Hidden among dense underbrush on an Austrian hillside, a “great-great grandparent” of one of the world’s most popular white wines survived wars, winters and insect pests for 500 years.
On Thursday, the grapevine was found chopped to pieces – and the man who discovered it 11 years ago was near to tears as he told state broadcaster ORF of his loss.
“What was he trying to prove?” asked Michael Leberl of the person – or people – who vandalised what is believed to be one of two direct ancestors of Austria’s gruner veltliner.
Initial reports said the grapevine was destroyed, but the daily Kleine Zeitung later cited unidentified village officials as saying it was so severely damaged that it was unclear whether it would survive. No officials would comment.
While not as visually stunning as most of Austria’s top tourist attractions, the 2000 discovery of the gnarled vine on a hill near the village of St Georgen was a sensation to oenophiles and scientists alike. Before then, the existence of the vine had been little more than folklore.
Mr Leberl first heard about it from his mother, then researched it as an adult and found it after being led to its approximate location by a village elder.
Experts gradually surmised that it had been crossed with the traminer grape centuries ago to produce the first drops of the acidic and tangy gruner veltliner, which has become a cult wine in the US
They named it the St Georgen Vine after the village of the vintners who bottle gruner veltliner by the tens of thousands each year.
An experts’ certificate issued in 2009 valued the vine at more than 100,000 euros (£84,500). Shortly after that certificate was issued, police were called out to look for unknown perpetrators who clipped off buds from the plant.
The Austria Press Agency reported that even if the damaged vine does not recover its offshoots are being cultivated in three other wine-growing regions.