The green white wine

Thanks to a new approach to viticulture coupled with strong marketing, Austria’s Grüner Veltliner as taken the world by storm. Richard Woodard looks at the evolution of this popular variety.

Laurenz Moser, Laurenz V
Laurenz Moser, Laurenz V

If Argentina has Malbec, Chile Carmenère and South Africa Pinotage, then Austria has Grüner Veltliner. Few grape varieties are almost exclusively identified with just one country, making Austria’s Grüner part of a very exclusive club. 

The influence of leading producer Lenz Moser made it the country’s most planted variety in the 1950s but, despite its near-ubiquity, it remained for decades a mainstay of the domestic market and neighbouring Germany. Between 1999 and 2009, nearly 4,000 ha were grubbed up or planted over in Austria – more than 20% of the country’s Grüner holdings. But then the Grüner revival set in. 

A new era

Five years later, unofficial figures suggest that Austria’s Grüner vineyards have grown by nearly 1,300 ha as the variety has found a new audience around the world, not just in Austria and the main export market of Germany, but in a growing number of markets further afield.

According to Willi Klinger, general manager of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB), about one-third of Austrian Grüner Veltliner is now exported, which means that it accounts for about 50% of all Austrian wine exports.

Or 90%, if the producer in question is Laurenz V, a monovarietal wine producer whose sole focus is Grüner Veltliner and, in particular, the evangelistic mission to make the varietal a “globally recognised noble grape variety”, in the words of partner Laurenz Moser, who is also a part of the Lenz Moser dynasty.

For Klinger, while Germany is a clear number one export destination for Grüner, there is an enticing basket of other markets, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, the US and Scandinavia (particularly Sweden). He also senses potential in Central and Eastern Europe, Japan and China, thanks in part to the food-friendly character of the grape.

But Moser provides a reality check, pointing out that 95% of Grüner is still sold in the German-speaking world (Austria, Germany, Switzerland) – while adding that this also means that there is huge potential for growth outside these countries.

Moser’s shopping list of markets is broadly similar to that of Klinger: Germany – “the obvious one – it is a must” – plus China, a market which he says is rapidly switching from red to white wines, and one in which the company is already active through its ties with local producer Changyu. In the US, Laurenz V works with Michael Mondavi’s Folio team, and the company’s top 10 markets are completed by the UK, the Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland, the UAE and Russia – plus Austria, where it has a presence with specialist retailer Wein & Co and top restaurants.

So why is this Grüner’s time? Klinger and Moser concur in labelling it the most food-friendly wine style on the planet (although Moser draws the line at goulash) – a trait which Klinger believes will stand it in good stead in the Far East in particular. “The more a Western-inspired fine dining culture with modern, local cuisine develops in Asia, the more chances for GV will arise, because the moment food pairing – which is not traditional in Asia – becomes fashionable, GV excels,” he argues.

Other factors, Moser adds, include the variety’s relatively subdued alcohol levels, as well as the high opinion of wine writers, opinion-formers and international sommeliers and wine buyers. And one more thing: “Grüner is white,” he says, “and the white wine boom is on its way, after 20 years of red.”

But Moser believes that changes in production have been equally vital to the variety’s revival. “Grüner has changed big time in the last years,” he says, “becoming acceptable for the international consumer. The style has softened towards less acidic, less peppery (meaning smoother spice levels) and it is not super-dry any more, meaning we all play with higher extracts to produce more creaminess in Grüner – without working with residual sugar.”

As modern techniques have expanded and internationalised Grüner’s appeal, Austria’s winemakers have become more creative. The grape has long embraced an array of styles from lightly quaffable wines through medium-bodied versions to the formidable Smaragds of the terraced vineyards of the Wachau, but now even more variants are emerging.

Perhaps the most ambitious is Laurenz V’s FOUR, a barrel-aged Grüner benchmarked against fine Burgundy (Moser namechecks Leflaive’s Puligny-Montrachet, Les Pucelles) and sourced from a single estate with 35-year-old vines.

Developed following three years of research, the result can age for 30 years, the company says, but it hasn’t stopped there: Forbidden Grüner, its latest offering, is said to follow the German Riesling model with 11% alcohol, 15g/litre residual sugar and higher acidity.

These remain, however, quirky exceptions to the trademark Grüner style, as Klinger notes. “The absence of an evident oaky character is key to GV’s identity,” he says.

It’s an identity that has struck a chord with consumers in an increasing number of markets, including the UK. “Grüner Veltliner is well-known among premium consumers, and that is where we’ve had our success with the wines,” reports David Gleave MW, managing director of Liberty Wines. “It does particularly well with sommeliers and independent merchants, who are able to ‘hand-sell’ these wines. Our Grüner Veltliner sales have an approximate 70% on-trade/30% off-trade split.”

