Grüner Veltliner, also dubbed Gru-Vee, has started to cause a real stir amongst noted wine writers and connoisseurs, which is surprising as it is an indigenous variety hailing from none other than Austria. Despite being better known for its Reislings, there’s actually ten times more Grüner Veltliner planted in Austria and their wine industry is now giving Gru-Vee the due respect and attention it deserves.
In a blind tasting held in the UK by Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin, Austria’s Grüner Veltliners and Chardonnays took an amazing seven of the top ten places when pitched against top Chardonnays from around the world, which included several highly rated white Burgundies. It is this unabashed consistency in quality that is launching the grape variety into orbit, leaving behind its relative obscurity of yesteryear.
Under its original name of Grüner Muskateller, the grape variety is thought to date back to Roman times but its current name was first recorded in the mid 19th century. Its name literally translates as the ‘green grape from the village of Veltlin in the Tirol’. Traminer is known to be one parent of Grüner Veltliner according to recent DNA analysis, but the other remains a mystery, as researchers cannot find any relationship with any Veltliner variety. Being a hardy and naturally productive vine some of the less distinguished vineyards of Lower Austria use some of their large crop of the relatively neutral Grüner Veltliner as a base for the Sparkling Wine, Sekt. Since it ripens relatively late, its success will be restricted to fairly warm climates, but there are already plans to plant it in Southern New Zealand. Undoubtedly, the Austrian winemakers will capitalise on Grüner Veltliner’s worldwide notoriety and plant even more of the vine.
It was a short time after the Second World War that it began to come out of its hiding place when viticulturalists started to appreciate its capabilities. The antifreeze scandal of 1985 propelled the Austrian wine industry into the public eye and since then Grüner Veltliner has been at the centre of the vast improvements in Austrian winemaking. Grüner Veltliners are not often found in the UK simply because the Austrians themselves seize most of the best produce and this insatiable domestic demand raises the prices. Austria isn’t renowned for being one of the world’s biggest wine producers and this also gives their showpiece wine a sense of exclusivity. With its ability to match with a variety of foods (including the impossible asparagus), versatility and in many cases the ability to develop complexity with age, Grüner Veltliner is certainly gaining in popularity.
Grüner can be enjoyed in a number of ways – as a light and easy gulping wine, very infrequently as a sparkling wine, or as a complex, intensely flavoured spicy white, often with an unexpected suggestion of white flower and cracked pepper. Grüner Veltliners do not often require oak to develop character and this has no adverse effect on consistency across the board. They are generally fermented in stainless steel and aged either in tanks or very old, large casks, although there have been recent (although unsuccessful) experiments with barrique-aged Grüner Veltliner.
The steep, Rhine-like vineyards of the Danube West of Vienna produce very pure, mineral-tasting Grüner Veltliners; these are intended for aging and hold their own in competition with some of the great whites in the world. Below in the clay terrain of the plains, you’ll find more pronounced citrus and peach flavours in the wines produced, with spicy notes of pepper and occasionally tobacco. These wines tend to be served young in vast quantities in the Heurigan bars in Vienna. A far lesser amount of Grüner Veltliner is grown South of Vienna, but these vineyards tend to be dominated by red and dessert wines because of the warmer temperatures. The Czech Republic, particularly Southern Moravia close to the Austrian border, also produces some outstanding Grüner Veltliners (known as Veltlínské zelené), which account for approximately 11% of their wine production and their second most widely grown white grape variety after Müller-Thurgau.
Less than a decade ago, very few wine lovers outside Austria had even heard of Grüner Veltliner, yet these days, the top international restaurants give it the credibility and the world stage it deserves. As the global market becomes ever more saturated with copy cat wines from the major varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, consumers and retailers alike are demanding quality alternatives. Grüner Veltliner gives these consumers both a new country category and a fresh taste profile. Its distinctive taste characteristics make it an interesting match to a number of food types including the difficult ‘fusion’ styles. The Austrian wine industry has so far capitalised on the scarcity of this variety and managed to mirror the marketing tactics and pricing success of New Zealand whites.