Friday, February 01, 2008

Sink or Swim with Gruner Veltliner

Think of a great wine region whose wines you have not explored. Piedmont maybe? Burgundy? Bordeaux? Champagne? Now imagine going to a dinner and tasting those wines, but not just any wines - some of the greatest wines that region has to offer. Lots of fun for sure. But as a learning experience it reminds me of being thrown off the dock as a kid. A thrilling sensory experience that stimulates adrenaline production, sharpens the mind and the body. A bit frightening too. A couple of weeks ago I recreated this childhood experience by attending a 2006 Gruner Veltliner dinner at Trestle on Tenth in Manhattan.

Gruner Veltliner is the most heavily planted wine grape in Austria but until pretty recently (in old world wine terms, anyway), around the 1960's I think, Gruner Veltliner was not made to achieve the highest levels of quality. No, instead they were making oceans of thirst slacking cafe wine. So Gruner is a relative new-comer to the fine wine situation. Gruners can be young drinking, crowd pleasing, refreshing wines, and they can be inward and brooding wines that require many years in the cellar to reveal their true charm. And there is a lot of middle ground too.

I have a tiny bit of experience with GruVe, as the cool cats call it, including a tasting at my house about a year ago. But this dinner, this was a whole different story. What I am assuming is most of the range of Austrian Gruner Veltliner was at this tasting, from the racy and lithe Federspiels to the structured and powerful Smaragds. There were wines at this dinner that are basically impossible to get, as there are so few bottles made available in retail. Whatever is allocated then usually gets snapped up by the people with special access - wine buyers at stores, repeat customers who buy every year, that kind of thing.

I'm going to tell you what I learned, and which wines I particularly liked, but you have to promise to take this with a grain of salt because I was thrown off the dock. First, here is a list of the wines, all from what is supposed to be the greatest vintage for GruVe in Austria in a very long time, 2006:

Alzinger Muhlpoint Federspiel
Rudi Pichler Wachauer Federspiel
Hirtzberger Rotes Tor Federspiel
FX Pichler Frauenweingarten Federspiel
Schloss Gobelsburg Lamm
Schloss Gobelsburg Steinsetz
Salomon Von Stein Reserve
Brundlmayer Loiserberg
Setzer 8000
Holzapfel Achleiten Smaragd
Jamek Achleiten Smaragd
Jager Achleiten Smaragd
Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Smaragd
Rudi Pichler Hochrain Smaragd
Hirtzberger Rotes Tor Smaragd
FX Pichler Kellerberg Smaragd
Hirtzberger Honivogl Smaragd
Knoll Vinothekfullung Smaragd

I learned that the northeastern part of Austria is where all of the best Gruners seem to originate, from regions called Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal. Federspeil is a classification used in the Wachau for wines of between 11-12.5% alcohol. The name means literally falcon game, or falconry, something that is quite popular in the area. These are the entry level wines for the great GruVe producers, in that they drink well when young. They are lighter wines that can show real elegance and complexity. Wines classified as Smaragd, the name of a local lizard that hangs out all day in the steep slopes of the sunny vineyards must have at least 12.5% alcohol, and are the Grand Cru wines of the Wachau, if there were such a classification. These are wines for long term cellaring.

When I asked some of the folks at the dinner what it is that makes Gruner Veltliner special, this is the reply that stuck with me: "it's the structure. The great ones are like white Burgundies in that they are so well structured, they pack in so much power to go along with the ripe fruit. Cellaring brings out incredible complexity."

I wasn't able to keep notes on the wines because I honestly had no idea what was going on. I just tasted and enjoyed and was completely unbiased, and in that way, some of the other folks at the dinner were curious to hear my reactions to the wines. Nothing external clogging up my senses. In general I enjoyed the Federspiels quite a bit, as they were far more approachable at this stage in their lives. But even if the Smaragds were not as approachable, some of them, even to a GruVe neophyte like me, were obviously amazing wines.

