It’s currently fashionable in the wine world to once again profess one’s admiration for grüner veltliner — just as six or seven years ago, it was de rigeur to dismiss grüner veltliner as a passing fad. But please believe me, because I’m being sincere when I tell you this: I have always loved grüner veltliner. Always. I’m not one of those wine writers who fell quickly in and out of love, only to now “reconsider ” things because I need a new story angle. I am true of heart. GV, I have never, ever stopped loving you.
I remember fondly the late 1990s and early aughts, when grüner veltliner was just becoming trendy. I was still a young man, but had passed through my flannel-shirt-grunge-failed-novelist days and had begun a semi-respectable career as a food writer. Grüner veltliner dominated the wine lists of the restaurants I was reviewing. “If viognier and sauvignon blanc had a baby,” we were told, “it would be grüner veltliner.” In many people’s minds, GV replaced both the New Zealand sauvignon blancs that were so popular and California viogniers that many were pushing. GV became a default white, perfect with all sorts of food, and reliable quality no matter how good or bad a wine list was.
Then, sometime around 2007, grüner veltliner ceased to be cool. People discovered Friuli or Jura or orange wines or rediscovered riesling or chenin blanc, or in any case moved on to other trends.
Last year, one of the most fascinating pieces of wine writing — and one that particularly played to my own nostalgia — was to be found in importer Terry Theise’s catalog of Austrian wines. In his introductory copy, 60-year-old Theise addressed a new generation of wine professionals now in their twenties and thirties, whom he sees ignoring and disrespecting Austria’s signature white wine grape.
“Most of you know it exists, yet there’s a kind of stink to it, as in something that ‘used to be trendy.’ Think of the way you’re discovering all these hitherto-unknown cool things from all over the place, and how much fun it is. That was Grüner Veltliner in the late 90s and early ‘aughts.’ And you don’t want to repeat what those guys did; you want to do new things. Got it, and sympathize.
The problem is, what should have happened was to recognize GV as a classic, wheras what did (too often) happen was it got swept into the rubbish pile of the previously fashionable.
You’re not gonna like what I’m about to say, but in the service of truth I have to say it. Not one single thing that’s been discovered, trumped, lionized, promulgated, put on wine lists and talked about with giddy delight, not ONE. DAMN. THING. has been nearly as excellent as Grüner Veltliner.”
Theise, of course, is the man who introduced most of us to grüner veltliner in the 1990s. I find his plea to the younger generation fascinating, and borderline poignant, because I can clearly picture this middle-aged man, frustrated that he can’t get the kids to see how cool we all were way back when. Theise, whose loud views I find way too over-quoted by an insider wine press (and frankly, whose sales hyperbole is often hard to swallow) was now a man trapped by his own self-created fashion, the vicious cycle of wine trendiness that rewards the flavor of the month and punishes the flavor of last month.
Yet at the same time, Theise seemed a wholly sympathetic character, someone who’s willing to stand up, after all, for that which is classic and good, not just trendy. Because Theise, like his schtick or not, is totally correct about Austrian grüner veltliner. Dollar for dollar, it represents the world’s best value white wines at all different price points, from $13 to $18 to $40 and up. Its baseline quality, its food-friendliness, and its ability to age, is as good or better than just about any other white you’ll find.
Still, if you ever doubted for a moment that wine wasn’t a slave to fashion, consider the 30-year trajectory of GV’s image.
Though Austrians have been making grüner veltliner and enjoying it fresh and young at local wine taverns, called heuriger, since the heyday of the Austrian Empire, it was almost unheard of in the United States. In fact, prior to the 1980s, the only reference to grüner veltliner I can find comes in a 1978 column by the New York Times’ Frank J. Prial, who spells it “gruner weltliner” (no umlaut and with a “w”) and dismisses it as a “fresh, light wine of no particular character.”
