The Green Grape of Veltlin

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Yes, I know it sounds like the title of a rustic Slovak folk song, but it’s actually the English translation of Grüner Veltliner, the most widely-planted white wine grape in Austria. The grape is also found in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and probably dates back to the days of the ancient Rome. In case you’re wondering, Veltlin was a historical area in the lower Alps but today it’s part of the commune of Valtellina in Northern Italy.

I’m probably simplifying things a bit here, but there are two types of Grüner Veltliner (GROO-ner FELT-lee-ner). The most common are the crisp, young wines which have sprightly acidity and flavours of lime, lemon, grapefruit or sometimes apple. They often have herby mineral flavours, hints of white pepper and sometimes a distinctive touch of spritziness. The more expensive, matured wines eventually take on a gold colour and a rich, honeyed character. Incidentally, the Austrians often refer colloquially to Grüner Veltliner as GrüVe. It’s also known by over seventy other different names but I shall resist the temptation to list them. (That’s a relief – Ed.)

Gruber Röschitz labelGruber Röschitz label

Lower Austria is the country’s largest quality wine-growing area and almost fifty percent of it is planted with Grüner Veltliner. The local German name for Lower Austria is Niederösterreich, which I mention only because the word invariably appears on wine labels of the region. You might reasonably assume that Lower Austria is down somewhere in the south, but it’s not. Strangely enough, it’s the most northern province of the country. The name evidently derives from its down-river position on the Danube.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any Austrian wines of in most retail outlets in Thailand. Wine Garage, however, offers an interesting selection from around Bt. 740 upwards. If you are getting a bit jaded with the usual commercial wines in the supermarkets, you might be pleased to know that Wine Garage specialises in artisanal wines. They also have some interesting boutique wines from Germany. You can order online and pay by bank transfer or PayPal, which makes things ever so easy. They’ll deliver anywhere in Thailand and the QR code shown will take you to their website.

Gruber Grüner Veltliner, Röschitz 2013 (white), Austria (Bt. 950 @ Wine Garage)

Let’s begin by deciphering the label. Gruber (GROO-ber) is the name of the company and it’s been producing wine since 1814. If you have been concentrating, you’ll already know what Grüner Veltliner means. Röschitz (RER-shitz) is a small village in Lower Austria about fifty miles from Vienna.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about this wine is the playful label with whimsical drawings of the “Gruber Wine Spirits”. The drawings are apparently inspired by the micro-organisms which exist on the vines and in the fermenting wine, and they’re visible only under a microscope. They have become the mascots of the company and appear in various fanciful forms on all their wine labels and on their web site.

A pale straw colour, the wine looks bright and invitingly oily in the glass. The aroma is even more inviting, though you’ll need to give it a bit of time to develop. I found that five minutes in the decanter made all the difference. It has a “clean and lean” bright, floral aroma with a touch of tropical fruit, a dash of citrus, herby minerals and something else which I couldn’t quite identity. Never mind, I’ll get it in a minute.

The fruit is well forward, giving a hint of sweetness. But after this brief first impression a more powerful drier taste comes through and leads to a long, rich and dry finish. It’s really quite a fascinating tasting experience which makes you sit up and take notice, because the taste actually changes in your mouth. At just 12.5% ABV this would make a splendid apéritif if you can share it with people who appreciate these things. The wine would make an excellent partner for chicken dishes or ham, but I’d be perfectly happy to enjoy it on its own. Oh yes, I have just realised what I missed in the aroma earlier. Do you remember the song Little Green Apples, made famous by one Ocie Lee Smith in 1968? He sold over a million copies and the song was recorded the same year by others in the trade, including Frank Sinatra. That’s what the aroma reminds me of. Apples I mean, not Frank Sinatra.

Ott Grüner Veltliner, Am Berg 2013 (white), Austria (Bt. 1,150 @ Wine Garage)

Based in the small village of Feuersbrunn in Lower Austria, the distinguished Ott family has been producing wine since 1889. Bernhard Ott is the fourth generation of wine makers and has managed the winery since 1995, when he took over from his father.  The Am Berg (“On the mountain”) wines are their entry-level range but even so, this wine is worth the extra two hundred baht, which I suppose is one of the first questions that might spring to mind.

I couldn’t resist comparing this wine with the Gruber. In the glass, they look more-or-less identical, but there the similarity ends. The Ott has a richer, more unctuous aroma with a delicate sweet floral touch. It has a lovely “come-and-get-me” sort of smell and this follows through on the palate. There’s a hint of sweetness too, soon replaced by a firmer, more authoritative flavour. Somehow you can sense the experience behind this wine. It feels more “grown-up”, although it’s joyfully young at heart. It’s finely-balanced, crisp, light and refreshing which is what a young Grüner Veltliner is supposed to be. There’s a satisfying long, dry finish as well as a very soft touch of acidity.

These are both splendid wines. The Ott is slightly softer on the palate but if you want to try an interesting Grüner Veltliner you won’t go wrong with either of these. I don’t want to sound ungenerous, but I think I’ll keep these two bottles to myself. The dogs won’t even get a sniff. Well, maybe just one.