Crown Prince of Austrian Wine
In a country steeped in history and ruled by the Habsburgs for more than 700 years, the best way to get a handle on Austria’s wines may be to place them within the context of the country’s regal past.
Riesling, with its rigorous structure, edgy minerality, and noses of fresh green and bright yellow, is the Habsburgs. There, it’s been said. Among Austria’s whites, Riesling holds the scepter and wears the crown. “I’ll have a bottle of Austrian Riesling please.” Rolls off the tongue.
But what of Gruner Veltliner?
If Riesling is the Habsburgs, Gruner Veltliner stands Austria’s Crown Prince. The heir apparent, the people’s favourite, lurking behind a marble column or moss-covered oak tree, dagger in hand.
First some basics: Gruner is everywhere in Austria, making up more than a third of the country’s wine growing areas. The most famous of these are the Wachau, Kamp and Krems Valleys in Lower Austria. Arrive in Vienna, follow the Danube west for an hour. Bingo.
And what does it taste like? It tastes the way a delightfully fresh and refreshing white wine should taste. And what does it smell like if you put your nose sideways into the glass and are a person who can distinguish such fleeting notes? It smells of everything from lime to ginger, grapefruit to radish, lemon to tarragon and nectarine to Brazil nut. But don’t say all these things at once because no one will believe you. Is Grüner acidic, of the pleasing “my, how fresh” and not “oh my god I can’t feel my tongue” kind? Yes. Very.
“And what does it taste like? It tastes the way a delightfully fresh and refreshing white wine should taste.”
It’s zesty and zingy, tart and with pizazz. Can it only be drank when young? No, although most often it is. Light and spritzy (spritzig in Austrian dialect) when young, if aged properly a full-bodied Spätlese can easily age for more than a decade, during which it mellows and grows rich in texture. And what dish is it best paired with? Aha! This is where Gruner Veltliner is in a category of its own. Peppery Grüners can take on a steak and generous earthy ones love seafood. There isn’t a vegetable that doesn’t dream of being washed down by a mouthful of Gruner, including normally cantankerous artichokes and grilled asparagus.
As any aspirant to any throne can tell you, with praise there will also come criticism. “I can’t read the damn labels.” Ignore them. Austria’s wine classification system is famously antiquated. “Can anything that cheap even be good? Yes, try it. “It has a screw top.” This means you can open a new bottle incredibly quickly when the old one is empty. Total bonus. “But I have Austrian neighbours who use Grüner to make spritzers.” Chances are these same neighbours also frequent nudist beaches. Austrians are crazy like that. “Why did they have to add that annoying ‘Veltliner’ bit”? We don’t know. Consider it optional. Gruner will do.
“Does this mean that Gruner is a delightful, refreshing, versatile and sensibly priced white wine that comes in an elegant bottle?”