Chances are there’s a Grüner Veltliner in your future. That’s if it hasn’t happened already. Austria’s mainstay white grape can make a surprisingly complex, often delicious white that’s capturing the attention of sommeliers and chefs the world over.
Grüner has been winning more than hearts and minds: most notably, in a 2002 blind tasting orchestrated by British wine gurus Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin, it beat out some serious Burgundies and other highly rated Chardonnays from Australia and Napa.
Here in North America, we’ve been a little slower to catch on. One reason is that relatively few Grüners (and Austrian wines in general) are available in liquor-board stores. Part of the problem flows from the fact that Austrians support their wine industry with fervour comparable to British Columbians and, as a result, prices are, well, let’s just say, robust. However, our leaping loonie bodes well for consumers on this side of the Atlantic, with the result that more Austrian finds are showing up on local shelves.
Grüner Veltliner — just ask for “Gru-V” to be hip — can have a floral, perfumed aroma with an occasionally mineral and quite peppery personality. In fact, depending on its origin, this chameleon-like wine can express any number of characteristics. Some display a quiet, almost naïve entry before ambushing you with complex mineral notes and a zippy white-pepper spice that can last long into the aftertaste.
Many of the more intriguing GVs come from the Wachau region, where the vines are stressed on steeper primary rock slopes, often terrace-farmed (Terrassen), as well as from the Kamptal and Kremstal regions just north of Vienna.
Unquestionably, the best place to make Grüner’s acquaintance is at Vienna’s Vie Vinum — a biannual tasting event that attracts most of the country’s leading producers, and which is held in the city’s grandly imperial Hofburg Palace.
After tasting extensively for a few days, I found myself lured to the more mineral and complex (and, of couse, pricier) wines but I was also seduced by the more subtle and fruity offerings. Among many highlights, names to watch for include: Brundlmayer, Sollner, Hirtzberger, Holzapfel Archleiten, Rudi Pichler, Salomon … and too many more to mention (check with your local wine store though).
Grüner Veltliner has been the mainstay of Austrian wine forever — at least since Roman times. Considered to be indigenous, the only grape parent to which it’s been traced is Traminer (think Gerwürztraminer), which might explain its very floral, often quite perfumed rose-petal aromas.
Much of Austria’s grapes winds up in quaffers consumed (often with Wiener schnitzel) in 250-ml glass tankards at Heurigen, the ubiquitous wine gardens that dot the Austrian countryside and even show up right in Vienna — which has more land under vine than any other city in the world.
However, in recent years, as winemakers have developed more sophisticated viticulture techniques and taken greater care in the cellar, the once simple quaffer has taken on a new significance.
More Austrian producers are moving to clever names for their Grüners, including Loimer, one of the best. Loimer’s entry level GV, Lois, is a perfect example of a racy, clean and fresh-tasting wine, if ever there was one — in a nifty package with a green screw cap.
While scores of wineries are within an hour’s drive of the city, you can also taste your way through all of Austria’s wine regions without leaving town. “Look for oil in Vienna and a wine house will sputter up,” says a quote by Günter Bros in the famed Belvedere Palace Museum.
It’s true: wander the side streets around the imposing spire of St Stephan’s, that has defined this city since medieval times, and it doesn’t take long to discover a slice of Austrian wine culture.
In fact, no other city celebrates wine in quite the same way as Vienna, which boasts a thriving assortment of wine bars. They range from urban variations on the traditional Heuriger to sleek, multi-choice modernists like Wein & Co (www.weinco.at), which runs a trio of several successful side-by-side wine bars and wine stores, one almost in the shadow of St Stephan’s. On weeknights the place is usually packed with a smartly dressed crowd ordering their latest passion from a list of some fifty or so wines by the glass. Or, if they don’t see what they want, they can wander next door and pick up something else, come back, pay a couple of Euros for corkage while the staff happily pours it for them into premium crystal stemware.
Mosey on a little further and you might come across Weinorgel (www.weinorgel.at), where the wines are less highbrow but the pours more generous — and the atmosphere decidedly laid back.
Weinorgel is just that: a Lilliputian low-dome-ceiling space where the principal player (next to a good list of wines by the glass) is an antique pipe organ, or at least its surviving pipes and the faded painted mahogany backdrop of old Vienna. The place is a hoot in more ways than one: the pipes now do stellar duty as a glass rack but also get an occasional chance to strut their stuff between an eclectic music mix: everything from Abba to Basin Street Blues; the food is simple — uncooked plates of prosciutto, olives and cheese. No kitchen necessary.
The place bubbles, thanks to a couple of enthusiastic bartenders who greet regulars (after-work types) and visitors with equal aplomb while busily pulling corks. It’s all very Vienna, a comfortable fit of old and new — although there likely aren’t too many places in this well-dressed and finely mannered town where you are actually encouraged to dump your peanut shells on the floor. I taste my way through a respectable, fresh-tasting Topf Grüner, a clean-fruited Janek Federspiel Riesling and a medium-bodied Hillinger Blaufrankisch between nibbles of Schinkenspeck sliced right at the bar.
