preserve acids.  2013 first vintage. Fermented in wood, no malo. 2.5 years on the lees. Quite clean and fragrant, nicely autolytic, nice tension and cut on the palate. Essentially dry (5-6 grams dosage), and well-toned, with very good length. This is good stuff. Acids sufficient for the structure. Tasted May 2019.

89 2018 Grüner Veltliner Ried Zistl
The vineyard sits above an underground spring, which suits grüner just fine. Pure stainless, and made in a reductive style, flinty-sulphides. But the palate is mid-weight, more fleshy and generous than expected, still slim but appealing. Good to very good length. I like this saltiness. Tasted May 2019.

87 2018 Neuburger Ried Hausberger
A more gravelly site. Neuburger was always a part of traditional field blends, I’m told. It’s normally low in acidity, but holds what little acid it has even in warm years like 2018, hot and dry. The palate is fleshy, with a slight sweet impression, with modest depth and length. Decent white wine, though a little sticky. Some RS. Tasted May 2019.

89 2018 Chardonnay Vom Berg
Hillside vineyards on limestone. 30% in 2-4k liter cask, the rest ferments in steel. Subtle discreet nose, no wood evident, neither oxi nor reductive. I like the crunchy citrus fruit, sharply delineated. Fine, fresh, more stony than fruity. Really nicely made, clean. Tasted May 2019.

90 2017 Chardonnay Tagelsteiner
A year in second and third fill barrels. From the lower part of the vineyard with unusually warm, stony, dry soils, unlike the upper part where there’s more clay and water retention (where Stadlmann has his rotgipfler). Destemmed and crushed. Stony and reductive, this is quite tightly wound, no malo. I have to say, I like the expression (there’s little malic left at harvest in any case), seems to have kept its vibrancy, and length and depth are very good. Solid stuff. Tasted May 2019.

87 2018 Rotgipfler Vom Berg
All stainless. Simple, fermentation aromas, banana, (selected yeast employed – the variety is difficult since it has high acid, higher than chardonnay, but less than Zierfandler’ Alphart harvests late so he doesn’t have to adjust acidity in the winery. “I accept higher alcohol, so I have to use special yeasts to get it dry”, he explains). Lots of ripe apple, green apple, pear, lemon drop. Decent length, with that sweet-edged fruit and glycerous alcohol. Lacks verve and salinity, however. Tasted May 2019.

90 2017 Rotgipfler Ried Rodauner
Alphart’s most important vineyard. Large cask-aged, a bit in stainless. Starting to get interesting now – dark, exotic peach-nectarine, orange-mango fruit. Dense fruity core with more sweet baking spice. Very good length. A fine example. Tasted May 2019.

90 2017 Rotgipfler Ried Rodauner Top Selektion
From the oldest vines in the Rodauner vineyard, up to 35 years old. Harvested a few days later than the ‘normal’ Rodauner, but with similar alcohol. 30% new barrel, 30% used, 30% large cask. Wood smoke, toast and caramel, like a slightly sweet Central Coast California white blend, Rhône style, sweet caramel oak finish. Just big, big, big, a little ponderous. A gastronomy wine – a glass will do. Tasted May 2019.

That’s all for this special report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS