The Austrian Wine That Sommeliers Love—Ripe for Rediscovery

SOME WINE PROS call Grüner Veltliner a has-been—a once-popular, now largely forgotten grape. Others report robust interest and strong Grüner sales. Which one is the truer picture of Grüner today?

Two decades ago, this white grape from Austria was an exotic novelty for most Americans and a fast sommelier favorite thanks to its food-friendly nature. As retailer and former sommelier Craig Perman of Perman Wine Selections in Chicago put it: “You could cue the canned sommelier speak that would say, ‘Grüner goes with everything.’ ” This wine was seemingly everywhere—until it was not. I was among those who mostly forgot about it. But some stellar 2019 wines made me sit up and take notice once more.

The attraction has to do partly with its crisp and dry flavor profile and partly with its reasonable price.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the newness of Grüner Veltliner was a big part of its appeal, especially to sommeliers, who often favor the new and obscure. It was also a grape most drinkers could pronounce, though I initially required a bit of guidance from my then-neighbor Doris, an Austrian doctor who took great pride in her country’s grape. When I placed the emphasis on the first syllable of the second word, Doris corrected me: “It’s Grooner Velt-LEENER.”

It also helped that Grüner is fairly unchallenging—dry but not too dry, with just enough fruit but not too much, marked by aromas of white pepper and herbs. (Riesling, the other great white grape grown in Austria, still polarizes drinkers.) Best of all, the entry-level Grüners were (and still are) affordable.

Chicago “global virtual wine experience guru” and James Beard Award-winning sommelier Belinda Chang recalled being “very angry” with Grüner Veltliner in its heyday of the early aughts because it was so ubiquitous. Nevertheless, lots of Grüners featured on the lists she created for top restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Grüner Veltliner was her top-selling wine by the glass at the Modern restaurant in New York. It even outsold Sancerre, she recalled. When Ms. Chang was hiring, “every other candidate I interviewed told me it was their favorite grape!!” she wrote in an email (the double exclamation is hers). Today, she said, she rarely sees it served by the glass. “Clearly, the grape and the wines have fallen out of fashion like shoulder pads in women’s jackets,” she said.

Still, Bobbie Burgess, wine director and social media marketer for Restaurant Tyler and Eat Local Starkville in Starkville, Miss., has had some luck introducing drinkers to Grüner in recent years. “Many people in my market have not heard of this grape but are always excited to branch out and try new things,” she wrote in an email. Ms. Burgess pours Grüner by the glass. “It can pair well with an array of dishes, especially those hard to pair, [such as] spices and vegetables,” she said.

I also found a few retailers currently plugging Grüner. At Gary’s Wine & Marketplace Napa Valley, owner Gary Fisch reported that several staffers—all former sommeliers—are fond of the grape and recommend it enthusiastically. “They love Grüner!!” Mr. Fisch wrote in an email. (What is it about Grüner that inspires double exclamation marks?)

At Flatiron Wines & Spirits in New York, wine buyer Clara Dalzell’s passion for Austrian wine has resulted in strong Grüner sales. The attraction has to do partly with its crisp and dry flavor profile, noted Ms. Dalzell, and partly with its reasonable price. “You get more than you pay for,” she noted in an email.

I’d say that’s true of nearly all the 14 Austrian Grüner Veltliners I purchased for my tasting. Only a couple were over $20 a bottle, and only the cheapest two, both priced at $10, weren’t particularly good. All the wines were from the 2019 vintage, and most of the bottles came from producers imported by Skurnik Wines & Spirits of New York, whose portfolio includes 15 Grüner producers from all over Austria.

Gabriel Clary, Austrian portfolio director of Skurnik Wines & Spirits, said the 2019 Grüner Veltliner vintage in Austria was “fantastic, one of the best.” Sales have been especially strong among the value-priced offerings, he said. One of the Skurnik-imported wines I particularly liked, the 2019 Weingut Bernhard Ott Am Berg ($20), is thrillingly mineral, precise and Chablis-like. When I wrote the winemaker to say how impressed I was with this entry-level offering, Mr. Ott said it’s important that his basic wine be as impressive as his single-vineyard ones: It’s the wine the most drinkers will buy. “At winery Ott we believe that the ‘introductory’ wine should always act as a kind of a business card for the producer,” he wrote.

I’d purchased mostly entry-level Grüner Veltliners for the reasons outlined by Mr. Ott, and also because many of the pricier 2019 single-vineyard Grüners have yet to arrive in stores. (Those will arrive in the next several weeks.) Beyond the terrific Am Berg, a few others stood out, including the 2019 Setzer Ausstich Weinviertel Grüner Veltliner ($20), marked by a vigorous acidity and classic aromas of white pepper and spice. Vintner Hans Setzer noted that its “fresh acidity and physiological ripeness” were features of the 2019 vintage in Weinviertel, a region just north of Vienna and home to about half of Austria’s Grüner Veltliner vineyards.

Also notable: the pleasingly fresh and citric 2019 Nigl Freiheit Grüner Veltliner ($20) and the 2019 Müller Göttweiger Berg Grüner Veltliner from Kremstal ($14), whose back label informed me it was “light and refreshing”; it certainly was. The 2019 Hiedler Löss Grüner Veltliner ($14) was appealing, citric and light bodied, and went remarkably well with roasted asparagus. The rich, layered 2019 Schloss Gobelsberg Langenlois Kamptal ($27), produced from vineyards around the village of Langenlois, was much better than the winery’s “basic” bottling, which I found a touch dilute.

The 2019 Alzinger Dürnstein Federspiel Grüner Veltliner ($20) was another outstanding wine for the price—dazzlingly bright, with citric notes and great persistence on the palate—definitely a favorite with food. Winemaker Leo Alzinger noted the versatility of the grape in an email: “We are always joking there is no dish [for which] you won’t find a Grüner Veltliner that fits, even for dishes you would drink classically [with] red wine.” While I’m not sure I’d ever think to pair Grüner with steak, when the wines are as good as these, Grüner Veltliner should never again be a forgotten grape.

OENOFILE / Top values from the excellent 2019 vintage of Austrian Grüner Veltliner
1. 2019 Alzinger Dürnstein Federspiel Wachau Grüner Veltliner, $20

Winemaker Leo Alzinger noted that Grüner only truly thrives in specific circumstances; Wachau, where his winery is based, provides them. This crisp, citric wine has a wonderfully persistent finish.

2. 2019 Müller Göttweiger Berg Kremstal Grüner Veltliner, $14

Accurately billed by its producer as “light and refreshing”—also quite crisp and marked by pleasant aromas of citrus and stone fruits—this Grüner Veltliner is the essence of a lovely spring drink.

3. 2019 Weingut Bernhard Ott Am Berg Grüner Veltliner, $20

This thrillingly mineral, tangy take on the grape put me in mind of a very good Chablis. Winemaker Bernhard Ott refers to this entry level offering as his “calling card,” and it certainly gives a good impression of his estate.

4. 2019 Schloss Gobelsburg Langenlois Kamptal Grüner Veltliner, $27

This is the bigger, richer, rounder style of Grüner Veltliner, from the famed Schloss Gobelsburg estate in Kamptal. It’s sourced from vineyards around the historic town of Langenlois.

5. 2019 Setzer Ausstich Weinviertel Grüner Veltliner, $20

This first-rate Grüner Veltliner, from a centuries-old family estate located in Austria’s Weinviertel region, displays classic Grüner notes of white pepper and spice as well as a vigorous acidity.

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