A guide to finding the best Grüner Veltliner, an incredibly versatile Austrian white wine with impressive range and unique properties.
Ragingly popular in the ’90s, this elegant and masterful white wine seems to have somewhat fallen off the map. Most people I know discovered it accidentally when some restaurant had an unfamiliar wine list and they went for “the driest white you have.”
It is such a shame because Grüner Veltliner is a really unique wine with impressive versatility and remarkable expressions. So here I am on my crusade to bring Grüner back to America’s tables, one blog post at a time!
Key Facts about Grüner:
- Only grown in Austria
- Pronounced “Groo-ner Velt-LEEN-er.”
- Key notes of pepper, lemon, lime, grapefruit
- Explosions of very high acidity
- One of three white wines that ages well
- Demonstrates a range of styles
- Easy to grow in warm climates
- Versatile food pairings
What is Grüner?
Simply put, Grüner Veltliner is a dry white wine with strong notes of pepper and citrus.
The grapes are small, green, and “white-tipped” (Which may have lead to some naming confusion discussed below.) When they ripen in mid-season (mid-late October) they range from green-yellow to mustard yellow.
Unlike Gewurztraminer, another grape from the area, Grüner grapes are not picky about their soil. However, expert winemakers note that Grüner tends to thrive best in löss (loess – silt or clay soil) or loam soil because of the heavy water and nutrient retention. Which is why regions like Kremstal, Kamptal, and Wachau produce such delicious examples!
These three areas are on the western bank of the Danube, which has very steep slopes and low soil levels. Here we see the effect of terroir on Grüner. Many of the wines from these western vineyards are highly mineral and pure – reflecting the gravel and lack of soil. This makes them incredibly crisp and perfect for food. Even better? This means they age!
Aging is a rare quality in white wine, most whites are simply too delicate and young to withstand prolonged time in the bottle or barrel. Only Riesling, Chardonnay, and Grüner typically hot up to extended aging (and even benefit from it!). This means that Grüner can create numerous variety in style and body. Aged full-bodied Grüner wines will mellow slightly and develop incredibly complex notes.
Of course, Grüners grown in more soil heavy areas creates more fruity and spicy wines. These can age as well, though they’ll likely lose some of those fresh fruit characteristics.
Grüner grapes produce prolific yields, so yield control is the name of the day in Austrian vineyards. But these grapes are also highly susceptible to mildew and mites, especially during the flowering season. So care and attention is needed to ensure the vines make it through to fruit-bearing.
Freshly produced Grüner is very pure and full of minerality and acidity. It makes an excellent pairing wine, which is why you will find it on so many restaurant menus! The flavors are rich and complex, but keep in mind many of them are quite rich and full-bodied as well without losing that dry, crisp edge. So if you find one that is too heavy for you, keep looking…
After all, it is the wine of an entire country, there must be something to it, right?
Where does Grüner Come from?
Grüner grapes grow almost exclusively in Austria where their vineyards make up the majority (around 30%) of the total grapes grown. And nearly all Grüner we buy in America comes from those Austrian vineyards.
The grapes have spread to a few neighboring countries (and a very few pioneers on the American East Coast and California). But these small green grapes haven’t really taken off anywhere else.
Which of course means the Austrians have incredible patriotic pride in their grape and they probably drink more of their own local wine than any foreigners do! (It is their national grape after all.)
The History of Grüner Veltliner
As to its origins, there is a story that Grüner was originally the wine of the Roman army and was born in the region of Valtellina in Italy. But no concrete evidence to that effect has ever been documented, so it is probably dramatic fiction.
In all likelihood, Grüner originated in Austria where it has remained for centuries. By all accounts, its local popularity rose after World War II. Inhabitants of Austrian cities took weekend trips out to the country where they gathered in the local vineyards. And there they discovered their national wine. These were likely the more youthful and young wines, and that trend continues to this day. If you venture to an Austrian tavern or “Heuriger,” don’t look for aged versions.
In the late 90s, the ever-ambitious restaurant industry was looking for the next new big wine and some brilliant sommelier settled on Grüner. It’s popularity in the states exploded and Grüner varieties found their way onto restaurant tables and wine shop shelves all across the nation.
But the restaurant industry is fickle and they soon moved on to something else. Even worse, the surge in popularity leads to some mass-produced, cheap, careless bottles of Grüner. And even some of the better ones had poor marketing plans. (Whoever came up with GruVe probably doesn’t sleep at night. But the name has unfortunately stuck.) So, Grüner’s reputation plummeted for a time, to be slowly rediscovered by a new generation.
