Site and yield are essential to the success of grüner veltliner (grew-ner velt-LEENER) or green veltliner, the most indigenous and abundant wine grape planted in Austria. Site, because the finicky grape needs deep, loose soils that maintain moisture and climate than protects it from numerous diseases. Yield because the vines are extremely fertile and abundant and their growth requires closely regulated pruning.
There is constant debate regarding grüner veltliner. Some see it as trendy, not sustainable worldwide. It emerged in US markets at the turn of the century, mostly as a food-friendly, popular alternative on restaurant wine lists. Since that time, popularity in this country has waned. However, still their national grape, it represents over one-third of all vineyards in Austria, nearly 43,000 acres with another 5,200 acres in the Czech Republic.
Miles outside of Vienna, in regions like Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal within the broader Lower Austria or Nierderosterreich region, gruner veltliner vines grow, side by side with riesling on terraced slopes above the Danube River. This terroir and traditional winemaking practices make rich, concentrated wines with expression. Austrians are always willing to have their wines “blind tasted” with fine chardonnay and riesling. Their grüner veltliner has always competed very well.
Much of the skepticism with grüner veltliner is over its ability or inability to age and some actually believe that it peaks during its youth. The whites of Burgundy France, Rioja Spain and some in California are now designed to age up to five years or more. To prove itself worthy and enhance its competitive nature, producers are hosting tastings of aged gruner veltliner as proof of balanced maturity. For me, it’s about taste and texture, regardless of the wine’s age and the good releases I have recently tasted deliver my
preference for that soft, creamy minerality on the finish. They also pair well with grilled fish or chicken.
A recent peak in my interest in grüner veltliner was sparked by the 2011 Carlisle Grüner Veltliner Steiner Vineyard ($25/92-pt), from a mountain vineyard in southeast Sonoma County. It began a tasting of zinfandel and syrah and I found the texture and balanced acidity impressive. It delivers an unusual combination of spice and floral aromas followed by diverse citrus, tropical and stone fruit flavors on the palate.
Fermented solely in stainless steel with no softening malolactic fermentation, winemaker Mike Officer has proven that great skill can transcend both red and white varietals. This could be the best grüner veltliner in California.
The following wines include some I have tasted and others that have been highly reviewed and are accessible. They are all available in wine shops and on-line.
The terroir in Santa Barbara County is so diverse that I am always looking for small, unique releases, red or white.
Graham Tatomer grew up working at wineries, developing both a passion for winemaking and an understanding of the breath of options available in cool, marine-influenced climates. Focusing primarily on riesling and pinot noir, Tatomer produces two grüner veltliner including the 2015 Tatomer Grüner Veltliner Meeresboden Vineyard ($27/90-pt) near Lompoc. The vineyard’s name translates to “ocean soil” and, in this case, is a combination of sand, diatomaceous earth and loam.
The wine offers nice stone fruit(peach, apricot) and citrus flavors with a unique minerality, described as “kelp-like,” throughout the finish. On the argument of preference between young and aged gruner veltliner, both the Meeresboden and the 2015 Tatomer Grüner Veltliner John Sebastiano Vineyard ($35) were designed to age with grace developing more honeyed flavors.
Wine Spectator magazine described the Austrian 2015 Birgit Eichinger Hasel Grüner Veltliner Kamptal ($15/91-92-pt)as “a powerful and savory white, with concentrated green peach, apple and white cherry flavors, accented by sage and white pepper notes.” They also predicted the wine’s drinkability will peak in two or three years. A savory wine from the Kamptal region along the banks of the Danube in northern Austria, it is a very good risk at fifteen dollars.
Chehalem Winery is located in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley near Newberg. Focusing mainly on single-vineyard pinot noir, I enjoyed, during my last visit, a very
good grüner veltliner from the Ribbon Ridge appellation. Their current release, the 2015 Chehalem Grüner Veltliner Wind Ridge Block ($24) uses both stainless steel and neutral oak barrel for fermenting which produces a balance of herbal and stone fruit flavors and a healthy minerality through the finish.
Monterey County and the Central Coast region is home to many accessible grüner veltliner releases including the Zocker Paragon Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2015 ($20) from the Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo. Rich concentrated flavors ranging from white pepper to ripe melon drive more mineral notes on the finish.
The makers of Monterey County’s Vollendet Grüner Veltliner 2016 ($24) strive to replicate a true Austrian-style wine like those from the Wachau region. The grapes are picked early and fermented in stainless steel, but stirred on lees to add richness and texture. Whole cluster pressing adds an herbal
flavors to match those of stone and tropical fruits. This wine is reputed to be food friendly for fish, goat cheese, Thai food and even fried chicken.
The best American riesling does not come from California or the Pacific Northwest. It is produced in the Finger Lakes region in New York State and Herman J. Wiemer is one of the finest. He recently began developing a “gruner” and the Herman J.
Wiemer Grüner Veltliner 2014 ($27), his second release, is getting nice reviews. Integrated and concentrated herbal, floral, melon and stone fruit flavors are described as “balanced and long.”
Domäne Wachau is the largest winery is the esteemed Wachau region and well known throughout Austria. They produce various styles of riesling and gruner veltliner from steeply sloped vineyards. Their current releases are available on-line and include the Domäne Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Gruner Veltliner 2015 ($16-20/91-pt) that is defined as a light, crisp wine that is best enjoyed now, while it is young. It has been reviewed well with particular acclaim for balance.
The Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Terrassen 2016 ($24/92-9t) is described as one of the “complex, full-bodied wines of the Wachau with aging potential.” It is their top release, using only the best grapes.
In an article debating the merits of grüner veltliner, the author described a friend who was skeptical until he shared “an F.X.” with him. Afterward, as its told, his friend was hooked forever on the varietal.
After some quick research, I discovered that F.X. Pichler, from Austria’s famed Wachau region, is arguably the world’s finest producer of grüner veltliner. Much of the aged F.X. Pichler wines are only available through auction. However, I found that the 2010 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd ‘M’ Wachau ($80/91-pt) was available through a few of the major on-line outlets.
Sourced from five different terroir within Wachau, the “M” is fermented and aged in twelve hundred liter casks. They repeated the batonnage (sur lie) process for a few months to give the wine its signature creaminess. I prefer integration of the dead yeast
back into the juice because I prefer rich, creamy wines.
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate lauded all aspects of the wine, but their report that “ green bean, apple and white peach are dusted with brown spices and Szechuan pepper” was engaging enough to consider purchasing a bottle.
The review ended, declaring “the fascinating interplay of fruit and mineral that characterizes the very best F.X. Pichler wines is missing in their “M.” This tells me that the best F.X. is still out there. I then found the 2015 F.X. Pichler Steinertal Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Wachau ($80-100/93-pt). Wine Advocate, after glowing reviews, detailed complexity and a balance of “richness with tension and invigoration.”
Beyond my reach in price and accessibility, it’s nice to dream of enjoying a glass of F.X. on a fall afternoon outside of Vienna, overlooking the Danube River.
To my mind, grüner veltliner wine is more than a passing fad. It has many fine qualities and can be a pleasant, food-friendly alternative to chardonnay and other white wines. With heightened awareness, I will now look for the varietal and, when the opportunity presents itself, enjoy a glass to discover what a “balance of richness and tension” tastes like.