By Derek M. Lavallee - 09/11/08 04:23 PM EDT
Gruner Veltliner is: A) A hot new techno-band from Berlin; B) The Olympic gold medalist in the shot-put; C) A maneuver to stop hiccups; D) A white wine grape from Austria.
Congratulate yourself if you guessed D, but not too much. After all, this is a wine column.
Gruner Veltliner (pronounced GROO-ner VELT-lee-ner) is the best wine you’ve probably never heard of or tasted. The white grape, also known as GV, grows in great quantities on hillsides along the Danube River, accounting for 36 percent of all vineyards in Austria. It is hardly found elsewhere except for significantly smaller plantings in the Czech Republic and Hungary.
When most people see the word ‘wine’ coupled with Austria they assume it is a typo and Australia was meant instead. That is understandable given the vast discrepancies in the two country’s production and popularity. Until recently, Austrian wine distribution and consumption has been limited to within the country and central Europe.
Austria’s reputation in the global wine community was marred by a highly publicized wine adulteration scandal in 1985. In an attempt to increase the sweetness of white wines, some Austrian producers didn’t cheat the normal way by simply adding sugar, a technique frowned upon and easy to detect. Instead, they mixed in diethylene glycol — anti-freeze to you and me. Fortunately, they didn’t add enough of it to be fatally toxic except at impossibly high levels of consumption, about 28 bottles per day for two weeks.
But the rising celebrity status of its national grape among the general wine drinking public is changing Austria’s wine narrative. GV has long been a favorite of sommelier’s and chefs because people are impressed with the obscure-sounding name and assume it must be an informed recommendation. The truth is it’s hard to find a food GV doesn’t enhance. Eggs Benedict for brunch? Gruner. Typically fickle asparagus? Gruner. That delicious fish or chicken dish you were so charmed by at a restaurant and tried to replicate at home only to render it unrecognizable? Gruner will improve even that.
There is perhaps no better match with spicier cuisine and fusion food. “Gruners have it all. They epitomize the anytime, anyplace, any food wines that caterers and hosts love,” gushes Ben Hodgetts, Chef/Owner of Azafron, the Seattle-based caterer famous for its signature paella. Hodgetts knows well the challenge of finding wines that compliment compound extroverted flavors. “Often perfect on their own, they also possess the backbone to stand up to and not be pushed around by the oftentimes bullying flavors of traditional Spanish cuisine.”
Gruner’s dexterity is derived from its roots. The hillsides it grows on are so steep very little soil is able to remain in place. The vines are forced to feed off any nutrients they can find in the slate and granite rock. The result is a strong mineral foundation that supports a wide range of aromas (cucumber, fresh cut grass, white pepper) and flavors (Asian pear, citrus fruits). GV’s are fruity but somehow more savory than sweet. And they are entirely refreshing with a hint of effervescence.
If you are a member of the ABC club (anything but chardonnay), GV will fast become your go-to grape. In recent blind tastings (where no information about the wine’s provenance, producer, or price point is available to the tasters) GV’s outscored the world’s best and most expensive Chardonnays, including Burgundy’s famous Louis Latour.
Gruners are starting to claim shelf space in wine shops and larger grocery stores on the Hill, but selection is still limited. I’ll consider it a victory if you remember the name of this varietal the next you’re shopping. (Here’s a tip: this wine is hip and Gru-Vee.)
So I’ll refrain from overwhelming you with a list of Austrian producers to find. It is hard to go wrong with any one that costs $15 or more.