Grüner Veltliner’s a Good Mouthful

Paul Blow

A few weeks ago I wrote about “greenness” in red wines. This week, inspired by the spring vegetables (which I’m trying to eat a lot more of these days) piled high at the farmers’ market, I’ve decided to write about the greenest of all white wines: Grüner Veltliner. For me, Grüner Veltliner is inextricably linked to spring and farmers’ markets.

I first started drinking Grüner Veltliner about eight years ago, when I subscribed to a CSA (community supported agriculture) box that I dutifully picked up around the corner every week. For the most part, I liked the box. But I began to tire of it during one seemingly endless two-month stretch in which the majority of produce in it was green garlic. For weeks, I made green garlic risotto, green garlic soup, green garlic pasta. As I searched for wines to pair with my daily ration of green garlic, the one that worked best, over and over, was Grüner Veltliner. And even when the green garlic deluge passed and the season progressed into artichokes, asparagus, and arugula, Grüner Veltliner never faltered. It is the perfect white wine for spring.

Grüner Veltliner was the “it” wine for sommeliers about 10 years ago. Few people outside of Austria would have heard of it if sommeliers had not promoted it aggressively on their wine lists. Though its popularity may have waned somewhat, “Grüner is here to stay,” says Paul Einbund, wine director of San Francisco’s Frances. “I still see it on lists all the time, and there isn’t a better wine with food in the world.”

Pairing well with artichokes and asparagus is no mean feat. What makes Grüner Veltliner so good with vegetables? Well, start with the nose. I always get notes of green stems, white flower petals, white pepper, and lentils or other legumes (another great pairing with Grüner). The flavors mirror the aromas but add a little spice and soft fruit—green pear, honeydew melon, and lime. Acidity is key to a Grüner’s ability to fuse with vegetables: A good one has a taut spine of acid that gives it the power and tensile strength to stand up to those pungent chlorophyllous flavors in the food. And most Grüner is very dry, leaving the impression of its flavor as your mouth slightly stings from the dryness.

At its best, Grüner is eminently drinkable and very complex. But it has to be balanced. An underripe Grüner is thin, sharp, and strident; overripe, the grape makes wines that are blowsy, alcoholic, and cloying, like a dinner guest who’s overstayed his welcome. You won’t find such ill-mannered Grüners in the current vintage on the market, 2008. It was a great one for well-behaved, snappy, and bright wines. Drink them chilled, drink them alone if you choose—but definitely drink them if you find yourself with a hopper filled with green garlic.

Two that I especially like:

2008 Salomon Undhof “Hochterassen” Grüner Veltliner—This is a gushing, earthy, bright, and minerally wine. Flavors are of lentils, white pepper, jasmine, and citrus. Fairly light, and perfect for a first course.

2008 Nigl Grüner Veltliner Kremser Freiheit—One of the great producers of Austria, Nigl makes mostly high-end wines. But its Grüner can be found for about $20. A complex blend of savory and fruit flavors, it’s crisp, lively, and medium bodied. Great as an apéritif or on its own.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Chowhound too, and become a fan on Facebook.

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