Vines and vineyards are some of the most enduring features of the European landscape. Whether the climate is the bone-chilling plains of northern Europe, or the sun-splashed Mediterranean, the pleasantly pastoral vineyard plots are perhaps among the greatest legacies of the continent.
Grapes of European origin, including Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot, have deservedly found success in international terroir and marketplaces. But, lesser-known grapes that have flourished for centuries in little burgs have seen their fortunes rise, albeit modestly. The ascension of Austria’s Grüner Veltliner is exemplary – it has triumphantly fused time-honored best practices with modern sensibilities.
This tiny alpine nation regards “Grüner” with nearly the same esteem as the edelweiss or the ubiquitous strudel. The grape thrives in fertile valleys and on steep hillsides.
Grüner Veltliner’s success has been achieved against some strong resistance that sometimes buffets white wines. There’s overly branded, yet insipid Pinot Grigio, along with oaky Chardonnay. These are so widely available that they’re poured (and spilled) in chintzy hotels and on airplanes – the latter appropriately “cellared” in the galley near the lavatory. Remember, value and cheap mean very different things.
An herbaceous aroma with a crisp, mineral-driven palate is the front-and-center characteristic of the Austrian varietal – along with a little more body than Sauvignon Blanc. All these characteristics also provide it with more verve and food-friendliness than all-too-plentiful Pinot Grigio. Want validation? The prestigious Culinary Institute of America calls Grüner Veltliner an “Emerging Wine of Europe.”
And, consider that it is often paired with dishes that include asparagus. This sprig is often symbolic of an obscene gesture to all wines. However, enjoying it with Austria’s finest is perhaps the ultimate testament to the varietal’s versatility.
“Grüner Veltliner is knocking on the door,” says Eoin O’Donnell, Regional Food & Beverage Director of First Hospitality Group, including Grand Station in suburban Arlington Heights. “Its only handicap might be that it’s difficult to pronounce – not unlike [Greek] Assyrtiko. It can range from a light, simple aperitif to a complex wine, rivaling a great white burgundy.
“The Kamptal region is a personal favorite,” O’Donnell continues. “Kamptal Grüners tend to be richer and deeper, with a touch of stone and flint. Weingut Brandl’s 2009 Pfaffenberg is mind blowing, and demonstrates the typical markers of white pepper, lentils, watercress and radish. Its acidity and body make it remarkably easy to pair with food.”
Below are a couple of other suggestions that Value Wine Chicago has enjoyed recently, and are widely available at local retailers for good prices:
Domaine Wachau Terrassen Federspiel 2009: Harvested from vineyards adjacent to the storied Danube River, this is a medium-bodied Grüner that is versatile and pairs with seafood and poultry. Aroma is of crisp pears, and this continues on the palate into a distinctly tart citrus. “And this is such a first-rate producer,” says Rich Peters of Wine Discount Center. $11.
Birgit Eichinger Hasel 2009: Has the initial crisp minerality of a Pinot Grigio, but the similarity stops quickly between this and its neighbor to the south. More light-bodied than the aforementioned Grüners, this would be an ideal aperitif, or serve with small plates including goat cheese. $14.