Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Grüner Veltliner

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Anyone that knows me knows that I love BYOBs. Not only do I get to drink wine that I know I like, but I still get that "I did something today" feeling that comes with leaving the house. The challenge I find in New York is that a lot of the restaurants that allow you to bring your own wine serve dishes from around the world—from delicate sushi to fiery Indian dishes—and the big, bold reds I have sitting at home don't necessarily offer the best pairings.

Enter Grüner Veltliner.

Grüner is not only fun to say but fun to drink, with or without food. Although unfortunately, the first and last time I was in Grüner central (Austria, that is, where it is an indigenous varietal) I was 11 years old, so I wasn't drinking too much wine that trip. And while it's difficult to generalize across the various sub-regions where it's grown, we'll give it a shot. This wine displays delicious fruit flavors, often hinting at pears. What's probably most distinguishing about this grape is the spicy, white pepper-y flavor it offers—subtle enough not to overpower delicate fish dishes, and yet still able to complement the food of my motherland (curry, that is).

In recent decades, Grüner has risen significantly in quality and has a wide range of expressions. Some bottles compare even to the much pricier Chardonnays of Burgundy. One thing to note: when Grüner is made, typically no new oak is used to age the wine. (What does "new oak" typically contribute to a wine? Well, generally speaking, two things: first, tannin, which gets extracted from the wood and leaves a drying sensation between your lip and gums; and second, flavor, which varies based on where the wood came from and how it was toasted.) Our friend Grüner, made without new oak, will have a cleaner and clearer flavor profile, which isn't complicated by the contributions of the wood, but still shows the delicious and complex flavors of the grape.

Versatile Pairing

Grüner Veltliner has been growing in popularity in part because it's a great wine for serving with a wide variety of foods. There are some foods that many people feel just don't go with wine, like asparagus and artichokes, but Grüner can be great with them. The bright acidity and slight spice of wines made from Grüner also help them pair well with heartier seafood, poultry, and pork. These pairings are recommended because the acidity of the wine "cuts through the fat" of these meatier dishes, which basically just means that the acidity enables the wine to hold its own alongside fatty and salty foods, and wipe the palate clean after each sip. The flavors of the wine don't get drowned out by the richness of the dish and instead provide a refreshing contrast. And with most bottles at $30 or less, the price can be refreshing too.

Now, that we've hopefully got your appetite going for Grüner, we can get to know some of the regions where it is found in Austria and tell you about the bottles we're looking forward to tasting this coming week.

Weinviertel

Starting up north and working our way down, Weinviertel is the largest and northernmost wine-growing region in Austria. In addition to producing a fair amount of Austria's sparkling wine, Weinviertel produces light, dry to off-dry whites from Grüner, which are known for their pepperiness. From this region, we're trying the Gruner Veltliner Freiberg 2009 from certified organic estate Weingut H.u.M. Hofer ($23).

Kamptal and Kremstal

These two regions are known for great wines of exceptional value—highly concentrated, yet lively and fresh, perfect for pairing with vegetables and even spicy Asian dishes. From the more northern Kamptal region, we're tasting the Weingut Hiedler Grüner Veltliner Thal 2010 ($29). And even as our most expensive bottle of the lineup, this Grüner still costs less than 30 bucks.

Just slightly to the south, we have two wines from the Kremstal region. First, we've got the Meinhard Forstreiter Grüner Veltliner Kremser Kogl DAC 2010 ($13.50). We'll also try the Meinhard Forstreiter Schiefer Grüner Veltliner Reserve Kremstal DAC Reserve 2010 ($24) and compare the two. What do you get when you trade up in price?

Wachau and Wagram

Wachau is a distinguished region in Austria producing a range of delicious Grüners. One thing that's helpful to know about wines from Wachau, and will help you recognize these wines in a store is the Codex Wachau, or a classification system, for which a wine's "level" is indicated on the label. In order of increasing alcohol and body, the levels are:

  • Steinfeder: lighter, simpler wines with maximum alcohol levels of 11%
  • Federspiel: medium-bodied wine with alcohol levels between 11.5% and 12.5%
  • Smaragd: this level indicates the richest wines, with alcohol over 12.5%

We'll be tasting a Federspiel wine, Domane Wachau Terrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner 2010 at a very approachable price point of $15. And from the Wagram region, to the east of Wachau, we're tasting Ecker Grüner Veltliner Schlossberg 2010 ($22.50).

Wien

Wien—the Austrian name for Vienna—is a small wine region encapsulated within the city limits of the country's capital. In addition to Grüner, a variety of white and red varietals grow here, sometimes producing interesting blends. This week we'll be tasting a straight Grüner, Weingut Rotes Haus Grüner Veltliner Nussberg 2010 ($21) which should offer some nice spice flavors. In addition to bottled wines for export, this region is also known for Heuriger wines—wines enjoyed in Heuriger taverns and poured out like wine on tap shortly after production. If I'm ever lucky enough to make it to Austria again, visiting a Heuriger sounds like a good time.

Your homework: grab a bottle of Grüner Veltliner (or three.) Order some takeout! Taste with us! We'll meet back here next week. In the meantime, please recommend your favorite bottles of Grüner in the comments.

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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