For one brief, shining moment, it looked like an unknown Austrian grape variety was going to capture the hearts and minds of Americans.
Here’s what happened: In the early 1990s, Gruner Veltliner inexplicably became trendy among the sommelier community in Las Vegas. No one knows exactly how or why it started, but it spread faster than COVID-19. Before long, each high-profile restaurant was trying to outdo their neighbors. I remember sitting in Spago at Caesar’s Palace at the time and wading through four full pages of Gruner on the wine list, comprising more than 100 producers both famous and obscure.
Like Holland’s tulip craze during the 17th century, the vogue in Gruner collapsed as suddenly as it started, and everyone went back to drinking Chardonnay (in fact, there are similarities between the two varieties in terms of aroma and flavor profiles). In many ways, it was a shame. Gruner is Austria’s most popular wine and dominates the area in and around Vienna, where a young, crisp version is consumed every spring in the region’s wine bars. Yet the wine can be made in a richer and sweeter style, and the better examples age very well.
Some of Austria’s best Gruner is grown in the Wachau region, a UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of high-altitude terraced vineyards overlooking the Danube River, and the area has developed its own trade association and classification system. Domäne Wachau itself is responsible for 30% of production, and the estate is headquartered in the baroque Cellar Palace constructed between 1714-1719. Since 2004 the property has been under the direction of Roman Horvath, the second Austrian to pass the Master of Wine exam.
Their entry-level Gruner Veltliner Federspiel Terrassen ($15) comes in at a modest 12.5% alcohol. The wine has a pale yellow-green color and a nose fragrant with aromas of lemon and lime, along with indications of high acidity. It is taut and electric in the mouth, with all the acidity promised on the nose; flavors of citrus, fresh herbs and stone fruits are underlined by white pepper accents and a strong mineral underpinning. The finish is long, clean and pleasant.
Gruner attracts much attention among sommeliers as one of the few wines that go with asparagus and artichokes—foods that are normally near-impossible to pair with wine. It is a splendid match with white meats, particularly veal (think wiener schnitzel), and would be right at home with spicy Asian cuisines such as Szechuan or Thai.
Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on amazon.com; the third, Impeachment, will be released this fall.