Just like Burgundy’s finest, Grüner Veltliner yields myriad styles depending on where it is planted. Giles MacDonogh takes us on a tour of Austria
Twenty years ago, Grüner Veltliner was a prophet in his own land. Its detractors outweighed its advocates 10 to one. That attitude has now flipped; Austria’s most widely planted variety is now seen as a national treasure that can trounce great white Burgundy.
A comparison to red Burgundy, i.e. Pinot Noir, might be just as valid. A key factor that led to the grape’s belated recognition was its adaptability – it is always stamped with the personality of its native sod; flourishing in the clay of the Weinviertel, the loess of the Danube Valley, Traisental’s limestone or the primary rock scree of the Wachau. And it can be vinified in an infinity of styles. Great Veltliner, however, requires more than soil. It needs personality.
It is not just the soil it likes in the Danube Valley, but the climate, too. High rainfall slakes its remarkable thirst. To perform its more massive roles it requires water-retaining topsoils: clay is good, loess better. Indeed, since Austrians have begun to study geology and wine, some have concluded that loess and Veltliner are the perfect couple. The loess deposits east of Krems are responsible for much of that hefty, baroque Veltliner that oozes cream, pineapple and alcohol, and makes it a match for Austrian cuisine’s chunkiest pork and veal dishes.
But it would be a mistake to think all top-notch Veltliner was pure loess-grown. To the west are the schist soils associated with, but not exclusive to, the Wachau. West of Krems, Grüner Veltliner tends to be planted in gneiss and granite, making for more lyrical and less bombastic wines. A vital role is performed by winemakers here who try to bend the soil to their will.
Great Veltliner starts at the Wagram, a loess ridge on the north bank of the Danube that lies between Vienna and Krems. Officially a pure loess soil must go down three metres. The locus classicus here is the style of Bernhard Ott with his strapping, Baroque Veltliners. They may reflect Ott’s massive presence, but it would be hard to imagine him making the more sinewy wines produced by the primary rock soils of the Wachau, so much do his hunky brews reflect his own personality.
For Wagram grower Horst Kolkmann, ‘loess means energy and power’. One of the Kolkmann wines is called Löß (see recommendations, p63) and is a classic of its type. Loess wines can be a touch predictable, though. According to Franz-Josef Gansberger at Weingut der Stadt Krems, ‘the winemaker makes the difference with lighter wines’.
Michael Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg says the differences between the individual crus are dictated by geology. On the Gaisberg in Strass, for example, a layer of loess tops primary rock. In places, the rock is exposed and growers will plant Riesling rather than Veltliner. Loess deposits lurk in shady corners while Riesling will also occupy steeper, sunnier slopes.
At Weingut Bründlmayer, Thomas Klinger says the estate’s Berg Vogelsang Grüner Veltliner is ‘Riesling-like precisely because it is planted on primary rock’. Klinger is actively seeking a different identity for his Veltliner: he no longer wants the plumper style that he created in the 1990s with his heady Alte Reben wines. He is seeking something that has the weight and elegance of great white Burgundy, and looks for the appropriate soil. His elegant Käferberg (see p63) is from primary rock, limestone and clay.
For some growers, the Baroque style has been a path to success. Decanter World Wine Award winner Birgit Eichinger knows that botrytis can also create a Baroque style, as demonstrated in her 2007 Gaisberg with its 14% alcohol.
Schloss Gobelsburg’s proximity to the Danube means that in a site like Steinsetz there is lots of quartzite and chalk, pebbles and sedimentary soil. Veltliner ripens slowly here. Gobelsburg’s loess-style Veltliner is the luscious Grub. Moosbrugger says ‘it can be outrageously ripe in hot years’. It is perfectly Baroque. Pepper is what characterises his 2008 Lamm – a ‘mystery’, he says, as peppery Veltliner is generally a sign that the grape has not achieved full ripeness.
One way of avoiding the dictatorship of the soil is to blend. Moosbrugger’s Tradition (see p63) also uses fruit from old vines on Renner, a vineyard on the Gaisberg in Strass that combines shale, mica and amphibolite. Both Renner and Tradition have a beautiful purity of fruit. For those seeking a Burgundian character, a mature Renner might be the answer.
Another grower whose Veltliners are stamped by loess is Ludwig Hiedler in Langenlois, Kamptal. He has manipulated his wines in recent years, seeking to make them into brands by cutting one terroir with another.
