Gru Vee, Baby
Grϋner Veltliner needs a stage name. Difficult to find, let alone pronounce, this grape variety is saddled with an unwieldly name for a racy white wine. Grϋner Veltliner (pronounced GROO-ner VELT-leaner) is one of the most exciting white wines in the world, but it is relatively unknown outside its Austrian homeland. Over the last 5 years however, it has been espied on fine wine lists in Paris, London and New York, where sommeliers refer to the grape as Grϋner, Gru Vee, G.V. or Groovy.
The name Grϋner Veltliner first appeared in Austrian viticultural literature as early as 1855 but the variety did not become common until the 1930’s. In the interim, maybe growers were preoccupied with learning how to pronounce it. Today Grϋner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape in Austria. And while there is some experimental planting in New Zealand, very little is grown elsewhere.
Grϋner produces a versatile wine with a profile that can range from vibrant citrus and tropical fruit to quiet lentil and celery flavors, but its trademark is a distinctive finish of freshly ground white pepper. In youth, Gru Vee resembles a powerful but incisive Riesling. However, with a few years of age under its belt it can be surprisingly similar to a white Burgundy and has fooled top experts in blind tastings (including 1 or 2 MW’s!).
The finest Grϋner Veltliner is produced in the Wachau – pronounced WUCH-how (the first syllable most closely rhymes with “Yuch!” though this is no comment on its quality) – region of central Austria. Though more known for its chilly alpine winters (and the fine quality of its après-ski), Austria is astonishingly warm in summer, which results in wines far more robust than those of its German neighbors. Wachau producers are a quality conscious bunch, producing some of the finest white wine in the world, whether Riesling or Grϋner Veltliner. Tending Wachau vineyards is a painstaking labour of love as the vines are planted on the impossibly steep slopes abutting the Danube river.
The finest dry white wines from the Wachau are classified into three categories. The lightest styles are called Steinfeder, which is the name of a feathery wild weed and are best consumed while young. The next step up is called Federspiel, which has alcohol levels of 10.5% to 12%. Federspiel is named after a lure used in falconry to attract hawks back to the handler. The finest quality wines from the Wachau are in a class called Smaragd (pronounced Smar-RAHGD), charmingly named after the little emerald-green lizards that sun themselves in the vineyards. Smaragd wines range in 12.5%-14% alcohol. While all three quality levels are exported, Smaragd is generally the only level found in Hong Kong. Smaragd-classed wines are from the Wachau region’s finest vineyard sites and are ripe, complex wines capable of lengthy aging. Top growers include Hirtzberger, Jäger, Knoll, F.X. Pichler and Prager. The nearby Kamptal region also produces elegant, top-class wines with the charming Willi Brϋndlmayer amongst the finest of the producers.