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Grüner Veltliner

Gruner Veltliner cluster and leaf.Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, accounting for 37 percent of the country's total vineyard area, about 50,875 acres. Most of these vines are in the large wine region known as Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), along the Danube River north of Vienna. It also grows in a few other Eastern European countries, such as Slovakia, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic, but the variety is most closely associated with Austria, where it has been cultivated since Roman times. Simply put, Grüner Veltliner is the indigenous variety of Austria.

Until recently, Grüner Veltliner had always been considered a high-production commercial grape, best suited for the simple, easy-drinking wines that flow so freely in the ubiquitous Heurigen (wine pubs) of Austria. Like Riesling, this variety adapts easily to many soil types and can tolerate higher crop levels. Thus, it seemed a natural fit for the Lenz Moser vine training system. This system, named for the Austrian producer who developed it, was designed for high yields in widely spaced vineyards that could easily be worked with machines to reduce labor costs. The result was light, simple wines -- and lots of them.

Since the early 1980s, when the quality pendulum started swinging back toward the positive side in Austria, the Lenz Moser system has fallen out of favor. Austria's serious winemakers have discovered that, with lower yields and higher ripeness, Grüner Veltliner can produce stunningly intense and concentrated wines. Even the simple wines, from overcropped vines and underripe fruit, can have very pleasant citrus and grapefruit aromas, with a hint of the variety's most distinguishing characteristic: the spicy fragrance of freshly ground white pepper.

Today's better wines, however, from top sites and lower yields, can be astonishingly complex, full of exotic tropical fruits, white pepper and lentils. They can also show aromas of green beans or asparagus, an engaging "vegetable" smell that is seldom "vegetal", especially when grown in mineral soil.

There is a vast amount of ordinary Grüner Veltliner grown in the Weinviertel, a district within Niederösterreich and Austria's single largest winegrowing area. Although there is some potential here, the wines are mostly of the simple sort and primarily consumed locally at the many wine pubs. Currently the best wines from this variety are being made in the three smaller, adjoining districts along the Danube: the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal.

In just a couple of decades, the Wachau has become widely known as the source of some of the most powerful, incisive dry Rieslings made today. The steep, terraced vineyards and very warm climate here provide exceptional ripeness for massive, big-boned wines.

The predominance of primary rocksoils (granite and gniess) gives the wines a nearly monolithic structure that is mysteriously nimble; forceful without being overbearing; big without being heavy. Grüner Veltliner grown in these soils also shows this massive build, becoming deeply perfumed and complex as they age. It is like drinking liquid stone.

While the finest Grüner Veltliners from the Wachau are deep and powerful, the most elegant examples of this variety come from the Kremstal and Kamptal. Here, sandy loam and loess soils are lighter than those in the Wachau, but still very much mineral in composition. Grüner Veltliner finds its finest balance in loess, the fine-grained, densely compacted glacial dust that has blown in over many thousands of years. The best wines from this type of soil will age gracefully for many years, becoming ever more elegant and refined as the decades pass.

It's ability to age beautifully is one of the many interesting characteristics that Grüner Veltliner shares with Riesling. Both varieties have naturally high acidity, an essential component of wine that will age well. With today's improved winemaking technology, it is still too soon to say how the modern versions of wines from either grape will age for the long term, but the indications are quite positive. And in the Wachau, the consensus seems to be that Grüner Veltliner will ultimately be the longer lived variety.

Great Austrian Grüner Veltliner Vineyards

Wachau
Loibenberg
Ried Schütt
Kellerberg
Achleiten
Steinriegl
Hochrain (Wösendorf)
Honivogl

Kremstal
Senftenberger Piri

Kamptal
Käferberg
Ried Lamm
Spiegel
Zöbinger Heiligenstein

Grüner Veltliner also matches Riesling's ability to capture the essential character of a particular vineyard through its crystalline clarity and purity of flavor (i.e. lack of oak treatment). Thus, it is very interesting to taste examples from different vineyards side by side, especially wines that have some age because, with time, they become more and more expressive of their origins.

In Austria, however, it is still very much the tradition to drink the wine as young as possible, which is somewhat regrettable; and to drink them with food, which is absolutely correct. Grüner Veltliner is perhaps the single most versatile food wine in the world, often surpassing even Riesling because of its ability to pair with "difficult" foods such as artichokes and asparagus.

Except for an occasional dessert wine made from botrytis-affected grapes, Grüner Veltliner is usually a full-bodied dry wine (up to 14% alcohol) with a firm mineral backbone, giving it the strength of character to work well with many cuisines. It is especially well suited to modern cooking that focuses on the fresh flavor of local ingredients and the variety is eagerly being embraced by creative chefs and innovative sommeliers around the world.

by Kirk Wille


RELATED LINKS
The
Austrian Wine Marketing Board site provides additional information on appellations and and other grape cultivars.
AUTHOR
Kirk Wille is co-publisher of
The Riesling Report, a bi-monthly e-zine that reports on, promotes, encourages, and publicizes wines made from Riesling and related varieties. This article is reprinted from the May/June 2002 issue, with permission.

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