Why Gruner Veltliner?

Just when we’ve become comfortable with the pronunciation and flavors of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier and roussanne someone suggests a gruner veltliner (grew-ner velt-LEENER). Some may ask, “What is this?”; others merely, “Why?”

To start, it’s the most indigenous and abundant grape in Austria. Miles outside of Vienna, in regions like Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal within the broader Lower Austria, gruner veltliner vines grow, side by side, with riesling on terraced slopes above the Danube River. As to why, that terroir with traditional winemaking practices make concentrated and expressive wines not to be overlooked.

Domaine Wachau along the Danube River. (Courtesy photo)

Gruner Veltliner is Austria’s national grape, accounting for one-third of its total production. With nearly 43,000 acres under vine, they understand the need for deep, loose soil that maintains moisture, climate that retards disease and willingly accept the required commitment of closely regulated pruning.

Austrian releases are significant white wine options that often fall under the radar. However, plantings of gruner veltliner by U.S. winemakers has increased awareness and availability. Grown in many California regions, other releases from Oregon and New York state are also on the rise.

My interest in the varietal peaked a few months ago, when I tasted the 2011 Carlisle Gruner Veltliner Steiner Vineyard (92-pt), sourced from the mountains in southeast Sonoma County. It actually served as the opening to a tasting of zinfandel and syrah, but I was drawn to the complexity of the white wine. Set between the spice and floral nose and the mineral nuanced finish were citrus, tropical and stone fruit flavors for the palate.

Zocker Paragon Vineyard Gruner Veltliner 2015. (Courtesy photo)

Days later, at Sessions at the Presidio, I paired a glass of Zocker Paragon Vineyard Gruner Veltliner 2015 with grilled fish tacos and cumin slaw. Sourced from the Edna Valley southeast of San Luis Obispo, it’s subtle spice and more concentrated melon and fruit flavors with patented mineral finish was the right wine for my meal.

Focusing on riesling and pinot noir from the cooler Santa Barbara climate, Graham Tatomer produces a few gruner veltliner releases. The 2015 Tatomer Gruner Veltliner Meereboden Vineyard (90-pt) offers nice stone fruit flavors with a finish described as “kelp-like.” The vineyard’s name translates to “ocean soil” that, in this case, is a combination of sand, diatomaceous earth and loam.

These three California-grown releases from northern, central and southern terroir illustrate the diversity of the grape and our state. Outside of California, this varietal seems to flourish on each coast.

Chehalem Winery in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley mainly focuses on single-vineyard pinot noir. During our last visit, we enjoyed a very nice gruner veltliner from the Ribbon Ridge appellation. Their current release, the 2015 Chehalem Gruner Veltliner Wind Ridge Block, uses both stainless steel and neutral oak for fermenting and has been well-reviewed.

In Austria, gruner veltliner and riesling vines are often grown together. It was only a matter of time that Fingerlakes Lakes, N.Y., origin of our country’s best riesling, would begin to produce its collaborator. The Herman J. Wiemer Gruner Veltliner 2014, the second release from the noted producer, is available at some Bay Area wine outlets.

In an article debating the merits of gruner 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.

F.X. Pichler Gruner Veltliner Smaragd. (Courtesy photo)

The name F.X. Pichler, from the Wachau region, is associated with, arguably, the world’s finest and most expensive gruner veltliner. Having tasted an F.X. Pichler wine years ago, I recall the creamy texture that I later learned was created from the batonnage (sur lee) process. After glowing reviews, Wine Advocate declared that the 2015 F.X. Pichler Steinertal Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Wachau (93-pt) delivered complexity and a balance of “richness with tension and invigoration.” While not fully comprehending what that means, it does sound intriguing.

Last evening, in my American mid-century home, I enjoyed the Carlisle Sonoma County Gruner Veltliner with a slab of French Comte cheese and a great jazz recording by the Polish-based Marcin Wasilewski Trio. It was the perfect global pairing, and I may do it again tomorrow. Why not?

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit Lyle’s blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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