Nor is this some short-term fad, he adds. “We have seen sustainable interest in GV for the past decade. We now have greater breadth of distribution for our GVs, which would suggest that there is longevity of consumer appetite.”

For Moser, the only potential threat to future growth is the temptation to raise prices, a factor exacerbated by recent short harvests in Austria (and 2014 looks like another small crop). “In some markets we run the danger of leaving the ‘wine by the glass’ zone, because of pricing,” he warns. “This is to be avoided as we need consumer trial.”

If Grüner has won a growing following among non-German-speaking consumers, its recent success has also led to a spate of plantings of the variety in other countries: the US (California, but also Oregon, Washington State, Finger Lakes and Long Island), as well as New Zealand and Australia, particularly in the Adelaide Hills.

But neither Klinger nor Moser are concerned about this potential new level of competition for Austria’s signature wine style, which they believe can only elevate the reputation of what remains a relatively unknown grape on the world scene.

“Definitely help!” says Moser. “Grüner is a new ‘thing’. The more people produce it and get exposed, the better – and also, Austria will be in the lead for the foreseeable future. However, I like the little nudge from the Kiwis and Aussies – we need that to keep being agile and driven.”

Klinger agrees. “Vineyard consultant Dr Richard Smart said publicly a few years ago that the best thing that could happen to Austria would be that countries in the so-called New World planted GV.

“Well, that’s what happens now and it is an honour for us and GV, and a very positive sign, because it means that Austria has found its established position in the fine wine world.”

Grüner Veltliner remains a niche grape variety and, almost exclusively, an Austrian speciality. But it is one that, thanks to the confluence of consumer tastes and advances in production techniques, is carving out a growing reputation in the wine world well beyond its core German-speaking audience. 

 

All about Grüner

 

  • The offspring of Traminer and St Georgen, Grüner Veltliner is not related to either Roter Veltliner or Frühroter Veltliner.
     
  • It became the most widely planted variety in Austria in the 1950s, thanks to the introduction of Lenz Moser’s Hochkultur training system.
     
  • Cultivation of Grüner Veltliner in Austria fell by 22% between 1999 and 2009, but has since revived, increasing from 13,518 ha in 2009 to an estimated 14,781 ha today.
     
  • The vast majority of plantings are in Niederösterreich (13,270 ha), followed by Burgenland (1,329 ha), Wien (178 ha) and Steiermark (4 ha).
     
  • Within Niederösterreich, key sub-regions include Kamptal, Kremstal, the dramatic vineyards of the Wachau, and the Weinviertel.
     
  • According to Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB) estimates, about one-third of Austrian Grüner Veltliner is currently shipped overseas – which means that the variety accounts for about half of the country’s wine exports.
     
  • Outside Austria, Grüner Veltliner is planted in neighbouring countries Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and is increasingly popular in New World regions such as New Zealand, Australia, California, Oregon and Washington State.
     

Kiwi Grüner

Of all the countries which have planted Grüner Veltliner in the recent past, perhaps the most optimism has surrounded New Zealand, thanks to its record of high achievement with aromatic white varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris.

Compared to the nearly 15,000 ha planted in Austria, New Zealand’s Grüner vineyards remain modest… really modest. According to New Zealand Winegrowers, just 37 ha of the variety were producing in 2013, and that figure is set to rise no higher than 46.6 ha by 2016, the vast majority in Marlborough (plus a few hectares in Nelson).

Yealands Estate has a parcel of the variety, and chief winemaker Tamra Kelly-Washington believes there is ‘great potential’ for NZ Grüner. “It is still early days,” she admits, “but in a short time I have seen the quality improve in leaps and bounds from what we had in the first and second harvests.

“Marlborough is leading the charge, in my opinion, and also Nelson – cooler-climate areas resulting in a longer growing season, enabling purer fruit character and bright, natural acidity.”

In the UK, Liberty Wines has added two Marlborough Grüners to its portfolio – Tinpot Hut and Matt Thomson’s The Paddler – and Liberty managing director David Gleave MW thinks the variety shows promise as a “serious contender”.

Yealands sells “just about all” of its Grüner in the UK, adds Kelly-Washington. “I think GV is more widely known and accepted as a variety in the UK than anywhere else – aside from Austria, of course – and consumers in the UK generally trust wines coming from New Zealand, so they are happy to try our GVs,” she says.

If there is a ‘New Zealand style’, Kelly-Washington says, it is still work in progress, but early indications are of less overt spice than Austrian GV, but more fruit purity.

“The NZ GV style should illustrate the intensity of flavour we see from other varieties grown in Marlborough,” adds Gleave. “My worry would be that some producers are making the wines a bit sweet which, as with Pinot Gris, will lead to consumer confusion as to what the wines should taste like.”
 

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