How our current grape varieties evolved is a recurring question in viticulture. With genetic fingerprinting, a new scientific possibility has opened to accompany historic research. And indeed, we still need the historical dimension to determine geographic origin. Statements about origin and descent are only complete with historic research. The tendency to copy was also easier than producing an original in the past.
Unfortunately, this does not result in a clear image of origin for all Austrian grape varieties. Old vine books reveal little or nothing about Grüner Veltliner. The current name is rather young; it was formerly known as “Weissgipfler” or “Grünmuskateller”. It was first called Grüner Veltliner in the Babo/Mach grape variety ampelography. The detailed description makes it possible to recognize the variety clearly and one can therefore assume correct identification.
Grüner Veltliner is botanically not a member of the Veltliner family. “Weissgipfler”, which translates to “white tipped”, would be a more descriptive name. Herman Goethe came to this conclusion in 1887. This is also true in view of the genetic relationship to Rotgipfler as a half-sibling through Traminer descent. The question remains as to why Grüner Veltliner was ever considered a Veltliner variety.
This error can be understood only on the basis of assumptions, because the ampelographers offered no explanation. The variety “Roter Veltliner” has existed for centuries and is one of many mutations of “Brauner Veltliner”, a variety that exhibits a brown-grey colour after verasion. Because there could have been some confusion between differentiating between “Brauner Veltliner” and “Weissgipfler”, the name was adapted to the colour of the grape berry skins and the vine was called “Grüner Veltliner”.
This implied that Grüner Veltliner was a mutant of Brauner or Roter Veltliner. Brauner Veltliner is today called “Österreicher” in some Austrian regions and is by no means extinct. Through genetic sequencing, we now know that Roter Veltliner is the key variety at the centre of the Veltliner family.
Grüner Veltliner does not fit in from a botanical-genetic perspective. When one spoke of Veltliner before the 19th century, this referred to Roter Veltliner. One spoke of “Grossen Braunen Veltliner” in the 17th century. In the 16th century it is even unclear whether this name referred to wines from the Valtellina region in Italy. Babo and Mach justify the name succinctly, “simply because the term is common, we shall keep it.”
The historic conclusion is thus brief and can be summarized as follows: There is little concrete information about the ancestry and what exists is also at least partially wrong. Better information is available from the 19th century when the variety was planted prolifically, against resistance from rulers of that time. Burger (1837) names the centre of cultivation for Pinia austriaca (or Grünmuskateller), as he called it, in the vicinity of Retz (Pulkau, Zellerndorf, Rötz, Haugsdorf und Stinkenbrunn) along the Brünner and Horner roads. It was planted on its own in vineyards there, although at this time field blends were common to help decrease viticultural risks. Interesting was his categorization of it with other Plina grape varieties like Rotgipfler and Riesling. Both varieties share its descent from Traminer. Burger’s description of the variety is sufficient for the identification as Grüner Veltliner.
Schams (1832) reports in the Pressburg city records of how the planting of Grünmuskateller was discouraged in 1804. At this time Grünmuskateller was considered a mass producer that yielded only the simplest wine qualities. The name “Muskateller” is recognized as incorrect. The question invariable arises as to whether this mention refers to Grüner Veltliner or a predecessor of Grüner Veltliner.
According to our knowledge derived from comprehensive analysis of over 100 clones and genotypes, Grüner Veltliner is relatively young. Its variability locally is the same or greater as at more distant locations. Consequently, the frequently described types are likely due to phytopathological changes rather than genetic ones. The conclusion that Grüner Veltliner is a relatively young variety appears logical.
Going back in time to 1766, Sprenger makes the first mention of Grüner Muskateller, which is supposed to originate from Oedenburg. Despite the fact that Springer often assumes the origin of many varieties to be from Oedenburg and that his ampelographic description is poor, it is not strikingly wrong. It is confusing that the variety is assigned to the Muscat varieties. This suggests an incorrect association or identity as Grünmuskateller. Before this time, the variety disappears in the diffuse descriptions of earlier centuries.
Centuries later, all information that could be reconstructed was pieced together to form an inadequate mosaic of possible synonyms and related varieties. Not until genetic analysis was it clear that Grüner Veltliner was most likely Weissgipfler. No genetic relationship to Muscat could be confirmed, but the qualitative stamp of Traminer is recognizable in its genome. Assuming the probability of it being a progeny of a Traminer crossing, the other parent must have been more dominant, at least in the morphology. The attributes that we know from Grüner Veltliner were sought in the yet unknown second parent. The exciting thing about this story is that the grape variety that comes into question was finally found in the form of an old grape vine.
Unfortunately, there was no name for this variety and an ampelographic description could not be reliably made due to the poor condition of the vine. For this reason, the vine was at least temporarily named “St. Georgen” after the place it was found. Several vine trunks, many of them dead, combined with the last presumed planting of the land parcel allows the presumption that the vine could have grown here for several centuries. The confirmation of “St. Georgen” as the parent of Grüner Veltliner is not 100 %, but is indisputably recognisable in all 19 chromosomes.
The discovery of this vine on the Leitha Mountains gives information about the former distribution of this variety. Initial comparisons of the genetic profile with databanks in Hungary and Croatia remained unsuccessful. Attempts at exact identification are being made through propagation material from this rare variety as well as reconstructing the name through existing descriptions. It could certainly be useful to use the old synonym “Grünmuskateller” for this ancestor of Grüner Veltliner, but this name is likely not applicable due to the absences of Muscat attributes. As an interim solution, the location of the vine (St. Georgen) is conceivable.
Source: Translated excerpt from an article by Dr. Ferdinand Regner titled “Herkunft unserer Rebsorten: Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch und St. Laurent” in “Der Winzer” magazine issue 04/2007.