Of the Federspiels, my personal favorite was the Alzinger, which is funny because when it was first poured I thought it smelled like stinky washed rind cheese. It tasted and felt great, but that smell - phew. Re-tasting it later on, the cheese smell was gone, and a salty wet rock floral thing in its place. To me, this wine was more about crystalline purity and texture, and the mineral over the fruit. It paired very well with the house cured gravlox, and should cost around $25.

I really liked the Jamek Achleiten Smaragd, a wine that stood out for me because it was so well balanced - it just worked perfectly with itself. I found myself reaching for it again and again, even after that flight was gone. Not sure about price, but I think it would be about $45.

We tasted several Smaragds that are very difficult to find, from what I understand. These included the Pichlers, both Rudi and FX, the Knoll
Vinothekfullung, and the Hirtzberger Honivogl. I appreciated each of these for their intensity, concentration, and their potential energy - they felt like coiled springs. It was easy to sense the structure of these wines, and easy to imagine them growing and maturing nicely for the next 20 years in a cool cellar. But I do not have the experience to really understand these wines. It would be as if you never tasted an aged Barolo (and I never have) and went to a dinner that featured 10 different mature Barolos. How to make sense of it all?

So it was another wine, a more accessible wine that was my favorite of the night.
The Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Smaragd had that same concentration, structure, and potential energy, but also the immediate pleasure of ripe fruit balanced with great acidity, lots of minerals, and a floral mouth aromas after swallowing. Already very precise and chiseled, with clean and fresh flavors. Maybe this wine is not as exciting as a Knoll or a Pichler to those folks who really know these wines, but I loved it. And at about $58, I just might splurge on a bottle or two to put down for a while. Especially since this wine is actually pretty easy to find.

Stephen Bitterolf, one of the people at the dinner, is a wine buyer at Crush. He posted his notes from the dinner on the Crush website. They are lots of fun to read, and I imagine would be far more interesting than my notes if you already know something about Austrian Gruner Veltliner.


Anonymous said...

Well, in one evening you surpassed my lifetime experience of GruVe. They're not inexpensive. And their names are tongue twisters. Reading between the lines, I thought you didn't sound quite as passionate about these wines as you have about, say, some Loire Valley wines. Am I mistaken?

Joe Roberts said...

Love the GruVe. But man, it ain't easy to find (especially in the Communist-wealth of Pennsylvania)!

Which sucks, because my wife eats mostly veggies, and GruVe is just ridiculously good with the veggies.

I've got some very accomplished wine geek buds who have spent entire Fri. evenings tasting nothing but GruVe, and their tasting notes state things like "Holy f--king sh-t, best nose EVER!", etc.

Anonymous said...

just stopping by and finding one of my favourite wines here in brooklyn - gruner veltliner... hope you´ll have more occasions for testing and falling in love with these wines...

greetings from the gruner veltliner country! :-)

Brooklynguy said...

hey steve - you're not wrong, no. but to be fair, this was my first real excursion into the world of high end GV. they really were great wines, but i'm not yet passionate. i could get there though, it's possible.

hey joe - welcome, and thanks for your comments. if you're anywhere near Philly i bet david mcduff could help you find them. have you visited his blog?

hi e - wait - are you in Austria or in Brooklyn? thanks for stopping by either way.

Anonymous said...

Seems like the cream of the crop of GrüVe (yep cool cat) to me.
I had a great - and amazingly cheap - GrüVe from Soellner last night. Soellner is an interesting biodynamic winery in Wagram (
He also makes a Roter Veltliner which should be equally good. And he's distributed in the US as well.
Cheers, Steven

Brooklynguy said...

hi Steven - thanks for the tip, and for your comments. am i imagining it, or does it seem as if a high proportion of the GV serious producers are biodynamic - Demeter even?

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil, it's thrue that quite a few of them are biodynamic/organic. I don't have an explanation. Maybe they saw the success of Nicolaihof and figured this was the way to make really great wines (the Nicolas Joly effect, sort of). Interesting question. Thanks for your advice on Oregon PN by the way.

Brooklynguy said...

what advise?

Anonymous said...

I think I meant "recommandations" ? Sorry if my English sucks, I'm learning a lot here ;-)
You recommended Belle Pente and St Innocent. I appreciated that.
Best regards, Steven