Words of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder on Wine & Spirits

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Groovy Gruner Veltliner

A distinctive white from Austria is gaining aficionados stateside

Having been lucky enough to tour the lush wine regions of the Wachau Valley a few years ago, I was treated to some of Bavaria’s best wines paired with perhaps the finest Austrian cuisine.  But as much as I loved the crisp, citrusy (and decidedly dry) Rieslings, both white and red, my mind and palate still savor the scarcely known Austrian white varietal (at least in America) known as Grüner Veltliner.

Fortunately, from all indications in the wine trade, things are changing and this truly delicious and savory wine is beginning to win fans on this side of the Atlantic.  For the uninitiated, Grüner Veltliner (pronounced something like GROON-er FELT-lih-nur) is one of the most widely planted grapes currently grown in Austria and is often served young and fresh by the barrelful in restaurants and beer gardens alike.  It is a late ripening varietal that is typically pale green in color and abounds in fruity notes of grapefruit, limes, pears, and tart apple with hints of mild white pepper.

Because the best Gruner Veltliner wines are resolutely acidic, with a solid, flinty framework, they can age gracefully and actually improve and become more complex, much like that of a quality Viognier. Further, with all their natural acidity, subtle fruit and grassy finish, virtually any Gruner Veltliner is an excellent match with a wide variety of food, from roasted veal shank to grilled swordfish.

The grape's natural acidity accompanied by its restrained and understated fruit characters makes its wines ideal partners for food.  If ever there was the perfect alternative to woodsy Chardonnays, this is it; the herbal aromas and spicy palatability of a well-made Gruner Veltliner is decidedly un-Chardonnay-like in its lack of wood expression.

While the origins of the varietal are unclear, the name "Veltliner" is taken from the South Tyrol village of Veltlin, yet there is no current or historical trace of the grape in the area. It more likely originated in the northern part of Lower Austria, back to medieval times when Grüner Veltliner was probably a part of the mixed plantings common to local vineyards.  As a grape, Gruner Veltliner is a decidedly versatile varietal and has proven to be adaptable to virtually any type of terroir or soil, from shale-laden rock to chalk.  In fact, all this varietal needs to thrive is a reasonable amount of drainage. 
In many ways Gruner Veltliner is to Austria what Zinfandel is to California; though the varietal is grown elsewhere in Europe, the best examples are almost totally Austrian and may well ultimately be Bavaria’s most definitive wine.  Today, Gruner Veltliner accounts for 36 % of Austria’s vine plantings, and represents the majority of Austrian table wines, which is not surprising given its versatile character.   The simplest, least expensive Gruner Veltliners tend to be crisp and refreshing, while the more costly versions often boast spice and complexity worthy of a Corton Charlemagne.  Says the esteemed wine author Hugh Johnson:  “to compare it with Riesling is like comparing a wild flower with a finely bred garden variety in which scent, color, size, and form have been studied and improved for many years."

Gruner Veltliner is one of the most widely planted grapes currently grown in Austria

Relatively inexpensive, most Gruner Veltliner wines range from about $15 up to about $60 and can often be found misplaced among Rieslings and non-descript “Alsatian” wines in most local wine shops.  New York-based importer and distributor Michael Skurnik ( brings in a representative assortment of Gruner Veltliners, including the full-bodied, creamy and concentrated Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm, rich and peppery Brundlmayer Lamm, exotically spiced Ludwig Heidler and pear-accented, rich and round Familie Nigl, to name just a few.  All are flinty in the finish, with pungent aromas and offer up a cornucopia of exotic fruit, herb and spice flavors, underscored by a lively acidity.

Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm is full-bodied, creamy and concentrated.

Of course, nothing compares to sampling Gruner Veltliner in Austria, especially in the picturesque Wachau Valley, where the best ones are made.  In my book, this delightful if difficult to pronounce wine is right up there with my favorite things Austrian, including Sacher torte and Wienerschnitzel.  In fact, a crisp, fruity Gruner Veltliner would be the ideal accompaniment to both.

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