Müller-Thurgau's true parentage remained a mystery for more than a hundred years. It was originally believed to be a cross between Riesling and Sylvaner, but not a single plant has ever reverted to Sylvaner, and the closest resemblance to it is Rabaner, a Riesling (clone 88Gm) x Riesling (clone 64Gm) cross. At one time, this seemed to confirm the theory that Müller-Thurgau was a self-polinated Riesling seed, but recent DNA testing revealed the true parentage to be Riesling and Madeleine Royale (4), a variety grown from a Chesselas seedling (3). Müller-Thurgau was bred at Hochschule Greisenheim University in Germany in 1882 by vine specialist Professor Herman Müller, who hailed from the canton of Thurgau in Switzerland and was named after him by August Dern in 1891 (4).
Dr. Müller's aim was to combine the quality of the great riesling grape with the viticultural reliability, particularly the early ripening of (what was believed at the time to be) Sylvaner. The Müller-Thurgau vine is much softer than Riesling's and is easily damaged by hard winters, the grapes also rot easily, and the vine is susceptible to downy mildew, black rot and rotbrenner (3). In the 1970's it's production overtook the great Riesling in total area planted in Germany, and remained in that position throughout the 1980's, although by the end of that decade there were already signs of disaffection with the grape. Typically blended with a little of a more aromatic variety such as Morio-Muskat and with a great deal of Süssreserve, Müller-Thurgau was transformed into oceans of QBA sugarwater labelled either Liebfraumilch or one of the internationally recognized names such as Nierstreiner, Berkasteler, or Piesporter (3). The wines are usually simple, flat, and fragrant, with a slight muscat tone. Under the name Rivaner, the grape is fermented into smooth, elegant table wines. Due to the grape ripening early and collecting sugar quickly, it is used also for Auslese and Beerenauslese wines (2). By the late 1990's, Reisling was once again Germany's most planted grape variety (3).
Bottlings from easily a score of today's best domaines and grower co-operatives show refinement, minerality, complexity and sheer refreshment value that is possible with Müller-Thurgau. Most of the best Trentino-Alto Adige wines are grown on very steep, stony, high altitude sites of which Tiefenbrünner's Feldmarschall is an extreme example grown at 3,300 feet above sea level (5). Trentino DOC Müller-Thurgau has an ideal habitat in Valle di Cembra, which has allowed it to fully express all of its key features, such as it's frangrance and freshness with a subtle note of sage, hay, mint and mountain flowers as well as the delicate, fruity scent of apples. It is covered under the Isarco Valley subzone of the Alto Adige DOC as well as Valdadige DOC where it is varietaly labeled (6). Outside of Trentino-Alto Adige it is also increasingly planted in Friuli and is grown as far south as Emilia-Romagna (3).
The variety thrives throughout central and eastern Europe. In Switzerland, it is playing an increasingly important role in the vineyards of the German-speaking area in the north and east. In Austria, sometimes called Rivaner, it constitutes 6.5 percent of plantings. It is also grown in Slovenia, Czech Republic and Hungary. As Rizlingszilvani, it covers thousands of hectares of vineyards around Lake Balaton and produces a large amount of flabby Badacsonyi Rizlingszilvani (3).
New Zealand enthusiastically planted it on the recommendation of visiting German experts as a preferable substitute for the hybrids that were all too prevalent in the country's nascent wine industry of the 1950's and 1960's. Elsewhere in the New World, most growers are not driven by the need for early ripening varieties, although some Oregon growers have experimented successfully and credible examples have been produced in the Puget sound vineyards of Western Washington (3).
Northern Europe's two smallest and coolest wine producers, England and Luxembourg, depend heavily on Müller-Thurgau, which is the most planted variety in Luxembourg, where it is called Rivaner, and third most planted in the U.K.(3).
(1.)“DOC Cultiviation Zones and Designations of Origin” www.altoadigewines.com
(2.)Priewe, Jens “Wine From Grape to Glass” Third Edition
(3.)Robinson, Jancis “The Oxford Companion to Wine” Third Edition
(4.) Stevenson, Tom “The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia” 5th Edition.
(6.) Botturi & Maraviglia "An Overview of Italian Wine"