AN AUSTRIAN REVELATION
If you've never heard of Gruner Veltliner, you're not alone, but Austrian winemakers are using this grape to produce white wines of power and grace.
Would you believe that some of the most exciting white wines being made in Europe today are not from France? They're not from Germany or Italy, either. And they're not Chardonnays, nor Rieslings. Some of the greatest wine discoveries are to be found in Austria, and they are the wines made from the Grüner Veltliner grape.
So, when was the last time you drank a Grüner Veltliner? The answer, unless you have visited Austria, is almost certainly "never." Yet here is a grape, native to the country, which is able to produce wines that range from crisp and dry to lusciously sweet (see box page 38). And it all comes from a region that stretches little more than 100 miles from west to east.
Austria's leap into quality wines is a recent, exciting phenomenon. From being mainly bulk producers less than 15 years ago, Austria's wineries have changed their focus. The younger generation of winemakers has decided to concentrate on small-scale production of premium wines. As is usually the case when this happens, prices have risen accordingly, but many Austrian wines still offer excellent value, especially considering the high standards of the country's winemaking.
While Austria's Rieslings have been caught up in this wholesale change of direction, it is the quality of the Grüner Veltliners that has moved furthest and fastest. Better grape growing, improved vinification techniques and a general shift in attitude on the part of producers have all contributed. And consumers eager to expand their horizons will be the beneficiaries.
Once Grüner Veltliner was seen as the quaffing wine for the heurigen, the wine cafés that line the cobbled streets of the small villages in the woods around Vienna. It was light, fresh, fairly high in acidity, often with a slight prickle of gas, and was best drunk young. There is still plenty of this style of wine around, but almost none leaves Austria. Now, the best wines—the ones that are being exported—are full-bodied, high in alcohol, concentrated and spicy, and they age well. They can even benefit from some barrel fermentation.
Austria's major wine regions are clustered around the capital city of Vienna. The city itself is the only capital in Europe to have an important wine-growing district of its own, and it's based in the hills to the west of the city center. But, for Grüner Veltliner, the vineyards are to the north, in Weinviertel, a district that stretches up to the Czech frontier; in Kamptal, Donauland and Kremstal to the west of Vienna, along the Danube valley; and in the Wachau, a small district, also along the Danube River, which is the westernmost wine area of Austria, before the mountains make grape growing climatically impossible.
The last time I tasted a range of Grüner Veltliners was more than ten years ago. With those rather simple wines in mind, it was something of a shock—but a pleasant one—to taste the new-look wines. It was at Roman Pfaffl's winery in Stetten that I first appreciated how enormous the change has been.
Weingut Pfaffl is a relatively new wine estate, founded only in 1979, in the northern Weinviertel region. It is, however, housed in the old village building that has belonged to the family for generations. Roman Pfaffl was voted winemaker of the year in 1996 by the Austrian wine press, and a taste of his wines reveals why. Here are wines with power as well as juicy, fruity flavors. Ripeness and alcohol harmonize easily in these wines. They may be weighty, but they also have a refreshing streak of acidity. They are certainly world-class wines.
Grüner Veltliners made in this style, which is typical of the new wave of Austrian whites, have much more in common with the wines of Alsace or Italy than with those of Germany. This is despite the common language with Germany and a similar use of sweetness categories and vineyard designations. In actuality, being linked with Germany is a problem against which Austrian winemakers have to fight hard, not only for stylistic reasons but because of the poor image of many German wines.
So while many Austrian producers maintain the complex labeling inspired by Germanic traditions, others are involved in intense discussions about how to make the labels more friendly to an English-speaking audience. Typical of these forward thinkers is Johannes Hirsch, who is now involved in his family winery alongside his father, Josef. They make superbly concentrated Grüner Veltliner from 34 acres of old vines grown in the Kamptal's most famous vineyard, the Heiligenstein (see list of recommended wines).
Currently the wines are labeled by village, vineyard and grape variety, as in Kammerner Heiligenstein Grüner Veltliner, where Kammern is the village and Heiligenstein the vineyard. From the 1999 vintage, Hirsch's labels will drop the vineyard name. This, he believes, will be more attractive to foreign buyers. These wines will be released in 2000 and 2001.