By 1985, the only thing most Americans knew about Austrian wines was, during that year, a bunch of unscrupulous wine merchants poisoned their wines with a chemical used in manufacturing antifreeze, in a ham-handed, criminal attempt to increase sweetness levels. That scandal pretty much destroyed whatever small market Austrian wines had at that point. (1985 was also the year that suspected Nazi Kurt Waldheim successfully ran for president, so it was a particularly bad year for Austrian public relations.)
By the time that grunge, Kate Moss, trip hop, and heroin chic became fashionable in the early 1990s — when I came to legal drinking age — no one drank or spoke of Austrian wines, let alone grüner veltliner. But the poisoned-wine scandal forced Austria to pass some of Europe’s strictest wine laws and quality-control procedures. While keeping true to Old World ideals, winemakers embraced certain New World technologies — for instance, they were among the first Europeans to embrace screwcaps over cork.
Then, all of a sudden, near the end of the Clinton administration, grüner veltliner just exploded. In January 2000, the Times’ Prial reported from a “big professional tasting at the TriBeCa Grille,” tasting along with new generation of sommeliers “mostly in their 30’s, looking like a gaggle of graduate students with their book bags and parkas stacked haphazardly by the door.”
Those young somms were after grüner veltliner, which Prial declared “was the most sought after wine at the tasting” and that “the once-inoffensive little wine of the Viennese cafes” was now “the rage” at New York restaurants. That rage burned on for the next several years. People started calling grüner veltliner things like “groo-vee” or “groo-groo.”
But as the aughts and the Bush administration wore on, the love affair inevitably waned. By 2006, wine writer Lettie Teague was asking, in Food & Wine, “Is Grüner a Great Wine or a Groaner?” In that column, Teague quoted top sommelier Belinda Chang, who said grüner veltliner had become “too trendy” and “was kind of a one-night stand for me.”
By 2009, the bloom was officially off the rose when the New York Times’ critic Eric Asimov wrote about a “disquieting” tasting in which his panel — which also included Chang — found “too many wines that were not up to snuff…some were ponderous and heavy…others seemed simply wan and lacked snap.” Over the next few years, you’d be hard pressed to find a wine hipster who wanted to talk to you about GV.
Fast-forward then to late 2013. After Theise published his plaintive catalog copy, a new sort of reconsideration of grüner veltliner seemed to take hold. “It used to be that I considered Grüner Veltliner a fad grape. I’ve come to see just how much it can make a world-class wine,” said San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné in an interview with Serious Eats — a sentiment that was gaining currency within the wine cognescenti.
Last fall, a big trade tasting of aged grüner veltliner, sponsored by the Wine Marketing Board of Austria, happened at Le Bernadin in New York, with many heavy-hitting wine critics in attendance (including Theise). The tasting apparently showed the wine’s aging ability, with vintages dating to the 1970s (I wouldn’t know; I’m not “heavy-hitting” enough to be invited). Wine writers who attended dutifully went back and wrote about old GV. Suddenly, wine people were chattering again about grüner veltliner.
So much so that Jancis Robinson, the esteemed UK author and critic for the Financial Times who was in attendance, was amused enough to write a column headlined, “New York’s faddish wine community.”
“I was in Manhattan two weeks ago and was fascinated to observe just how fashion-conscious its wine commentators are,” Robinson wrote. “Image is everything in the faddish New York market. If Groo-vee had been less popular it might have chugged along as a welcome ingredient on any wine list, as it is in the UK, but success can be a killer in New York.”
All of which, I guess points to a lesson we all inherently know: What was once in fashion, and then out of fashion, will most likely come back around into fashion. Just wait long enough — just like I did with my grunge-era flannel shirts that still hang in my closet.
Grüner is Great
Grüner veltliner is a medium to full-bodied white that’s usually peppery with green (like celery) or herbal notes and crisp orchard fruit flavors, and a core of lively acidity and often smoky minerality. While you can find consistently good bottles under $15, when you shop in the $18-$25 range you find wonderfully balanced and complex whites that offer value often comparable to significantly more expensive dry rieslings and white Burgundy.
