VIENNA – Hidden among dense underbrush on an Austrian hillside, a great-great "grandparent" of one of the world's most popular white wines survived wars, turmoil and insect pests for 500 years.
On Thursday the grapevine was found chopped to pieces by vandals — and the man who discovered it 11 years ago was near tears as he told state broadcaster ORF of his sad discovery.
"What was he trying to prove?" asked Michael Leberl of the person — or persons — who destroyed what is believed to be one of two direct ancestors of Austria's Gruner Veltliner. "I am speechless."
Initial reports said the grapevine was destroyed but the daily Kleine Zeitung later cited unnamed village officials as saying it was so severely damaged that it was unclear whether it would survive. No officials would respond for comment Thursday night.
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.
Up to then, the existence of the great grape-grandparent had been little more than folklore.
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 tranminer grape centuries ago to produce the first drops of the acidic and tangy gruner veltliner, which has become a cult wine in the United States.
They named it the "St. Georgen Vine" after the village of the vintners who bottle gruner veltliner — a.k.a. "gru-ve" in the U.S. — by the tens of thousands each year. An experts' certificate issued in 2009 valued the vine at more than 100,000 euros, or about $136,000.