Bearing in mind this need for a simplified presentation for consumers more used to varietal labeling, it seems strange that what is arguably Austria's top region should have moved in the other direction. But in the Wachau, producers have introduced their own special categorization of wines—the wines are identified by alcohol level and the must weight of the grapes as they arrive in the cellar. So there is, in ascending order, Steinfelder, Federspiel and Smaragd. The words hardly roll off an English-speaker's tongue, but like most wine terminology, they can be learned.
According to Anton Bodenstein of Weingut Prager, the aim is to ensure that all grapes come from recognized vineyards in the Wachau, and that each wine must meet certain standards before it can receive its approval from the local Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus (Latin for "the most noble wine growing region of Wachau"), a group which includes about 85 percent of the Wachau's vintners.
Quality control this may be, but marketing it certainly is not. And it's a shame, for the Wachau's wines are wonderful, equal in stature to the awe-inspiring vineyards that hang from steep hillsides above the Danube River.
I tasted at various Wachau producers, and each wine seemed more exciting than the last. While the Rieslings from this region are superb, with a steely, racy quality that equals—maybe even surpasses—the best from Germany's Mosel region, Riesling only accounts for about ten percent of the vineyards. Grüner Veltliner, meanwhile, is planted in 57 percent of the region's 3,500 acres.
Prager's Grüner Veltliners reflect the different soils and vineyards—the crisp, green Hunzer dem Burg; the rich, concentrated Weitenberg; the purity of Achleiten. Each vineyard truly expresses itself in the bottle. There are also the wonderfully spicy Grüner Veltliners of Franz Hirtzberger, especially his Rotes Tor from the cool vineyards of Spitz.
Weingut Knoll's are from the warmer, eastern end of the Wachau, just before the narrow Danube valley opens out onto the plains. The wines, in their generosity and ripeness,are as exciting as the extraordinary labels on the bottles, which picture a bishop emerging from a wall painting (chosen by Emmerich Knoll for no other reason than that it looked "different").
Then there is F.X. Pichler, whose wines are total blockbusters with so much concentration that they sometimes threaten to take Grüner Veltliner away from the table where it belongs and turn it into something to be admired on its own. Another estate worth seeking out is Nikolaihof, whose cellars in Mautern date back 1,600 years. The 48-acre estate is run biodynamically, and this shows in the intensity and purity of the fruit, which is in perfect harmony with some greenness, spice and liveliness.
Even the local cooperative, the Frei Weingärtner Wachau, gets in on the quality act. I would certainly recommend its wines from the Dürnstein Kellerberg vineyard. This vineyard, situated just beneath the romantic ruins of Schloss Dürnstein (where England's King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned), gives full, rich wines that finish softly.
The Wachau's quality is certainly extraordinary. But it doesn't overshadow the wines of other regions growing Grüner Veltliner. In Kremstal, Josef Mantler of Weingut Mantlerhof makes some powerful Grüner Veltliners that can age exceptionally well. I tasted a 1977 Grüner from the Spiegel vineyard that was rich, nutty and still very ripe.
Mantler is another who argues against the entrenched Austrian labeling system. His solution is to adopt the French system of labeling by origin rather than variety. That's something that might not appeal to varietal-conscious consumers, but certainly it would simplify the complications of the current system, which combines variety, origin and sweetness level, sometimes to the point of confusion.
Another giant of Grüner Veltliner is Martin Nigl of Weingut Nigl in the Kremstal. His cellar is new, established in 1986, but already his wines are over-subscribed many times. His style is highly extractive and concentrated, even in lighter vintages like 1996. These are wines that bring out the exotic pepper and spice character of Grüner Veltliner, and which, like the Mantlerhof wines, need time to develop.
With their Germanic names, it might seem that Austrian wines would compete with fine German estate wines. But in my opinion, the closest competition is Alsace, whose spicy Pinot Gris and full-bodied Rieslings are echoed in the Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings of Austria.
Despite the small quantities being made by many of the top producers, Austria's wines are now being taken seriously around the world. The United States has become a key market, along with northern European countries. These are stunning white wines, and I firmly recommend them.