Josef Fischer

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The splendorous Wachau, Lower Austria’s westernmost wine region, is home to the country’s best-known wines internationally, producing Grüner Veltliner and Riesling of unparalleled power, depth, and longevity. Though it occupies just a 12-mile stretch of the Danube, the Wachau is home to over 650 winegrowers, most of whom farm modestly sized holdings on the region’s unforgivingly steep, terraced slopes. Historically speaking, the Wachau’s most coveted sites are found along the northern banks of the Danube; here, vineyards tilt southward like solar panels, ensuring full phenolic maturity even in difficult vintages.

However, as the climate has warmed over the past couple of decades, growers on these northern banks have occasionally struggled to produce wines of finesse and balance. As is the case in winegrowing regions across Europe, what used to be sweet spots for ripening now suffer from an excess of warmth with increasing frequency. Today, in fact, the vineyards on the southern side of the Danube, planted on north-facing slopes typically less extreme in incline, attain ripeness with greater certainty each vintage than they did in years past, and wines from these less solar sites tend to display a sense of effortless freshness and lift that sometimes eludes their neighbors across the river.

The Fischer family has produced wine on the Danube’s southern banks for centuries, from holdings in and around their home village of Rossatz, in the eastern stretches of the Wachau. The winery itself traces its roots to 1898, and today fifth-generation Josef Fischer (or “Joe,” to distinguish him from his father—also named Josef) works 11 hectares of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling from several of Rossatz’s top sites. Only a small percentage of Wachau winegrowers work organically, due to the immense amount of manual labor required to farm on the region’s terraces; Joe, however, works completely without synthetic chemicals in his beautifully tended vineyards, and the winery is certified organic. He inherited this deep respect for sustainability from his father, who, in a true instance of living up to one’s surname, has been engaged in a decades-long passion project of breeding the fabled but near-extinct Huchen—the royal fish of the Habsburgs—and repopulating the river with them. (The wines’ striking front labels pay homage to Josef’s pursuit.)

Several years ago, Joe—whose star is definitively on the rise in the Wachau—completed construction on a brand-new cellar which allows him to work with the utmost sensitivity and restraint. He aims to influence the wines as little as possible during fermentation and aging, and to that end he allows all fermentations to proceed spontaneously, employing a battalion of smaller tanks so that each small parcel can be vinified and matured separately. Malolactic fermentation is not blocked, but it only proceeds in certain instances—nearly always with the Smaragd-level wines, and only occasionally with the earlier-picked offerings.

Though they show notable concentration, Fischer’s wines do not lead with power; rather, they are built around a tight helix of rapier-like acidity and intensely saline minerality, emphasizing kinetic thrust over sheer richness. They are pure-fruited and precise without feeling polished, and they articulate soil variations in nuanced fashion. Finally, while certain Wachau wines can be lavish and impressive yet tiring after a glass or two, Fischer’s are irresistible in their digestibility, freshness, and friendliness.

Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Rossatz: Fischer’s brisk, penetrating Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Rossatz—from from various vineyards surrounding the family’s home village—offers a compelling salinity on its driving palate of floral-tinged green and yellow fruits. This wine exemplifies the combination of lean-muscle strength and elegant agility that characterizes Joe’s style.
Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Ried Zanzl: The Zanzl vineyard covers 7.38 total hectares outside the town of Rührsdorf, with northwest-exposed slopes ranging from 10% to 51% in gradient, and soils of orthogneiss. Fischer owns a 0.9-hectare parcel here, planted mostly to Grüner Veltliner but with a small portion of Riesling (typically blended into the village-level Riesling Rossatz). Zanzl’s cooler exposition and poorer soils yield a streamlined wine of elegance and intense minerality which veers into blatant salinity in leaner vintages, and Fischer’s 50-year-old vines here contribute impressive concentration to the finished product.
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Frauenweingärten: The Frauenweingärten encompasses the slopes between Rossatz and Rossatzbach, on the southern banks of the Danube, extending from the edge of the Dunkelstein forest down to just 25 meters from the river, and sloping up to a 48% incline. These northeast-facing hillsides are covered in a meter-thick deposit of glacial loess whose silty, sandy structure is ideal for Grüner Veltliner, and this loess is punctuated by elements of paragneiss (a metamorphic rock derived from sedimentary elements) and migmatite (gneiss with granitic elements) which increase the soil’s porosity. Fischer’s 40-year-old parcel Grüner Veltliner in the Frauenweingärten yields a wine which beautifully combines weight and transparency, offering deep, borderline viscous yellow fruits which rise toward an airy yet elongated finish of mineral-driven precision. It ferments spontaneously and ages the better part of a year on its fine lees in stainless steel with minimal sulfur additions.
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Kreuzberg: The north-facing, partly terraced Kreuzberg vineyard perches above Rossatz at a maximum slope of 59%, covering 27.05 hectares of paragneiss littered with amphibolite. Kreuzberg produces a profoundly stony and austere version of Grüner Veltliner, and Fischer employs used barrels between 500 and 1500 liters for 50% of the blend in order to mitigate the site’s tendency toward severity. Clinging and intensely mineral, this wine is often Riesling-like in its carriage.
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd “Privat”: Fischer’s sumptuous “Privat” blends the very best fruit from his various sites, picked at Smaragd-level ripeness and aged a full year in used 500-liter barrels. Even in a wine such as this, which offers borderline lavish fruits and mouth-filling richness, the freshness of these southern-Danube sites shines through, and Joe’s inherent understanding of balance fosters a wine of elegance and detail which blossoms with bottle age.
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd “R”: Only produced in choice vintages, Fischer’s “R” is from a 75-year-old parcel of Grüner Veltliner in Kreuzberg—the oldest planting in the entire vineyard. This is both fermented and aged in wood—a single 1500-liter cask in which the wine spends two full years on its fine lees—and the resulting wine combines the lusciousness of the “Privat” with the diamond-cut precision and palate-staining minerality of the regular Kreuzberg bottling.
Riesling Federspiel Rossatz: As with the Grüner Veltliner Rossatz, Fischer’s village-level Riesling is a blend of fruit from his various crus which does not quite make his rigorous cut for the single-vineyard bottlings. Bristling with kinetic energy, it offers a hugely expressive nose of tangy yellow fruits, with a laser-like, salt-drenched palate that prompts salivation. Its acidity is juicy rather than cutting, and its scant residual sugar is rendered completely invisible.
Riesling Federspiel Ried Steiger: While Grüner Veltliner thrives in the loess-dominated sites of the Wachau, Riesling prefers poorer soil. Situated close to the Danube itself on a gentle 29% incline, Rossatz’s Steiger vineyard is rich with paragneiss and littered with crushed stones, and Fischer works a parcel of 25-year-old Riesling here. The tensile, saline Ried Steiger Federspiel counterposes smoky, clinging minerality with torpor-conquering acidity to create an irresistible sense of tension. It ferments spontaneously and ages the better part of a year on its fine lees in stainless steel with minimal sulfur additions.
Riesling Smaragd Ried Steiger: Fischer’s Smaragd-level Riesling from the Steiger vineyard offers an even greater sense of tension than its Federspiel counterpart—not always the case with the later-harvested Smaragd category—and introduces an additional layer of smoky earth, as well as a chalky texture, beneath its tight-grained fruit-acid structure. This typically carries three or four grams of residual sugar, but reads as bone-dry. It ferments spontaneously and ages the better part of a year on its fine lees in stainless steel with minimal sulfur additions.
Riesling Smaragd Ried Kreuzberg: Kreuzberg’s inherent austerity yields a Riesling of single-minded minerality. Aromatically, it presents its stoniness in measured, serene fashion, but it sizzles on the palate with white-knuckled intensity—a fascinating contrast which makes for a wine of dynamism and complexity.

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