Grüner Veltliner

The Heidi Klum of Forgotten Grapes

Gruner Veltliner, the Heidi Klum of Forgotten GrapesBefore we begin, a bit of clarification. Yes, I know that Grüner Veltliner is an Austrian wine and that Heidi Klum is not Austrian but German. Please save your hate mail. If you can come up with an Austrian super model who better personifies all the traits of a Grüner Veltliner and is as or more famous than Heidi, let me know and I’ll admit my mistake and make the change forthwith. But if not, stop your yapping and enjoy the picture of the pretty lady. I could have chosen Arnold Schwarzenegger or Kurt Waldheim or the Vienna Boys Choir for something more authentically Austrian. Is that what you want? Would that have made you happy? Besides, they share a border and German is the national language in both countries. Isn’t that enough?

Now, back to more important things. Like Heidi Klum. Or...Grüner Veltliner. Like Heidi, Grüner Veltliner is pale, blonde, and pale blonde. Like Heidi, it has a natural sweetness to it but also a sharper, more biting citric side. Like Heidi, it can be spicy at times and like Heidi, it smells wonderful (or so I imagine – about Heidi, not the wine). But unlike Heidi, Grüner Veltliner is not a Riesling (for which it is sometimes confused) and it’s not Germanic; it’s Austrian. (Happy?) Austria’s national grape, in fact. Which is where the vast majority of Grüner Veltliner is produced. And the vast majority of that Grüner Veltliner is grown along the steep banks of the Danube river in the north of the country, where the rocky, unforgiving soil imparts a natural stony minerality to the wine. Which we imagine Heidi would have if you got on her bad side.

This minerality leads wine drinkers to often think of Grüner Veltliner as a slim or thin wine (you know, like Heidi), and while it can be, it is also remarkably well-rounded (just like...well, alright, you get it.) and nicely balanced. Not too sweet, not too acidic, not too heavy, but also not too light. It’s perfect. Just like...okay, fine. I’ll stop.

Grüner Veltliner is a terrific everyday white wine and ideal for hot spring or summer days and long, lazy Sunday brunches (the “champagne brunch” is, like, sooooo 1985). So why hasn’t Grüner Veltliner achieved the same notoriety as its Teutonic cousin Riesling? Why has it fallen into the ranks of the Forgotten Grapes? Well, part of the problem may be that very little Grüner Veltliner actually makes it to the U.S. Most Grüner Veltliner produced in Austria remains in Austria, to be drunk and enjoyed by Austrians. Quite a bit also gets sent to their neighbor to the north. That only leaves a small percentage of the overall Grüner Veltliner produced to make its way to us over here in the States (or Canada or Australia or the U.K. or wherever you might be). The other reason might have to do with its name. Grüner Veltliner isn’t exactly the prettiest name in the world for a wine, and sounds awfully harsh and Germanic when you compare it to something more melodic, like Riesling. See, that hardly sounds like Germanic at all, does it? Riesling. Especially compared to Grüner Veltliner. It’s sort of like Heidi Klum. Not a lot of German in Heidi Klum’s name, is there? Even though she’s 100% German. Alright, fine. I’m done.

How do I pronounce Grüner Veltliner

GROO-nur VELT-line-er

Grüner Veltliner Looks Like:

It’s not easy being green. Especially if you’re supposed to be a white wine. But it’s true – many Grüner Veltliners exhibit an almost pale green color in the bottle and in the glass. Some of this depends on age and some of it depends on production (namely how long the freshly crushed juice is allowed to sit on the stems and skins, the parts of the grape that impart color to the wine). Paler green and nearly clear wines means younger and less sitting for the juice. A slightly richer pale straw color means more aging and more sitting time. But odds are your Grüner is going to be pale and you’re not going to find one any more yellow than that. 

Grüner Veltliner Smells Like:

One of the scents that Grüner Veltliner is well-known for is, of all things, white pepper. White pepper, as you may well know, is spicier and, well, more peppery than its black, red, and green cousins but not exactly the first scent that comes to mind when you think about Austria or Austrian cooking, let alone a white wine. But take a big whiff of a Grüner Veltliner and lo and behold, you should get a spicy, peppery white pepper nose, one of the wine’s tell-tale signs.

