Hubert Burda Media

Top of the Line: Hans Topf

A somewhat unsung hero even in his own homeland, Austrian winemaker Hans Topf shares his love of Grüner Veltliner.

Despite his burly stature, Hans Topf has the pleasant mien of a gentle giant, perhaps due to his own provenance – the bucolic Kamptal in Austria, the valley of the River Kamp, from where he runs Weingut Johann Topf, named after his late father and started by his great-grandfather Josef Topf in 1885. The business is still family owned today, aided and abetted by his four sons Hans-Peter and Maximilian – already at work on the farm – followed, he hopes, by the younger Alexander and Julius. 

The modern period of the Topf saga began when Hans took over a humble nine hectares in 1990, eventually enlarging it to five times that size. The winery itself is located in the town of Strass, beneath the 1,288-metre Gaisberg in the Salzkammergut Mountains east of Salzburg, and last year the addition of a modern-style, cube-shaped tasting room showed off an impressive array of wines dominated by Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Sylvaner, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc. Hans-Peter and Maximilian are responsible for the Sekt (sparkling wines – namely a brut made from Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and a brut rosé made from 100-percent Zweigelt). 

At the recent Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, Topf poured me an array of his wines, of which I particularly loved two Grüner Veltliners (Strass im Strassertal 2015 and Hans Topf 2009), two Rieslings (Heiligenstein 2008 and 1999) and a Pinot Blanc (Hasel 2014). He was on his first-ever visit to a city that he found “better and more exciting than I’d expected, where people are clearly open towards new things.“ Including, he’s surely hoping, his fabulous wines deserving of greater attention. 

The Bucolic Estate

Of the wines that we tasted together, which is your personal favourite and why? 

My favourite will always be our Riesling Heiligenstein 1999, a wine that shows how the Kamptal valley and Weingut Topf stand for great wines with great ageing potential. If you compare our Rieslings with those from Alsace and Germany, I would say the difference lies in the terroir, which I define as the harmony between soil, climate and the craftsmanship of the winemaker. Ours show clear scents of stone fruit and aromas of pronounced primary fruit along with fine, harmonious acidity. 

It must be strange for you, travelling to wave the flag for Austria and to explain wines like Grüner Veltliner, which I love but which is very under appreciated. 

You have no idea. I’ve even had people ask me what it’s like making wine in Australia! Grüner has a cult following at best because Austria is a very small wine-producing country, so it’s still unknown to many consumers. Here, you would need to pair Grüner with Asian cuisine to fully experience the great combination of the aromas typical of the grape variety and how it works with Asian food. We’re cultivating 50 hectares at the moment and produce 350,000 bottles of wine a year, of which Grüner Veltliner is 40 percent of our total area and production. 

What do you consider the most significant elements that you need in order for you to make great wine? 

To me, the most important thing in life is having an intact family, one that can back you up so you can achieve great things. My whole family thinks the same way and supports the winery completely. Nature is vital because we believe that great wines only come from great vineyard sites. However, modern know-how can never suppress tradition. When I was a young winemaker, I threw away all my wooden barrels in the winery and said I would never use them again, but 10 years later I resumed working with wood and have learned to never say never. Lately, my sons have also picked up working with wood and our cellar is once again filled with great wines like our Grüner Veltliner Hans Topf. 

How did you come to call this single-vineyard wine after your own name? Won’t some people think you’re crazy? 

Of course, I expect they will. I named the wine after myself because it’s an unusual wine, made from Grüner Veltliner grapes fermented in Manhartsberg oak barrels and then also matured in wood, an unusual combination. The vines were planted in 1958 in very deep loess soils. I wanted to show how the wood perfectly suits the production of a rich, powerful Grüner Veltliner. 

The Topf estate cellar

You took over the estate in 1990. At what stage in your life did it occur to you that you should become a winemaker? 

I was the only child from a winemaking family so I guess I was more or less born to be a winemaker. I studied winemaking at an Austrian viticulture school in the 1970s and then started working at my father’s winery. 

In 1982, my father suffered a heart attack as I was about to start an internship in South Africa, so I had to stay at our winery and work there independently 

Then you enlarged the existing estate to five times the size. Was that a difficult thing to do, and what challenges did you face? 

There was a revolution in the mid- ’80s, of young vintners in Austria who valued high-quality wines and were able to meet the new, high requirements of the market, and due to this evolution our winery managed to grow into the 1990s. In 1999, we had the opportunity to acquire a renowned winery, Weingut Metternich, which was one of the biggest steps in our expansion, and we then grew to 30 

hectares. From 1999 till now, more vineyards in the best locations were acquired. There’s never an easy way to expand a wine business but we had no major issues, fortunately. We always aim for solid growth while vinifying from only the best sites. 

Since you came all the way here, I assume your export markets are important and you spend too much time on planes? 

Yes. I am a vintner with all my heart and would love to spend as much time as possible in the vineyards and in my cellar, but I do have to travel to share our philosophy with our customers. These trips are very targeted – 95 percent of my travels are within Europe, of which I spend 50 percent on our domestic market, with our most important export markets being Germany and Scandinavia. 

Weingut Johann Topf is a family business

Your four sons will be wine-makers some day, presumably? If so, is your wife supportive? 

I am proud that two of them will continue to operate and lead our winery – Hans-Peter found his place with us after graduation from the prestigious wine school at Geisenheim University in Germany and internships abroad at top wineries like Egon Müller in Germany and Villa Maria in New Zealand. Maximilian gained his viticultural school degree and is currently doing his masters in oenology and will join the winery in the foreseeable future. My wife Magdelena is the same as my sons, she’s 100-percent involved as our winery’s office manager. 

Any advice for young winemakers before they get married? 

My advice to young winemakers is to allow your partners to follow their own interests if they’re not passionate about wine, which works out better for everyone in the long run. And if you’re not married, hold on to your dreams and never deviate from your chosen path.