It has taken even the Austrians a while to truly appreciate the distinctive Grüner Veltliner. But those who do discover it, says GILES MACDONOGH, are inevitably smitten.
I am a lover of Grüner Veltliner, and was at first sight. Not many Austrians could be so categorical. Until recently I think many of them hoped the cultivar would quietly go away. A decade ago, I remember telling the editor of a leading Austrian wine magazine that I was about to do an extensive tasting of Grüner Veltliner. He patted me on the back in a sympathetic way, but made it abundantly clear that he could see no point in my going to so much trouble.
Austria was going through a reaction against the ubiquity of the grape variety that had overrun the vineyards of Lower Austria in the 1950s and 1960s. When I became keen, the national press was rather more interested in Chardonnay and Cabernet.
Although Grüner Veltliner was first spotted in Lower Austria in the 18th century, it owes its rise and final victory to Hochkultur – the high training method pioneered by Lenz Moser III in 1929. The grape worked well in the new plantations, where a lot of the varieties traditionally associated with Lower Austria – notably Sylvaner, or Grüner Veltliner’s possible cousin, Roter Veltliner – failed to adapt. After the grape swept the board, Austrians and – chiefly German – tourists got used to the textbook Grüner Veltliner they encountered in many country inns or buschenschenken.
In those early days it was probably lieblich, a little sweet, but after 1985 a useful dry formula was arrived at: picked at 16˚ or 17˚ KMW and chaptalised by one or two degrees, it was light, pleasant, and sported a little vegetal taste reminiscent of lentils. In good years when it was fully ripe there was a taste more akin to pineapples. Come rain or shine it always had – according to its aficionados – a little white pepper aroma, which Austrians refer to as the pfefferl.
By and large it has only been in the last 10 years that Austrians have come to terms with the idea of Grüner Veltliner as a high quality grape. That is to a large extent because foreign commentators – also chiefly Germans – have been telling them what a great grape variety they have in their midst.
The old style Grüner Veltliners are still with us of course (and long may they last), the ideal partner for a plate of cold pork and a cucumber salad in a country inn. They derive their character from the moist, heavy soils of the eastern Weinviertel. In the west, where Schloss Mailberg produces its Veltlinsky, there is less pepper or lentil flavour because of the relatively arid climate.
On the primary rock soils of the Wachau and the Kremstal, there is a different Grüner Veltliner altogether, and it is this one that has chiefly excited journalists and wine lovers in recent years. Complexity is the thing here, yet it is not always easy to tell that it is Grüner Veltliner at first sniff. In dry years the grape’s character is always muted, and some might argue that a rainy vintage benefits Grüner Veltliner as much as it damages the quality of the Riesling in the neighbouring plot.
Lastly, it should be said that Grüner Veltliner is very largely confined to Lower Austria. It has no significant presence in Styria and is dying out in Burgenland, where the workhorse grape is Welschriesling. Even in Vienna its role is played by the classic grape mix or mischsatz, which makes the traditional wines of the vineyard inns or heurigen.
Below are the 10 best Grüner Veltliners on the British market, which now boasts some of the top names but lacks typical examples of the sort you might meet every day in Austria. Most Grüner Veltliner is fermented and aged traditionally in large oak tuns or stainless steel vats. Some producers, however, have taken to fermenting their heavier musts in barrique. Fred Loimer in Langenlois was an early exponent of this style. Like many top Smaragds, these wines tend to nudge 15% alcohol, and there is an ever louder critical voice that cries, ‘Enough!’ Such powerful white wines are difficult to accommodate at the dinner table.
FX Pichler, durnsteiner kellerberg smaragd 2000
For the Austrian schickimicki (young and moneyed), Franz Xaver ‘FX’ Pichler and Franz Hirtzberger, the two best-known growers in the Wachau, have the same status as celebrity footballers do in Britain. At weekends they get into their Mercedes and go up to the Wachau in the hope of a sighting. Everyone wants to be able to say: ‘I buy my wine directly from FX.’
