The Noble Writ: Green Wine for St. Patrick's Day?

Mar 17, 2009 at 2:47 pm
Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.

A green wine for St. Patrick's Day?

Not exactly. But when this wine lover's thoughts turn to spring, I'm reminded of a handful of refreshing white wines that I tend to neglect during winter. Grüner veltliner ("grüner" is the German adjective form of "green") is one of these select few, and it appears on my mental radar as the first new crop of asparagus starts to arrive in markets.

Asparagus is a vegetable that doesn't travel or store very well, so I eat it on a strictly seasonal basis. While it's in season, I eat an embarrassing amount of asparagus -- enough that I frankly don't miss it for about 6 or 7 months after its season has ended. In my experience, no wine has the ability to complement asparagus better than grüner veltliner.

click to enlarge Grüner veltliner grapes on the vine. - Daniel Weber, Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Weber, Wikimedia Commons
Grüner veltliner grapes on the vine.
Grüner veltliner is hardly a household name in the States, though it is a lot more common now than it was when I was initially tried it at a tasting seven or eight years ago. It was love at first taste for me. Grüner veltliner is different from most wines because its primary flavors tend not to be of fruit. Instead, green, vegetal and spicy notes dominate most examples. Sure, there is usually some fruit in the mix, especially as the wines get bigger and riper, but even these run to tart apple, gooseberry or underripe kiwi, rather than the lusher, more tropical fruits that characterize so many other varieties.

If you have a glass of grüner veltliner in your hands, it almost certainly was made in Austria. A few other countries grow the grape, but I've yet to see a bottle from one of these countries on a shelf in the United States. Regardless, no one grows as much as Austria, where grüner veltliner covers more than a third of the vineyard land.

Austria is a unique place to grow grapes. Most people associate Austria with Germany, but Austria's high-quality wine regions get significantly warmer than those in Germany. However, warmth in this part of the world is a relative thing. So while Austrian wines bring extra richness and ripeness compared to their German counterparts, they still retain enough acidity to produce balanced wines.

click to enlarge The Noble Writ: Green Wine for St. Patrick's Day?
Dave Nelson
Austria is the 18th largest wine-producing country (right behind Brazil!). In fact, the only country with a smaller production that is readily available in the United States is New Zealand. But Austrians love their own country's wine, so only a relatively small portion makes it to the United States. They are so proud of these wines that the Austrian flag tops the capsule or, more commonly, screwcap on each bottle (see picture at right).

In our market, you will encounter three levels of grüner veltliners. The first consists of lower-end bottlings from large or less well-known producers. These typically run in the $8-$12 range. (You can occasionally find them in one liter bottles, which makes them an even better value.) Sometimes, wines at this level are a bit on the dilute side, but you'll usually get a good idea of grüner veltliner's characteristics.

The next level is basic grüner veltliners from producers with bigger reputations. These wines have crept up in price and are now in the $15-$25 range. Sometimes, these wines will have a vineyard name attached to them; in addition, if from the Wachau region of Austria, they may carry the term "Federspiel" on their label. I'll spare you any further details of Austrian wine law. (If you're so inclined, you can check it out here.) These are generally still quite light in alcohol at around 11.5%, but the best manage to pack an outsized degree of intensity and flavor into such a small package. Some producers I've seen around town are Nigl, Nikolaihof and Hirsch, all of which are great, though you may prefer the style of one house to another.

You'll know you've reached the top tier by price alone. We're talking $40+ a bottle here, with $60-$80 not uncommon. These can be amazing wines, but I'm less enamored with them than with their lower-rent siblings. These wines tend to be very ripe and carry alcohol levels in the 13-14% range, if not more. The ones I've been fortunate enough to sample were impressive wines, but not particularly something I would want to have with dinner.

(We tend to see more top-tier Austrian rieslings in the U.S. than we do grüner veltliners, but a few do make the trip. One that I've found locally with some regularity is the Nigl Grüner Veltliner Privat. These big grüner veltliners also need some significant time in the cellar to really show their stuff. Like Louis/Dressner with Beaujolais, if you see the name Terry Theise on the back label of an Austrian wine, it's a safe bet that it will a good one (which is different from saying you will like it, or that Theise is the only one bringing in good Austrian wine). Reading through Mr. Theise's Austrian catalog is also a great way to get the lay of the land if you're interested in learning more.)

click to enlarge The Noble Writ: Green Wine for St. Patrick's Day?
Dave Nelson
The grüner veltliner I chose to sample this week is the 2007 Nigl Grüner Veltliner Freiheit. It's clear in the glass, with just the slightest tinge of yellow. The wine has a classic, intense grüner nose of spicy greenness, a nice mix of herbal, vegetal and fruity aromas. It's slim and compact in the mouth but packs a serious punch of flavor. The finish echoes on and on, and the acidity slices through anything you throw at it. Great stuff and, at 11.5%, very flexible with food. It kept well overnight in the fridge, though it showed less intensity, but a bit more complexity on the second day.

As with many Austrian wines, it is closed with a screwcap, so no need to worry about cork taint. I purchased my bottle at the Wine Merchant for $20. Fair warning that I grabbed the last one on the shelf. I'm not sure if they are able to get more, but, if not, the 2008 version should be available soon.