The wines have also gone organic, altering their flavour profile. The use of vineyard yeasts means he can no longer block the malolactic fermentation, resulting in lower acidity. The sunny Spiegel and Thal vineyards are also loess. ‘Thal was planted by my grandfather in 1936 and has the further distinction of very old vines.’ Novemberlese (see p63) is different: picked in three sites, it has a more savoury, mineral character. His top wine, the Baroque Maximum, uses far more fruit from the Kittmannsberg.
Despite its volcanic appearance, the great knoll that props up the majestic Benedictine Abbey at Göttweig is also largely loess, albeit on a bed of primary rock. This may explain the rather Baroque nature of the Stift Göttweig wine from the Göttweiger Berg. The best vineyard on the hill is the Gottschelle, farmed by both the Stift Göttweig and Michael Malat, who has recently seemlessly taken over the reins from his father Gerald, one of the great personalities of Austrian wine.
Primary rock doesn’t always mean filigree wines; they can also taste of ripe pineapples, as is proven in the excellent Steinleithn from Geyerhof in the Kremstal (see p63). The spirit behind Geyerhof is that of Ilse Maier, sister of Christine Saahs at Nikolaihof in the Wachau. Like Nikolaihof, Geyerhof’s wines are organic and use natural yeasts. Since Bründlmayer created the Alte Reben style, many growers use a touch of noble rot to give their dry wines an opulent, baroque note. At Geyerhof, botrytis can run rampant in top Veltliners like the 2004 Gutsreserve.
On a high
In the Traisental, the best wines come from the crests of limestone hills that rise to 400 metres. Ludwig Neumayer is a cerebral winemaker who looks for the more angular style of loess-free soils. Growing grapes at this altitude is risky: there is a constant threat of frost so close to the Alps. The best cuvées are blended as Der Wein vom Stein (Wine from the Rocks).
The Wachau is classically a region of primary rock, but the alluvium is loess and loam, and much Veltliner is planted there. High up on the terraces, much of the topsoil is humus over Gföhler gneiss, but there is loess as well, blown in from the west. The result is that vineyards sheltered from the west wind have a higher proportion of loess. Peter Veyder-Malberg is trying to avoid loess in a bid for lean, sharp-tasting Veltliners. Age and altitude are contributing factors. His vines in Spitz are up to 50 years old while his east-facing Viessling vineyard lies at 333m under the forest fleece.
The sun sets at 6pm in the height of summer, meaning the wine is bitingly intense and aromatic. His Bruck vineyard is up at 350m and he has bought 40-year-old vines on granite shale in the highest part of the Loibenberg in his bid to produce the sort of wines made before the fashion for fat, Baroque wines began. They have a sappy, lentil-like fruit and pronounced acidity.
In the Wachau, winemakers imprint wines with their character more than elsewhere in Austria, perhaps because the terroir is more varied. Johann Donabaum’s Veltliner is less extreme than Veyder-Malberg’s. He has some 58-year-old vines in Spitz in the loess-less Point vineyard (see box, right). They are more mineral, with pronounced grapefruit, but in ripe years thunder with the rest.
Rudi Pichler in nearby Wösendorf is his own man. In Hochrain’s loam and eroded gneiss at the foot of the slopes, and in Kollmütz, on the high, south-facing gneiss terraces, he makes some of Wachau’s most elegant, tight-knit, Veltliners (see box). They can be slow to show their mettle, but are superbly smooth at their best.
Among Pichler’s neighbours is Jamek, in Joching. Both have plots in the large cru of Achleiten where the soil is composed of different sorts of gneiss, said to lend a caraway-seed-like mineral quality to Grüner Veltliner. The Jamek wines (see box) are more hedonistic than Pichler’s; their lusciousness ensured by picking as late as possible.
Almost half the Achleiten is vinified by the Domäne Wachau coop, the largest producer of Wachau wine. Domäne Wachau has another view altogether: it seeks to avoid the late-picked or botrytis character. The domäne makes the lion’s share of the Kellerberg in Loiben as well (see box above), and attributes the Kellerberg’s purity of structure and aroma to a gap in the mountains to the north, which allows a cold wind to penetrate to the vineyards.
There is no longer any doubt over Grüner Veltliner’s worth or that its special relationship with the soils of Lower Austria makes it a potential star. But soil alone is not enough: the best wines still come from the best winemakers.