FX’s wines resemble the man: they can be a touch on the austere side, and this Grüner Veltliner is typical. They are wines to admire with the head rather than love with the heart, but no one could fail to be impressed by the balance and ethereal length of this classic Wachauer Veltliner. £28.79–30; Gdh, Rae (key to stockists)
Hirtzberger, honivogl smaragd 2000/>
The other half of the great Wachauer duo, Franz Hirtzberger could not be more different from FX. With his red hair and freckles, he looks like a jolly farmer, and his wines, despite the leaner climate of Spitz, give the impression of being more open and fleshy. Traditionally made, Honivogl was always the biggest, ripest wine in Spitz. It has a touch of earthy terroir character, and is rich, high in alcohol and spicy. £22.95; Gau (key to stockists)
Knoll, schutt smaragd 2000
Emmerich Knoll is the sphinx of the Wachau. In a good year, he is at least the equal of the two front runners, but his enigmatic personality seems to keep him in their shadow. His vines are in Dürnstein but the wines are richer and fuller than FX’s. The wines are vinified in old wood and Knoll abominates modern ‘techno-wines’. In Schütt, Knoll comes closest to the style of FX, in that the wines can be austere and mineral in their youth, but with time they open out, displaying a rich, pineapple-like bouquet. This is no exception: the pineapple is very present on the nose while the palate reveals a certain amount of lentil. The wine is wonderfully playful. It finishes with a note of white pepper and lemon peel. £225 for 12; Sec (key to stockists)
Prager, achleiten smaragd 2000
Franz Prager was one of the pioneers of dry white wine in the Wachau, but the wines are made by his son-in-law Toni Bodenstein. Like the Honivogl, this young wine has a certain earthiness and tightness, but with time it will unravel itself superbly. £17.99; You (key to stockists)
Nikolaihof im weingebirge 1999
An organic wine from a family that has been installed in this house for more than a century. Christine Saahs is proud of the terroir character of this 1999 Grüner. Like all of the Saahs’ wines they are tightly made and take time to loosen up. They are worth waiting for. £17.99; Rae (key to stockists)
FWW terrassen thal wachau smaragd 2000
The FWW (Freie Weingärtner Wachau) is the largest cooperative in the Wachau and the source for Cat’s Leap. It also bottles some of the top crus. The Terrassen is a compendium of different sites from one of the richest and most opulent recent years. The wine is remarkably spicy and high in alcohol. £10.56; H&D (key to stockists)
Bründlmayer kaferberg 2000
Willi Bründlmayer is Austria’s great all-rounder and this is another huge wine from this super-ripe vintage. Here are some of the classic aromas –pineapples and lentils – but with 15.5% abv, it is to be consumed in moderation. £16.50; Rae (key to stockists)
Hiedler spiegel 2000
Ludwig Hiedler is one of the best traditional growers in the wine town of Langenlois. This is another 2000 that shows the ripeness of the year and the comparatively low acidity that was the result. £7.95 (currently 2001 vintage); BBR (key to stockists)
Schloss Gobelsburg ried grub 2001
This wine from this old Cistercian domaine matures in large oak. It has always been a fat, rich, powerful wine. The lighter and more classic 2001 vintage has given it a beautifully long finish. £14.95; Har (key to stockists)
Pfaffl hundsleiten sandtal 2000
The only one from the Weinviertel. This region is the home of Austrian Grüner Veltliner and the yardstick by which most people would judge. Roman Pfaffl is not really the best example – his wines are too good. Another ponderous 2000, with a slightly sweet finish. £9.75; Rae (key to stockists)
The ageing process
It is difficult to talk about ageing wines in Austria, as there is, for the time being, no old-wine culture. Virtually everything is drunk as soon as it released. Ideally, the top Grüner Veltliners should be consumed at two to three years while the Rieslings are maturing in bottle, but this rarely happens. A tasting in 1992 did show Grüner Veltliners going back to the 1920s. Those made with residual sugar were still alive. After two or three years, they lose their primary fruit. A musky, earthy flavour often develops, or an orange or tangerine-like note, and they become far less Veltliner-like. Unlike good Riesling, they do not evolve in a predictable, linear way.