A ten-minute walk west, the diminutive Eulennest (www.eulennest.at) combines wine store and restaurant, with another good selection much appreciated by a crowd that runs from tourists to pin-striped merchant bankers.
Ultimately, though, food in Vienna comes down to Wiener schnitzel. Down a narrow passage in Old Vienna, locals and visitors alike pack into long tables at the hallowed Figlmuller’s (www.figlmueller.at). It’s a must-stop for schnitzel, specifically the largest schnitzel you’re ever likely to see — and unlikely to finish. It’s huge and delicious: golden, thin, lightly breaded and not greasy; and even more perfect when enjoyed with ein Vierterl — a quarter-litre tankard — of the house Grüner. As a no-nonsense quaffer, it has just the right acidity to counter the richness of the food.
The wine is similar to what you’ll find all over Vienna, especially away from the centre, in Heurigen, those informal wine taverns that serve wine of the same name. Heuriger also means “this year’s,” so the wine you’ll find there is always from the latest vintage. It’s served only after November 11 every year, dating from a 1784 law enacted by Emperor Joseph.
Almost a couple of hundred of these taverns dot the city’s environs, so it pays to hop a tram and explore districts such as Grinzinger, a leafy, hilly enclave.
Vienna’s passion for its food and wine has helped reverse the trend of losing farmland to urban development. Some 680 hectares are now planted within city limits. And thriving Heuriger account for much of the consumption, right in the neighbourhood. And just like the fresh, sometimes spritzy, very quaffable wine, the buffet-style Gemütlichkeit — such as smoked pork, fresh bread, pickles and local cheese — is also casual and uncomplicated.
Another streetcar trip leads to Weingut Wieninger (www.wieninger.at). One of Vienna’s most celebrated wineries, this quality producer is still housed in traditional cellars with an adjacent heuriger. Beyond the quaffers, Fritz Weininger makes excellent Grüner from the historic Nussberg vineyard just across the river, but the real find is the wonderfully floral and honeyed Nussberg Alte Reben Gemischter Satz — an extraordinary field blend, made from unidentified white grapes.
Sandwiched as it is between its bigger European neighbours, Austria used to be all too easily overshadowed. However, this small producer is gradually carving out a niche for Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, as well as Zweigelt and a range of modern-styled, if sometimes esoteric reds — not to mention superlative late-harvest wines.
And while you can find the wines here in increasing numbers, there’s no substitute for a visit to Vienna and a taste of its centuries-old food-and-wine culture.
The more Grüner you taste, the more you realize its potential as the perfect food companion. Sitting in a café just off Stephansplatz, I try to resist just one more glass of Grüner with my perfectly cooked gebraten Forelle — almond-crusted trout — but finally give in. The simple, gently acidic, fresh-tasting house wine is the perfect match for the mild-flavoured, moist flesh … I promise myself to drink more GV back home.
Loimer Seeberg Riesling 2006, Kamptal
A lovely wine, showing concentrated tropical-fruit aromas and flavours turning minerally on the fresh finish. A hint of sweetness is nicely balanced with lively acidity.
Franz Hirtzberger Smaradg Singerriedel Riesling 2005, Wachau
Intense and elegant, exhibiting white peaches, plum and honey; integrated with a fresh mineral finish. Delicate, alluring and delicious.
Nigl Privat Grüner Veltliner 2003, Kremstal
Elegant and focused aromas and flavours of pear, peach and grapefruit, with a subtle mineral quality from start to finish. Nice complexity with hints of pepper.
Prager Smaragd Achleiten Grüner Veltliner 2005, Wachau
Aromatic, smoky nose, leading to lovely flavours of peach, apricots and other stone fruits. The palate is silky and elegant, finishing with beautiful mineral notes.
Franz Wachter Blaufränkisch Pfarrweingarten 2004, Burgenland
Supple and fresh with a spicy nose and delicious ripe dark cherry and plum flavours, with a firm structure but soft, velvety tannins. Finishes with a lively hint of minerality.
Pfaffl St-Laurent Altenberg 2004, Niederösterreich
Ripe and round, offering brambly black cherry, blackberry, dark chocolate and spice aromas and flavours, on a soft structure with fresh acidity on the finish.
Anita & Hans Nittnaus Leithaberg Red 2004, Burgenland
A funky blend of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and St-Laurent. Lots of cherry and raspberry flavours with firm tannins and a hint of spice on the elegant and focused finish. The perfect stumper for a blind tasting.
Kracher Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese No.4 2004, Burgenland
Luscious and mouth-filling with intense, penetrating flavours of grapefruit, pineapple, apricot and sweet ginger. A little unctuous, but the vibrant acidity perfectly balances the sweetness, keeping the wine fresh and clean with a neverending finish.
(All wines were tasted by Gurvinder Bhatia.)