Here are 18 recommendations at $25 and under. The first five are my top picks, followed by 13 that also offer tremendous value.
Stadt Krems Grüner Veltliner Weinzierlberg 2013 (12.5% alcohol by volume, $25)
A full bodied grüner, with melon and pear flavors and an herbal note at midpalate. Big and green in the very best way.
Leth Grüner Veltliner Steinagrund 2013 (12.5%, $16)
Very aromatic; lots of orchard fruit and peach, with a core of acidity in the mouth and a lovely, rich finish.
Nigl Grüner Veltliner “Freiheit” Trocken 2012 (12%, $20)
Herbal nose with lots of minerality. Chalky and earthy, with a lively acidity and lime zest, tangerine, and honeydew melon flavors in the mouth. Has a finish that is crisp and long. Very complex.
Huber Grüner Veltliner “Obere Steigen” 2013 (12.5%, $24)
Beautiful white flowers on the nose. Holy pepper – both white and black, and great acidity on the finish. Rich and complex.
Karl Lagler Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Burgberg 2012 (12%, $20)
One of those wines that is better described more as a feeling than flavor. Soft, delicate texture and powdery talc on the nose. Fresh, less ripe peach, with a bit of pepper and smoke. Shy and quiet, but still a lively long finish. Delightful.
Huber Grüner Veltliner “Terrassen” 2013 (12.5%, $18)
Rich in the mouth with apricot and lots of white pepper. Still green, but with a coating minerality.
Ewald Gruber Grüner Veltliner Mühlberg Reserve 2011 (13.5%, $25)
Balanced, with white pepper on the nose, and spicy and lemon flavors.
Hiedler Loss Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12.5%, $18)
Very peachy, with a great minerality and muted acidity. Clean and crisp.
Leth Grüner Veltliner Steinagrund 2012 (12.5%, $16)
Grilled pineapple and peach on the nose. Peppery with a hint of pleasant spring green, with lots of lime. Lively mineral finish.
Forstreiter Grüner Veltliner Grande Reserve 2008 (13%, $16)
A complex nose; it’s full of minerality, pepper, and even a little nuttiness. Tart white grapefruit, herbs, and a rich, savory edge in the mouth with lively acidity. A little bit of age for a good price.
Huber Grüner Veltliner “Hugo” 2013 (12%, $15)
Crisp, fresh, and green – a classic grüner veltliner. Pear and green apple flavors in the mouth with a kiss of spice on the finish.
Loimer Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12.5%, $13)
Golden in color with big pepper aromas on the nose. Enticing acidity, with lime zest and good minerality.
Hirsch Grüner Veltliner #1 2011 (11.5%, $13)
Nicely balanced, with a touch of lively acidity at midpalate. A clean, fresh nose with aromas of orchard fruit and talc. A very linear wine with a great midpalate sensation.
Ewald Gruber Grüner Veltliner Röschitz 2011 (12.5%, $13)
Crunchy and rich, with fresh pear and grapefruit and a very pleasant texture.
Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner Kremser Goldberg 2012 (12.5%, $13)
Young, with slight effervescence at the pour. Powdery nose, with crunchy acidity at midpalate. Subtle fruit of pear and lemon, with lots of minerality on the finish.
Ecker-Eckhof Grüner Veltliner Landwein 2011 (12%, $13/Liter)
Simple but drinkable and satisfying. Pear, spice and crisp acidity. Great cheap buy.
Mayr Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12%, $13/Liter)
Peach, with a touch of sweetness, but (whoah!) super white pepper on the finish.
Berger Grüner Veltliner 2012 (12.5%, $13/Liter)
True tavern wine, served in a liter bottle enclosed with a beer cap. Grassy, like a fresh meadow, with a hint of apricot and pepper.
Lead photo by Julia Silva. All others courtesy of Austrian Wine.