On top of that, you’ll also get a lot of other more traditional scents in the glass. Citrus and tropical fruits? Definitely. Grass and herbs ala a Sauvignon Blanc? Check. Light honey? It’s in there. Fresh cat litter? Uh-huh...wait, did he just say “fresh cat litter”? I’m afraid I did. Grüner Veltliner can have a strong minerally scent that in some cases can smell like fresh cat litter. That’s FRESH cat litter, people. Don’t be disgusting. But this is a good thing. Trust me. It is.

Grüner Veltliner Tastes Like:

A lot of the same aromas you got on the nose you’re also going to get when you taste a Grüner Veltliner. The first flavor most likely to hit your tongue will be a mellow sweet taste – more like soft honey than pure sugar – but that should immediately segue into some sharp citrus (primarily lemon) or tropical fruit (like pineapple) flavors. The minerality will be there to keep things crisp (but don’t worry, it won’t be like drinking a glass of fresh cat litter. I promise. I can’t even imagine what drinking a glass of fresh cat litter would taste like.) You may even get a grassy or green vegetable taste toward the end, similar to what you’d get with a Sauvignon Blanc. But this is Grüner Veltliner. Lots of bright, sharp citrus, a little bit of sweet, and a clean, crisp finish. That’s what you should expect because that’s what you’re going to get. All hail Austrian ingenuity!

Key Regions:

●        Austria, partcularly along the steep granite shores of the Danube

●        The Czech Republic

●        Small amounts in Hungary

●        Even smaller amounts in California's Edna Valley, Oregon's Willamette and Umpqua Valleys, and Washington

Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:

Austria has nearly 4000 years of wine making history and was, in fact, the third-largest producer of wine in the world in the years after World War I (though truthfully, most of that wine was trucked north to Germany to be blended with German varietals). Despite this history and the industrialization of their wine industry during the middle of the 20th century (or perhaps because of it), Austrian wine making was decimated and nearly wiped off the map due to a scandal in 1985. A very,very bad scandal indeed.

At that time, Austria was primarily known for producing thick sweet dessert wines, particularly favored by Germans. However, after a run of years in the early 1980s that left Austrian wines lighter, thinner, drier, and more acidic (you know, good), a few enterprising wine brokers (not the actual vintners, it should be noted) decided to take matters into their own hands. Rather than add sugar to the wine, which wouldn’t thicken it and could easily be detected, these corrupt middlemen instead bolstered the wines they were trying to sell with diethylene glycol, a chemical compound found in automotive hydraulic fluid and brake fluid, and often confused with ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in antifreeze. Normally the addition of minute, non-toxic amounts of diethylene glycol (in traces so small it was actually less dangerous to consume than the alcohol in the wines) to thicken and sweeten the wines would be undetectable...unless, of course, you were the idiot wine broker who tried to declare the cost of the diethylene glycol you mixed into the wines as a tax write-off. Then of course all hell would break loose.

Suffice to say, all of Austria lit up like a tinderbox, cries of “antifreeze” spread across Europe, Austrian wines were banned in several countries, and the entire industry in Austria nearly died. Oddly, though, the scandal ended up saving the Austrian wine community after nearly killing it, as it led to the creation of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board in 1986 and stricter regulations about all wines produced in the country (which is why the cap or foil of every Austrian Grüner Veltliner has the colors of the Austrian flag on it). It also lead winemakers in Austria to shift their focus onto drier red and white wines, including Blaufränkisch and, hey whaddaya know, Grüner Veltliner.

Perfect Pairing:

Bacon, artichoke, and lemon. If there were three flavors that perfectly sum up Grüner Veltliner, those are the three. Any of those or some combination of them together are going to go really well with the wine. And I know what you’re saying. "Don’t artichokes have that chemical in them that makes wines taste funny?" Yes, they do, but for some reason, I’ve found that Grüner Veltliners actually power through this and will taste okay with artichokes. Go ahead and try it. You’ll be glad you did. The world needs a dependable wine that will go with an artichoke.

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