04/02/2013 10:55 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

Fabulously Food Friendly and Ageworthy Grüner

October 2012 051

Ever need a wine that will pair especially well with healthy food choices -- grilled vegetables, salads, light chicken and fish dishes? Could you use a fully versatile wine that goes not only with lighter appetizers and your vegetarian spouse's dishes but even, for a white wine, surprisingly well with red meat? Do you sometimes enjoy vegetables, like asparagus or artichoke, that don't seem to pair with wine at all?

The wine that can manage all that is made from Austria's most widely planted grape -- Grüner Veltliner, or "GruVee," as some in the U.S. and Britain have begun calling it.

Several years back, sommeliers who are always looking for better food pairing wines and preferably something exotic started putting Grüners on their lists and recommending them to patrons. While many of those early proponents have since moved on to other white wine discoveries, Grüner remains one of the most versatile and food friendly wines around. And excellent examples can be found for $20 and under.

Snooth, the U.S.'s most heavily trafficked wine website, organized a series of seminars for wine writers and bloggers in New York City that I attended this past weekend. They invited Aldo Sohm, "Chef Sommelier" at Le Bernardin and 2008's "Best Sommelier in the World," to talk to us about Austrian Grüner, and to walk us through a tasting of a dozen Grüners from different parts of Austria, made in different styles, at all price points.

Aldo Sohm at Snooth Grüner seminar

Aldo Sohm at Snooth Grüner seminar

Besides being extremely knowledgeable about Austrian wines and winemakers, Aldo is also making dry Grüner in partnership with Austrian sweet wine specialist Gerhard Kracher. One of their wines was among the dozen we sampled.

Aldo explained that Austrian Grüner is made in a range of styles, from light and fairly low alcohol, mainly from high yielding vineyards planted on low lying flatland; to very dry, showing white pepper and minerality; to ripe and rich; and even to sweet versions. He also drew parallels between Austrian Grüner and Chardonnay grown in France's Burgundy region.

For one thing, Austrian Grüner is grown at the same latitude, between 47 and 48 degrees north, as Burgundy. A well publicized series of blindtastings of top white Burgundies and Austrian Grüners in the last several years surprised the assembled critics when several Grüners placing higher than grand cru white Burgundies.

Like the best Chardonnay from cooler climates, Grüner too is capable of long aging, putting on "tertiary" flavors after 15 years or so of age, and ultimately capable of going 20 to 30 years. Unlike much Chardonnay, Austrian Grüner is usually produced with little or no new oak, although some have experimented with aging at least part of the wines in new French barriques.

Thanks to DNA typing we now know that Grüner is the offspring of Traminer and a grape of which only one vine is known, discovered in 2000 in an overgrown pasture land where no grapes had been cultivated for more than a century. Because this vine was found in the village of St. Georgen, it has been dubbed St. Georgener-Rebe ("St. Georgen vine").

Grüner Veltliner (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

According to Aldo, Grüner is different from Riesling, the other great white grape of Austria, in that it likes deep soils, prefers plenty of moisture and excels on midslopes as opposed to the less rich soils of hilltops. In other words, Grüner is a grape that likes to "luxuriate," as opposed to Riesling, which does best when it is "made to suffer."

Aldo also prefers Grüner from the 1980s to the early 1990s, and from the last several years, since 2004. He explained there was a trend of including botrytised grapes -- grapes shriveled by "noble rot," and therefore with more concentrated sugar -- from 1997 to 2004 in Austria that made those wines take on more tropical fruit flavors and honeyed richness than is typical of most dry versions of the grape.

Snooth Grüner seminar

Snooth Grüner seminar

Listed in the complete version of this post on my website are 55 Grüners from recent vintages I've sampled, with prices and tasting notes, including the dozen we tried with Aldo last weekend. Most of the others I've sampled at trade tastings organized by Terry Theise with WineWise and The Vienna Wine Company. Terry is the leading importer of Austrian wines to the U.S.

One of the wines on my list is actually a Grüner from Italy's northern Alto Adige district, which was part of Austria until 1918, and where a substantial amount of Grüner is still grown. Grüner has also long been grown in Austria's neighbors Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and there are increasing plantings in New Zealand, South Australia and the U.S.

The two most recent vintages are a real contrast, in that 2010 was a very cool growing season in Austria, resulting in some relatively austere wines with very high acidities, while 2011 had quite warm temperatures from July on, leading to very ripe, full bodied wines.

Consistently, vintage after vintage, the greatest producers of Grüner in Austria based on my tastings over the years are Hiedler, Hirsch, Nigl, Nikolaihof, Schloss Gobelsburg and Willi Bründlmayer. I've also been impressed with Grüners from Bernhard Ott, Ebner-Ebnauer, Graf Hardegg, Sohm & Kracher and Veyder-Malberg.

Nikolaus Saahs of Nikolaihof

Nikolaus Saahs of Nikolaihof

The greatest values among my recommendations, with delicious examples available for $20 or less, are the 2011 Nigl Privat Seftenberger Pellingen Erste Lage (93+ points; averaging $18), 2011 Ebner-Ebenauer Weinviertel DAC Birthal (91+ points; $18), 2011 Graf Hardegg Vom Schloss (91+ points; $18), and 2011 Hiedler Löss (91+ points; $18). There are also a lot of great Grüners, including some from famous old vineyards, priced much higher than this, from $25 to $80, the great majority of which are purchased and consumed domestically in Austria.

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