First of a two-part series
on Austrian wines
When you are presented with several glasses of white wine and asked to determine which one is gruner veltliner, my advice is to think in reverse.
Find the oaky, toasty wine and eliminate it as chardonnay. That overtly grassy one is most likely sauvignon blanc, the flowery flirt is the Virginia viognier ringer, and the ripe peach with lime zest is probably Riesling. The enigmatic wine in the last glass, the one with the bracing acidity that had you thinking Riesling and with the slight herbal quality that unconvincingly suggested sauvignon blanc — that one’s the gruner.
So one way of approaching gruner is to define it by what it isn’t, because we’re not familiar with it. But of course it can be described positively as well. Gruner veltliner echoes some of the better-known varieties yet ultimately speaks a language of its own. You have to get rid of the noisy wines in order to hear it, which is to say: Shed your preconceptions about what white wine should taste like and listen to your palate.
Gruner veltliner is the main white grape of Austria. Riesling shines there as well. So think Germany as your reference, but don’t simply lump Austrian white wines in with their northern neighbors. Austrian whites are almost invariably dry, so they should appeal to consumers wary of sweetness in German wines. (I don’t condone that fear in German Riesling, but it exists, and Austrian wines are the answer.) Austria’s dry whites are often compared with those of Alsace, which have a German accent as well. But I find them more delicate and subtle.
Gruner veltliner enjoyed a mini-popularity wave about a decade ago, when the quality of these wines was discovered and unscrupulous wine writers and PR folks tried calling it “GruVe.” (I’ll stick with “gruner,” no matter how angry that makes me sound.) American winemakers are taking interest: Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland and Galen Glen in Pennsylvania make respectable gruner, and the grape is being grown in small amounts on the West Coast.
Yet these wines are not all the rage among consumers. “People remain wary of umlauts and words that sound too much like ‘schnitzel,’ ” importer Terry Theise wrote in his 2012 catalog on Austrian wines. Theise was one of the first importers to bring these wines to the United States; he has been joined by many others.
“Austria produces very food-friendly wines — red and white,” says Klaus Wittauer, who imports wines for his Northern Virginia-based KW Selections brand. “Our biggest challenge is that for the average consumer, Austrian wines are in the same category as German wines.”
There are several reasons to explore Austrian gruner veltliner, and to do so now. Simply put, the wines offer tremendous value throughout the price spectrum. At the low end, they are almost uniformly good and occasionally spectacular in a vibrantly fun, fruity way. At $15 or more, gruner begins to show complexity and subtlety, with lemon grass (citrus and herbs), meadow flowers and a faint talc minerality. Spend $30 or more and, yes, the wines get expensive, but they can rival and exceed any other whites at that price range for excitement and value.
The 2011 vintage was particularly ripe and successful in Austria, and the whites are now on the market here. That means quality was high throughout the entire range of wines, including several that are sold inexpensively in the one-liter format — 33 percent more than the typical bottle.
“You are advised to go stir-crazy on this category,” Theise wrote.
I could not agree more.