Grüner Veltliner may be more than Austrian Riesling, but it sits easily alongside the noble grape, and shares some characteristics. PHILIPP BLOM reports.
For many years Grüner Veltliner, the staple grape variety of Austrian white wine, has been synonymous with Viennese hedonism, and long summer afternoons passed in a state of pleasurable inebriation at a Heurigen, surrounded by vineyards and general rustic bliss. What people remember (if indeed they remember anything the next morning) is a young wine without any distinction, fresh and peppery, often drunk as a spritzer and accompanied by hefty dishes. More recently, however, wines made from this grape have gone up in the world. Grüner Veltliner has arrived, and those in the know (in Austria, at least) increasingly think that it can equal Riesling in quality, diversity, and in its ability to mirror its terroir.
Grüner Veltliner accounts for some 37% of total wine production in the country. It can be traced back to the 19th century and was known under various names such as Grüner Muskateller and Weißgipfler. It really began its victorious march through Austrian vineyards in conjunction with the (in)famous Lenz Moser training method, a high training system for grapes designed to maximise yields and ease manual and mechanical work in the vineyard. Grüner Veltliner was well suited to this treatment and was found to produce reliable yields of about 100hl/ha. The next important development to influence the styles of Grüner Veltliner wines was the introduction of pneumatic presses and of extremely careful harvest practices. While the tannic content of the thick skins of the Veltliner grapes had previously made it impossible to produce wines from highly ripened grapes, the new production methods minimised mechanical stress and allowed producers to extract the must without extracting unwanted tannins. With these improvements, the Lenz Moser system, good for reliable production but not for the finest qualities, was being replaced by other, lower forms of training. The way to a completely new style of Veltliner wines – more mature, more precise and more concentrated – was open.
In order to achieve greatness, Grüner Veltliner needs weathered rock and loess soils, good temperature variation between day and night, and a moderate climate that accommodates its long vegetation period. The best wines are made in Lower Austria, just 30 to 40 miles northwest of Vienna, in the Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions, though there are some fine outsiders in the Weinviertel as well. The eastern and southern wine regions of the country rarely produce any Veltliners of distinction.
In the Wachau, the grape finds perfect conditions with granite, weathered granite and loess soils, and with terraces which have good exposure and temperature variation. Most of the great Veltliners here are vinified in the more powerful Smaragd grade (12.5% alcohol and more according to the gradation of the Wachau), though there are also some fine lighter wines.
In the Kamptal, just a few miles along, there are also some fine examples, though winemakers here have to struggle against the grape’s tendency to produce broader, fatter wines on the more loess-dominated soils. The Kremstal, directly adjacent to the Wachau, has not yet exploited its potential by any means, despite the fact that there are some very fine vineyards here. This is partly the case because many of the best crus belong to an inefficient cooperative, the Winzer Krems, which produces utterly forgettable wines there. What a waste.
This article proved a welcome excuse for surveying the 2000 vintage of Veltliners. The only factor that really caused worry in this overall excellent year was the rain in late October that threatened to disrupt the harvest and caused many growers to decide to harvest late, up to the end of November. This brings its own risks in the case of Veltliner, or it does from my perspective. I am no great friend of 15% bombshells that explode on an unsuspecting palate with concentrated exotic fruit and enough high octane to fuel a tank. In the right hands such powerful concoctions can be an experience to savour, though hardly a bottle to drink merrily with friends. Not for nothing does Franz Xaver Pichler, the high priest of this style, modestly call his star Veltliner ‘M’ for Monument. On the other hand, the most elegant Veltliners, and perhaps the ones with the greatest ageing potential, are to be found in the 12.5–13% alcohol range.
The conundrum for winemakers is that they chase every last nuance of complexity by leaving the grapes on the vines as long as possible and have to accept, or so they say, the high alcohol as a side effect. Some of their colleagues, though, challenge this idea. Toni Bodenstein of Weingut Prager, for instance, who is as happy discussing literature as he is dissecting the characteristics of soils and microclimates, has shown with his 2000 series that it is possible to produce superbly expressive and complex Veltliners (and Rieslings) at around 12.5%, and without presenting the fruit pickled in its own alcohol.The aromatic spectrum of the grape is remarkably rich. Veltliner can produce high and reliable yields that translate into a very satisfying everyday tipple. If this lighter quality is made with more care, such as the Wachau Steinfeder wines, it can express itself in elegant and gracious wines with delicate perfume.
At the other end of the spectrum, Grüner Veltliner produces intense, great reflections of its terroir, as varied as the Riesling with which the best Veltliner commonly competes for vineyard space.
The ageing potential seems immense; the oldest (and extremely rare) pre-war bottles, made in a different age of technology and oenological knowledge, are still going strong. Well made, powerful Veltliner can age easily for 40 years and more.The typical aromas of these wines are citrus and grapefruit, always with the trademark black pepper note; this is often, depending on the area and style of vinification, intermingled with scents of cut grass and green apples, ripe apricot or plum, roses, exotic fruit like mango and lychee, quince, apricot jam, dried fruit, fruit bread, and strong mineral components. These riper notes are present also in nobly-sweet wines which are produced in Lower Austria in exceptional years, though botrytis is used by some winemakers (such as Emmerich Knoll) as a stylistic signature.Maturing Grüner Veltliner often evolves astonishingly like Chardonnay, so much so that at blind tastings professional tasters often mistake top Veltliners for great burgundies: the peppery note vanishes and the wine broadens out into an immense variety of interplaying aromas of cooked apple, apricot jam, exotic components, and strong mineral terroir tones, supported by rock-solid yet lively acidic/tannic backbone. This ageing potential is as true for the dry wines as it is for botrytis-affected wines and ice wines which are made with considerable success in years when the quality lends itself to this vinification.
Attempts have been made to plant the variety in New York State, Germany, New Zealand, and Argentina, and there is some grown in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, but the only wines of great quality still come from a tiny area to the northwest of Vienna. The problem may be that the variety is too simple to grow, too productive and adaptive, yielding fat and undemanding, uninteresting wines in most places. However, in regions that can offer the right conditions and don’t make it too easy for this rather lazy genius, it could produce great wines outside Austria. Winemakers of the world, unite!
Simple day-to-day wines can be light, perfumed and pleasing. More complex examples can be intense and long lived. Typical aromas are of citrus, grapefruit and the hallmark black pepper.
- A high yielder which can produce
- Concentrated dry and sweet whites which can evolve like top Chardonnay.
- Can give very high alcohol and also dull, undemanding wines if unrestrained.
Franz Hirtzberger 2000 Grüner Veltliner Honivogl Smaragd Green apples and capsicum. 15% alcohol
integrated effortlessly, liquorice, powerful and complex, great length. £22.50; Els.
Weingut Prager 2000 Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd Typicity and elegance, concentrated fruit. Long. £17.50; M&V.
FX Pichler 2000 Grüner Veltliner ‘M’ Smaragd Noble on the nose, still slightly yeasty, complex exotic aromas. Rae, Sec.
Martin Nigl 2000 Grüner Veltliner Privat Deep, mature fruit, harmonious, wonderful ageing potential. N/A UK.
Philipp Blom is the author of The Wines of Austria, published by Faber.