It's Time To Get Familiar With The White Wine of Austria, Grüner Veltliner

Around this time of year, the outskirts of Vienna become a lively, tipsy scene as people flock to the patios of the Heuriger. These taverns celebrate the harvest season by pouring wine from the nearby vineyards, or even unfermented juice from the latest grape haul. Quite likely, the liter-sized bottle that awaits on your table will be a white wine made of the versatile and uniquely Austrian grape, Grüner Veltliner.

Grüner Veltliner can present itself in a chuggable, cheap-and-cheerful form, as in the aforementioned one-liter bottle, usually sealed with a crown cap. Or, it can be more structured and age-worthy. In either scenario, Grüner (as it is affectionately called) typically displays intense notes of green apple and very high acidity.

Liz Martinez, sommelier at Chicago’s iconic Michigan Avenue restaurant The Purple Pig, loves Grüner’s ability to morph. “It’s a crowd pleaser, but also cerebral and interesting,” she says. “It’s a wine I like to pair with food because it’s got that citric acid and spice, and great texture.” At The Purple Pig, diners can order Grüner by the glass for a simple taste of this refreshing, bright wine. Perfect traditional pairings for Grüner include pork dishes, sausages and, of course, schnitzel.

But beyond the entry-level Grüner, top bottlings can rival Grand Cru Chablis, says Martinez. These more complex wines are meant to age, and they often have more lees-aging to enhance the wine’s structure. “You can really tell the difference in the texture,” Martinez says. The flavors, too, are more expressive and integrated, she says, with white pepper and vegetal notes,

For an easy-drinking, one-liter bottling of Grüner, just scan your local wine shop for that green-hued bottle with the crown cap. A producer to look for is H&M Hofer. For about $12 you’re getting a bottle of totally tasty, crisp white wine.

If you’re ready to explore higher-end Grüner, a good place to start would be with the classic and venerable producer Weingut Knoll. Located in the Wachau, one of Austria’s most highly regarded wine-producing regions in the northern part of the country, Knoll is a family-run estate. It makes single-vineyard Grüner wines (and Riesling, too) that come in a very long and thin bottle with a traditional-styled label depicting St. Urban, the patron saint of viticulture, signaling that you’re about to drink a classical wine.

I recently enjoyed the 2014 Knoll Grüner Veltliner Kreutles Federspiel with lunch on a warm day with some friends, and it was the perfect choice with our gourmet BLT sandwiches and deviled eggs. The green apple notes were refreshing and the acidity was pronounced but balanced, with lemon drop hints all over the palate. “Kreutles” is the vineyard designate here, while “Federspiel” is one of the classifications used in Austria to indicate alcohol level (for “Federspiel,” a wine must be between 11.5 and 12.5 percent; the other two classifications are “Steinfeder, for wines up to 11.5 percent, andSmaragd, for 12.5% and up).

The 2014 Knoll was wonderful, but it also could have spent some time aging in a cellar (although the Smaragd wines are probably better for that). With aging, a high-quality Grüner Veltliner displays more richness and texture, according to Liz Martinez. This is partly because, in a traditional Austrian winery, the juice is fermented and aged in large, wooden barrels, which allow lees contact. “The acid becomes more integrated, and you see more stone fruits,” she adds.

Outside Austria, quality Grüner can be found in the Czech Republic and also here in the U.S. One domestic producer to look for is Tatomer, based in Santa Barbara, California. Winemaker Graham Tatomer actually worked at Knoll for two harvest seasons. His Meeresboden Grüner Veltliner is a blend of several small, cool-climate hillside plantings in Santa Barbara County. I recently drank the 2014 and loved its vibrant acidity, pear notes, and salinity. The biodynamically farmed Johan Vineyards, in Oregon, makes some Grüner that is fantastically smoky and savory.

Whether you dive into a liter-sized bottle or go for one of the single-vineyard Grüners out there, you’ll be thrilled to discover a cool-climate white grape with just as much personality and complexity as Chardonnay — but at a fraction of the price.

Other highly recommended Grüner Veltliners to look for include: anything from Nicholaihof, a small and very old biodynamically farmed family-run estate in the Wachau — both the Federspiel and Smaragd are exported to the U.S; and the Arndorfer 2015 “Vorgeschmack White,” a smoky and savory yet lively blend of 80 percent Grüner and 20 percent Riesling from a young husband-and-wife team in the Kamptal region of Austria.