The Wine Scout: If You Like Pinot Grigio…
by Merritt Olson
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the young and ultra-foxy Austrian winemaker Markus Huber. We were at a large wine industry event, and at the time I knew only two things about Austrian wine: 1) Austrian winemakers used to put antifreeze ingredients in their wines in the early 1980s, and 2) a really annoying winemaker who visited the wine bar I worked at in college used to call Austria’s most famous grape, Grüner Veltliner, “Groovy” (this was almost as annoying as the fact that he used to say “cool beans!” about everything).
Intrigued by this extremely hot dude seemingly hawking poison juice, I squeezed in among his many female fans and asked for a sample of his Grüner Veltliner, which turned out to be terrific and not at all poisonous. And, even better, for how good it was, it was surprisingly cheap.
Although no romance developed with Markus, sadly, his wines opened the door to a whole new world of white wine and an everlasting love affair with Grüner Veltliner.
So what is Grüner Veltliner, exactly? Pronounced “grooner velt-LEEN-er,” it’s the main white wine grape variety grown in Austria. It’s true that back in the 1980s, in an extremely cold vintage where the grapes didn’t get totally ripe, poor Austrian winemakers were pulling their hair out because their number one crop was essentially screwed. And legally they weren’t allowed to put sugar into their wines (which would have helped them get to the desired alcohol level and flavor profile), so some desperate winemakers turned to a chemical that’s also a common ingredient in antifreeze. I know, you’re thinking, “WTF, why not just secretly add the sugar and no one will ever know?” But we’re talking hundreds and thousands of tons, so I guess someone would have figured out that the high sugar sales in the Smaragd were not going into their Muesli (which, by the way, similarly just happened near Bordeaux — a minimart manager was fined for selling hundreds of tons of sugar to local vignerons and pretending she didn’t know it was going into local wines, which is also illegal in France).
Eventually the Germans foiled the Austrians’ plan by doing some independent, random lab testing on the wines and discovering the chemical. And although most of the wines had quantities that probably wouldn’t even make you sick, some had frighteningly high levels, and the news spread all over the wine world; it took nearly 20 years for Austria to get back up to its pre-antifreeze sales levels.
Believe it or not, this is actually good news for us, because it meant they had to be especially vigilant about making quality wines, and, even then, the guys importing them to the US had to be especially choosy to prove that Austrian wines were actually delicious and completely safe again. So what we can pretty much guarantee is that any Grüner you pick off the shelf will be really quite good.
In a nutshell, some essentials on what makes Grüner so rad:
– It has excellent acidity and lower alcohol, so it’s mouthwatering but won’t get you hammered after only one glass (which I suppose could go either in the pro or con column).
– It’s a party in your mouth: minerally, spicy/peppery, and citrusy, and is usually meant to be consumed young, but can also be aged beautifully. I’d suggest, if you’re just starting out, to get your Grüner as young as possible (2010 vintage). This ensures the wine will be fresh and still vibrant.
– It’s an excellent value — recently some Grüners have beaten out insanely expensive white Burgundies in blind tastings. The quality to price ratio is high. And you can usually count on finding a bunch in the $10–12 range. Did I just say party wine? Hello!
*Side note — the Riedel glasses you see at fancy restaurants come from Austria, too! And it’s pronounced “ree-dull,” in case you were wondering.
Here are some of my favorite widely available bottlings Grüner Veltliner:
Huber “Hugo” Grüner Veltliner 2010 ($11.99–14.99)
Minerally and bright with tons of lemon-lime and fresh green apple, this wine was my first introduction to Grüner, and is a fantastic standby for bringing to parties, and for drinking with fish and other light dishes.
Erich & Maria Berger Grüner Veltliner 2010 1 Liter ($12.99–14.99)
Super crisp, with bracing acidity and just a tiny bit of sparkle, this wine comes in a liter bottle with a twist off cap, which makes it an awesome deal. Bonus: it’s a family-owned winery!
Loimer “Lois” Grüner Veltliner 2010 ($14–17)
Imagine the smell and taste of biting into a perfectly ripe, juicy Granny Smith apple while someone is zesting a lime a few feet away. Pair that with beautiful mineral undertones and racy acidity and that’s what you’ve got in this bottle of wine.
Nigl ‘Freiheit’ Grüner Veltliner 2010 ($20–25)
This is a complex, rich wine with beautiful texture and depth. Mandarin orange and spice meld together to create a harmonious wine with a gorgeous finish. This is definitely one of my favorite wines I’ve tasted in the last few months.
This is just a short list, but there are tons of great Grüners out there. So check one (or two) out, and enjoy! Prost!
Merritt Olson has been selling wine for independent wineries for almost ten years. She also makes wine (and drinks a lot of it, too). Her wine-industry blog is merrittolson.wordpress.com. (And no one’s paying her to recommend any of these.)