Make Way for Grüner Veltliner (July 6, 2009)
An Austrian sommelier in New York habitually asks his diners, "What would you like to drink – red, white or green?"
He's not offering them a St. Patrick's Day special or even Vinho Verde. He's trying to introduce them to his country's flagship grape, Grüner Veltliner. This wine is shouldering its way on to North American wine lists at a gratifyingly fast pace. And it's not because of any environmental considerations about drinking green. The only thing that is slowing sales is the inability of Anglo-Saxons to get their tongues around the name; but the Austrians don't mind us calling it Groovy or, even more familiarly, G.V. If you want to sound like a connoisseur, rhyme it with "Crooner Felt Leaner."
Never tasted it? Well, you're in for a surprise, because this chameleon of a wine can be all things to all wine lovers. The Austrians claim that it's the most versatile grape variety in the world – not only in the range of styles that winemakers can produce from it but in the assortment of dishes it can accompany – and they make a good case for it. Grüner Veltliner can be produced as a sparkling wine or a light, dry, easy drinking wine (best known perhaps as the famous Heurige, the new frothing wine served with chicken in the wine bars around Vienna following the harvest), or as a rich, spicy, full-bodied wine with every degree of sweetness from Kabinett and Spätlese quality up to dessert wines like Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.
Today this extraordinary grape accounts for 36 per cent of all varieties planted throughout Austria. Its provenance is uncertain but one story has it that cuttings were brought to Heidelberg in the late sixteenth century from the Valtellina Valley in northern Italy by the Earl of Rhineland-Palatinate. Contemporary DNA testing suggests that it is the offspring of the mother plant Traminer (which would account for its spiciness) and an unknown father. Twenty years ago Grüner Veltliner was a jug wine you could buy on the local market in two-litre bottles. Then some of the more prescient producers began cutting back yields for more intensity of flavour (spicy peach and apricot), giving the wine oak ageing and generally treating it like a fine wine. The ugly duckling became a swan, especially when grown in the regions of Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal, where Riesling also flourishes on terraced vineyards overlooking the Danube.
The classic style of Grüner Veltliner is produced in stainless steel, which emphasizes its peppery, stone fruit and citrus flavours with a characteristic thread of minerality. Some producers leave a little carbon dioxide in the wine to give it as little prickle on the tongue that highlights its freshness. You can serve this un-wooded style with a range of dishes, including Wiener Schnitzel, chicken and other white meats, raw and cured fish and goat's cheese as well as such wine-antagonistic vegetables as asparagus, artichoke and avocado.
The traditional style (oak fermented or oak aged in large casks) delivers a more mouth-filling, creamy wine that works well with richer, fleshier fish dishes such as lobster, crab, monk-fish and scallops. Grüner Veltliner with residual sugar pairs beautifully with Thai, Chinese or Mexican cuisine whose spicing and ingredients call for a touch of sweetness in a wine.
Austria's signature grape began flexing its muscles on the international scene after it won a series of blind tastings against other well established white wines from Burgundy and California. In 1998, at a blind tasting entitled "Chardonnay & Co.," twenty international wine judges placed three Grüner Veltliner in the top three positions. A repeat performance four years later saw six Grüner Veltliner placed in the top eight, and just to prove that it was no fluke, another tasting was arranged in London, which voted the Austrian wines 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th and 7th. Weingut Brüdlmayer was consistently in the top two placings.
At Crush Wine Bar and Restaurant, recently, I had a bottle of Rabl Grüner Veltliner "Kaferberg" 2006 with grilled mackerel. It was a match made in heaven. So next time you're dining out, and you're tired of the same old Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, check the wine list for Grüner Veltliner. You'll be happy you did.