In a world where Zinfandel is casually abbreviated to Zin, Chardonnay chopped to Chard and Cabernet Sauvignon reduced to Cab, Grüner Veltliner remains untouched. This dry white wine from Austria is too new and too good (and frankly, too unusual) to suffer the slightest diminution from winespeak. It remains Grüner Veltliner--with every accent, syllable and hard consonant fully savored.
"I love Grüner Veltliner," says Rajat Parr, the wine director at Fifth Floor in San Francisco. "It's a lively and versatile wine, of great balance and contrast." It's also a wine that comes in a wide range of styles--from light and delicate to rich and full-bodied, with unusual aromas and flavors ranging from white pepper to wildflowers. The spectrum of Grüner Veltliner is in fact so wide that producers in Austria's Wachau area have come up with three different names to distinguish one type from another. Steinfeder wines (named after a local grass) are light, low-alcohol wines, while Federspiel wines (from an old falconry term) possess a medium degree of ripeness, highly focused flavors and a crisp acidity. Finally, Smaragd wines (named after the emerald lizards that sun themselves in the vineyards) are produced only in the most exceptional vintages from select very ripe grapes.
The popularity of Grüner Veltliner in the United States has been propelled in part by excellent vintages in two consecutive years (1997 and 1998) and by the wine's great values. According to Chrish Peel, owner of the Carolina Wine Company in Raleigh, North Carolina, "Grüner Veltliner is close in style to a white Burgundy, and it's definitely a much better buy." For $40 or $60, Peel says, you can get a great Grüner Veltliner from a top producer, about half of what you'd pay for a grand cru white Burgundy or a California Chardonnay of comparable quality. There are also terrific buys in the $10 to $30 range.
Grüner Veltliner is Austria's most widely cultivated grape. It particularly excels in the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal regions. The Wachau, the best known of the three areas, produces the richest and weightiest wines, while the Kremstal and Kamptal both produce high-quality bottles that are often better values than their pricier Wachau counterparts.
While there are many top Grüner Veltliner wineries, two to watch in the Wachau are Weingut Prager, run by a young couple, Ilse Prager and Toni Bodenstein, and Freie Weingärtner, a cooperative, where a talented young winemaker named Fritz Miesbauer crafts wines that belie the rule that the best Grüner Veltliners are made by small family operations. And in the Kamptal, Michael Moosbrugger, who's barely in his thirties, has partnered with the region's top winemaker, Willi Bründlmayer, to lease an old monastic estate, Weingut Schloss Gobelsburg, making it another Grüner Veltliner producer worth noting.
One final reason for the greatness of Grüner Veltliner? Its compatibility with food. For few grapes can challenge Grüner Veltliner's ability to complement a wide range of dishes, including challenging foods such as Austria's famous white asparagus--a vegetable that is increasingly available in the U.S. Says Scott Tyree, sommelier at Tru in Chicago, "Grüner Veltliner matches so many flavors, it just makes my job easier."Michael Bonadies is the author of the wine guide Sip by Sip (Main Street Books).