Grüner veltliner has been whipsawed by wine fashion. This white wine of Austria was a darling of sommeliers when it first arrived on U.S. shores, then suffered consumer fatigue after too many trite references to
“gru-vee” reduced it to a marketing fad. But its adherents want us to rank grüner with the top white wines of the world as much because of its longevity as its quality.
Longevity was the key argument at two wine tastings I attended in recent months in Manhattan. The first was sponsored by the Wine Marketing Board of Austria, the national trade association; the second by Michael Skurnik Wines, a leading importer, and Terry Theise, the wine broker who essentially introduced American sommeliers to grüner veltliner in the 1990s.
The objective of both tastings was to demonstrate that grüner can age as well as Austrian Riesling or even white Burgundy and therefore deserves to be ranked among the globe’s great white wines.
“My hope is that grüner veltliner will take its place as a classic instead of floating around in the constellation of things that are trendy,” Theise says. Grüner, he adds, “ages more steadily than Riesling, which zigzags through good and bad phases” over the years. His tasting featured an all-star lineup of producers from Austria’s Kamptal region: Brundlmayer, Schloss Gobelsburg, Hirsch and Hiedler.
Austrian consumers demand their grüner young. When I visited Austria in December 2012, several winemakers complained to me that they were already marketing that year’s vintage because of popular demand, although they felt the wines were not yet ready to drink.
I agree that grüner ranks among the world’s greatest white wines. Yet, to be honest, I side with the consumers. The two tastings designed to show how well grüner ages featured wines going back to the 1970s. They succeeded, in that the older wines were delicious.
However, they did not make a convincing argument for aging grüner over enjoying it young. If I were to find an older, forgotten bottle in my cellar, I would happily serve it at a dinner party. But grüner is so good young that I would rather drink it than sock it away. Tasting current releases immediately after the aged wines only reinforced that preference.
Aside from its trendiness factor, grüner has evolved in a more serious way in the U.S. market. Theise’s wines were and are still aimed primarily at restaurants. But once grüner caught on, other importers began offering it at more affordable prices. Grüner is like Argentina’s malbec in that it offers good value up and down the price range: At its cheapest, it is pleasant and enjoyable. For just a few dollars more, we can buy a wine that is electrifying in its clarity and refreshing like no other. Look for subtle flavors of lemon grass, talc, roses and — in the best wines — an elemental quality reminiscent of pure mountain spring water.
The best grüners come from vineyards along the steep foothills of the Danube River northwest of Vienna, near where the Alps give way to the Pannonian plains of eastern Europe. The tiny regions of Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal and Wagram are clustered there; those are appellations to seek out. More generic (but still tasty) grüner hails from the Weinvertel, a larger agricultural region in northeastern Austria.
Grüner has not yet expanded much beyond Austria. Some is grown in California and Oregon, and there are small plantings in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Black Ankle in Maryland and Pennsylvania’s Galen Glen produce noteworthy examples, and if you travel in New Zealand, look for Seifried’s; in Australia, Hahndorf Hill.
Along with quality and value, grüner’s third claim to fame is its versatility with food. Its acidity and minerality cut through rich foods, while its inherent fruitiness tames spice.
“We are confronted with 130 or so different cultures in this country,” says Aldo Sohm, chief sommelier at New York’s Le Bernadin restaurant. “What other wine can match that many cuisines?”
Sohm can be forgiven a bit of bias. He’s Austrian. Grüner is universal.