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Austria's Treasure: Grüner Veltliner (October 15, 2014)

Can you name the only world capital that has commercial vineyards within its boundaries?

If you said Paris you'd be mistaken, although there is a tiny, enclosed vineyard on a north-facing slope in Montmartre planted to some 2,000 vines; but it's not a commercial vineyard. The English novelist Julian Barnes described this tiny Parisian parcel in a travel piece he wrote for The Guardian: "The Clos was created in 1933 by the city of Paris on what was previously, according to a municipal tin placard, 'a waste land, the refuge of tramps and a playground for local children'. There is a folkloric Fête des Vendanges each October (with the grapes pressed in the basement of the 18th arrondissement's mairie), whereupon the production of 1,000 or so bottles are auctioned (for charity)." My London colleague Tim Atkin MW has tasted it twice and described it as "somewhere between a decent Beaujolais and an Hautes Cotes de Nuit red – light, fruity and appealing, but of no great complexity."

The correct answer to the capital question is Vienna. The city of sachertorte, Gustav Klimt and horse-drawn carriages boasts 1,680 acres of vineyards within its limits. These vineyards support 630 producers – one for every 2,500 of its inhabitants. The vintners here grow mainly the Grüner Veltliner grape.

The district of Grinzing – a village that merged with Vienna in 1892 – is the home of heurige, the traditional wine taverns that serve the new, still-fermenting Grüner Veltliner (the white equivalent of Beaujolais nouveau). Gustav Mahler is buried in Grinzing's cemetery and Beethoven lived here in 1817, the year he was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to write the 9th Symphony. As a plaque on the wall attests, the composer stayed in a heuriger called Mayer am Pfarrplatz. Here I ate a meal that Beethoven himself must have enjoyed – schnitzel, wurst and sauerkraut with spaetzle and a glass of chilled Grüner Veltliner. Followed by a flaky pastry filled with what seemed like a half a pint of whipped cream.

The Grüner Veltliner grape, a cross between Traminer and St. Georgen, also known for some reason as Tarant Bily, represents 30 per cent of all white varieties planted in Austria; and while tourists drink it in heurigen as a frothy, cloudy wine when it's a matter of weeks old, it can age magnificently. At a celebration of the Salomon family's 222nd anniversary of the acquisition of their winery in Krems I tasted their Grüners going back to 1971, 1964 and 1954. It truly is one of the world's great white wines and a highly versatile food wine.

In 2002 a seminal blind taste-off was held in London between Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnay and the world's most iconic Chardonnays from Burgundy, California, and Australia. Austrian wines trumped the field in all three categories, outscoring such famous producers as Louis Latour (Burgundy), Angelo Gaja (Italy), Robert Mondavi (California), and Baron Thénard (Burgundy). The top wine of the tasting was Knoll Grüner Veltliner "Vinothekfüllung" Smaragd 1990 from Wachau, followed by Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner "Ried Lamm" 1997 from Kamptal.

I tasted wines from both these producers in June at Vienna's annual VieVinum wine festival and can attest to their excellent quality. At this three-day event, held in the baroque surroundings of the Hofburg Palace, I also tasted flights of Austrian red wines – three indigenous grape varieties, Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, which are produced as mono-varietals or blended with Cabernet or Merlot.

While these wines showed some good pedigree, especially the Blaufränkisch, I was most impressed by a range of 28 Pinot Noir. Austrian producers of Pinot Noir to look for are, from Niederösterreich, Schloss Gobelsburg (who also make stunning Grüner Veltliner), Gerhard Morkowitsch and Kurt Angerer. From Burgenland, Kollwentz, Feiler-Artinger and Schloss Halbturn; from Thermenregion, Winzerhof Landauer-Gisperg; and from Wein (Vienna), Cobenzl and my top scoring wine of the five flights – Weininger Grand Select Pinot Noir 2011.

One of the most interesting wines I sampled over six days of tasting in Vienna was an amazingly fresh and lively rosé, Langmann Vulgo Lex Schilcher 2013. I had never come across this wine before, so I looked it up in Wikipedia:

produced solely in the Austrian region of Western Styria... The Schilcher wine itself is a distinct rosé made from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape. It is a very old variety said to go back to the Celts, and manuscripts first record the name in the 16th century... Wines made from Wildbacher typically exhibit red berry and herbal flavors with a refreshing acidity. The colour ranges from a light onion tinge to a deep ruby. The grape was once a wild variety which was said to contain alcohol compounds which, in turn, allegedly would induce wild inebriation, hence its colloquial name Rabiatperle – rabid pearl... Authentic Schilcher wine must carry the official emblem of the white horse (referring to the Lipizzans bred in Piber for the world-famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna)...

Walking around Vienna there is no mistaking that this is a city of horses, and you don't need a well-trained nose to detect their omnipresence.




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