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Gruner pastures.

From the austere young examples, with their flinty taste and green vegetable aromas, to well-aged bottles, rich with tropical fruit essences, Gruner Veltliner is an immensely drinkable, food-friendly Austrian white wine whose popularity in the US has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. The most widely grown grape in Austria (currently 36% of all plantings), Gruner Veltliner (or GV, for short) thrives in that country's relatively warm and dry climate, where extremes in temperature are mitigated by large bodies of water, most notably the Danube River and the Neusiedlersee Lake. Gruner Veltliner is etymologically related to the lesser-known Roter (red) Veltliner and even lesser-known Brauner (brown) Veltliner, but these grapes are genetically distinct from GV. Their DNA exactly matches that of the Weisser Veltliner, Gelbling and Silberweiss grapes, while GV appears to be an ancient hybrid of Traminer and another, as yet unknown, grape.

Gruner Veltliner tends to center in Niederosterreich, or lower Austria, within which are three important districts: the Wachau (pronounced VOK-ow), the Kremstal and the Kamptal. Cleaved by the Danube and marked by some of the country's most sharply terraced vineyards, the Wachau is planted primarily with Riesling and GV, and is home to a system of classification that provides three categories for the district's white wines: Steinfeder, the lightest style; Federspiel, a richer, more fruit-intensive wine; and Smaragd, the highest quality Wachau whites, named for a species of lizard that basks in the sunny heights of vineyard terraces along the river. Grapevines in the Wachau are grown on primary rock soil, lending a slight mineral quality to its GV's.

The Kremstal and the Kamptal were once considered a single region, called Kamptal-Donauland, which was divided in 1993 and renamed for the areas' respective rivers, the Krems and the Kamp. The Kremstal is adjacent to the Wachau, and its combination of loess soil and primary rock make for wines with slightly greater body. Kamptal, to the northeast, is home to Langenlois, Austria's largest wine city. Its GV is even richer and more intensely flavored that that of the Kremstal, owing to the soil's combination of loess, clay and primary rock. GV is also produced in smaller amounts in Austria's Wien (Vienna), Neusiedersee and Weinviertel wine regions, as well as in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Italy's Alto Adige region, whose Veltliners tend to be leaner and more refined than their Austrian counterparts, with a well-expressed mineral quality.

Gruner Veltliner's flavor profile varies based on storage conditions, region and vintage, but overall, it is a dry and fruity wine with relatively high acidity, varying levels of minerality and a spicy, freshly ground pepper quality. According to James Koch, whose company, JK Imports, brings one of the few GV's from Italy into the US, "Even within a region you have completely different makeups of the wine, from fairly neutral to lots of minerals. In general it is produced in a very fresh style, but there are some rather boring examples to be found."

According to Alex Adlgasser, wine director at Cafe Gray in New York, GV is most often consumed in Austria, within three years of its production. Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, in The World Atlas of Wine (5ed, Mitchell Beazley 2001), write, "Veltliner wine when it is well-made and drunk young is marvelously fresh and fruity, with plenty of acidity." It has, however, demonstrated a capacity to age gracefully to more than 30 years. Robert Bohr, sommelier at Cru in New York, says, "We recently opened a 1969 [Gruner Veltliner] that was truly remarkable. We do have a lot of older bottles on our list. If they're from the better vineyards, they get riper, hotter and denser as they get older. They get more complex in the nose. At two or three years, they're not showing their full range of complexity the way they do much later on." During my visit to Cru, Bohr poured a 1976 GV from Krems-based Weingut Leth with rich, honeyed flavors and distinctive lychee notes. That day, for purposes of comparison, I also sampled a 2000 Gruner Veltliner 'M' from FX Pichler, located in the Wachau. According to Bohr, the M stands for "monumental", and is meant to signify a GV from the geographic area responsible for that year's best grapes (in the year 2000, from Loibnerberg). The wine had a slight effervescence that diminished after decanting, sweet botryized aromas and apricot notes.

Although less than 4% of Austria's vineyards are planted with Riesling grapes, Reisling wine is a far more common and celebrated Austrian product than GV, which begs the question: how does GV stack up against what is perhaps Central Europe's most noble grape? Wine experts offer conflicting verdicts, with many questioning the validity of such an "apples and oranges" type comparison. "There's no reasonable dispute that Riesling is the greater wine," says importer Terry Theise. He further expounds upon the question in his 2004 Estate Selections catalog, saying, "Gruner Veltliner is a damn-near great grape variety. Often while tasting it I wonder how dry white wine can be any better, and then the Rieslings start appearing ... and you see that they have just a little more dynamism and finer flavors. Thus the Veltliner is always priced around 10% below the Riesling, which is correct. THE BEST GRUNER VELTLINERS ARE THE BEST VALUES IN THE WORLD FOR GREAT WHITE WINE [Theise's emphasis]."

Karen King, a 20-year veteran of the Union Square Hospitality Group who is currently the beverage director for all dining outlets at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says of the comparison, "Riesling has the right pedigree, but Gruner Veltliner, grown in the right place with the right genetic materials, and the age of the vines being older, can give Riesling a run for its money." Of the two wines' ageability, Adlgasser says, "Both age quite well, but the truth is that an older Gruner Veltliner is just not easy to get your hands on."

GV trumps Reisling in a way that is also a function of its obscurity outside Austria--that is, its appeal to open-minded wine drinkers looking for something new. In that context, says Bohr, "Gruner can be a much easier sell than Reisling, because it carries fewer connotations, and people don't have that preconceived notion of sweetness. I've seen a huge growth in its popularity over the last five years." As one of the most food-friendly white wines available, some of that demand may be attributed to restaurants' increasing emphasis on food and wine pairing. GV is often called upon to solve common pairing dilemmas. "It doesn't just work with artichokes, it sings with them," says Theise, and points out that it is also the thing to drink with shrimp, avocados, wild mushrooms and peppery winter greens like mizuna, tatsoi and arugula.

It has a lower price point than Reisling, none of Reisling's reputation for excess sweetness, a certain outsider appeal and, above all, wide-ranging food friendliness, so why has it taken Gruner Veltliner so long to capture the heart of the American wine drinker? Some point to the infamous scandal of 1985, in which roughly 200 Austrian producers and distributors were found to be adding potentially toxic amounts of diethylene glycol, or automotive antifreeze, to their wines to give them extra sweetness and body. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms immediately required the testing of all Austrian wine imported before the scandal broke, and encouraged consumers to return already-purchased wines to retailers. In Austria, the government urged citizens not to drink any domestically-produced wines until tests could determine its safety. While the upshot is that Austria now has the most stringent winemaking and labeling standards in the world, the scandal's effects on consumer confidence abroad took at least ten years to dissipate.

As King says, "Austrian wines were just not in the market until late 1994 or early 1995. They weren't being exported from Austria, and the wine world wasn't embracing them. I can remember when there were only two Australian wines available, to say nothing of Austrian wines ... they might have been ready to come into the market earlier, but the scandal held everyone back." For wine professionals, fear of the unknown has also been a factor in GV's slow rise, according to King, who recalls a meeting, five years ago, of sommeliers from across the country.

"We were talking about wines by the glass and some of the sommeliers in the room were saying, 'There's no way I could sell Gruner Veltliner by the glass, it just wouldn't fly.' I thought, that's so not true, I've been doing it for years. I think sometimes we underestimate what our client is going to be open to." With more and more restaurants devoting space on their wine lists to Austrian wines, and an ever-increasing level of sophistication among diners, it looks like professionals and wine enthusiasts are finally opening up to GV.
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Title Annotation:Gruner Veltliner wine
Publication:Art Culinaire
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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