Thank heavens we’ve now reached a seemingly happy medium. You may not know what Grüner is off-hand, but you will at least find it on most fine dining restaurant menus. So you have the opportunity to find out!
The Naming Problem
Part of the reason we know so little about Grüner Veltliner, like so many wines, is because the name is misleading.
There is a “Veltliner” family of grapes including Roter and Braunen, but Grüner seems to be no relation. (They do bear some similarities in appearance so that could be the reason behind the name.) No genetic evidence links Grüner to the family.
Another theory is that the grapes were named after the Valtellina area of Italy where one “creative” version of their historic places their origin. But there is even less supporting evidence to back that up.
After genetic testing, viticulturists determined Grüner is actually a cross of Traminer grapes and something called “St. Georgian,” named for the location it was found.
Unfortunately, we likely will never know much about this mysterious “St. Georgian” parent of Grüner. The only remaining vine is largely dead and the living pieces are in very poor condition.
So we must content ourselves with its thriving offspring, the poorly-named yet vivacious Grüner Veltliner.
Riesling vs. Grüner Veltliner
I would be remiss if I wrote an entire article on Grüner without ever mentioning Austria’s other most popular wine product – Riesling.
Together Grüner and Riesling make up the majority of Austria’s exported wine, though Riesling only makes up about 4% of the total vineyard acreage in the country.
Though it has a small footprint on the land, there’s no doubt Riesling has had a far greater impact on our culture than Grüner, often overshadowing its native cousin.
They share similar minerality, and many Riesling drinkers can happily find a bottle of Grüner that matches their taste as well. Many aged Grüners will also exhibit the same delicious depth of an aged Riesling, though with a bit more spice and citrus.
The fact is, Riesling and Grüner complement each other well. Riesling grows best in rocky soils, while Grüner grows best in heavy loam. So they can share vineyard acreage and space without conflict. They both reflect the terroir of their native land, to slightly different effect. They are two sides of the same coin.
Maybe it’s time we flipped that coin from heads to tails?
Grüner Veltliner Taste Profile
The most noticeable notes in Grüner are punchy acidity and spicy pepper which makes it identifiable in a tasting. This bright, tingly acidity is what makes the Grüner Veltliner such an excellent pair with food. It can match nearly anything you eat!
Some of that remarkably high acidity and alcohol will mask any sweet notes. And it even leads to just a hint of effervescence in some bottles. While not a sparkling wine generally (a few rare bottles will be made into sparkling varieties), Grüners often have fine bubbles when poured into your glass.
In younger Grüners, remember the minerality is key. You’ll note wet stone and gravel.
The name itself says “green,” so you’ll notice very strong green flavors like lime and white pepper. But many Grüners will also have an herbaceous, vegetable quality, similar to Sauvignon Blanc.
And if the grapes have been picked late in the season when they are very ripe or in an area with high loam content, the Grüner will have a fuller body and a deeper stone fruit flavor.
These full-bodied wines will also have strong nut and cream notes, especially if they have been aged!
Below are the categorized tasting notes, ranked from less ripe to most ripe in each category.
- Wet Stone
- Wet Earth
- White Pepper
- Green Pepper
- Green beans
- Salad Greens
- Herbs like Thyme, Basil, or Oregano
There are very rare sweet Grüners, but the honest truth is, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them in America. Visit Austria and hunt one down if you simply must try, you’ll likely have more luck in its home country!
How much does good Grüner Veltliner Cost?
Fortunately, there are many good and even great Grüners for relatively cheap. You can find bottles in the $20 range for superb young Grüner. Older, aged varieties will likely cost you around $40 or a little more, but you may get lucky and find some for under that price!
Don’t be put off by the screw caps. Most Grüner Veltliners, even the best, will have screw caps. It’s not a grocery store wine, it’s just the way Austria makes the bottle!
How to find the Best Grüner Veltliner
We are venturing into suspicious territory trying to find the absolute best since nearly all of it comes from one country with one terroir.
Keep in mind the different growing regions that will help you determine which type of wine is most suited to your tastes.
- Pure, Mineral, Green Acidic – Wachau, Kremstal, Kampal
- Fruity, Full-Bodied – Weinvertal, Wagram, Carnuntum
- But do remember that even the slopes can produce full-bodied wines, especially through aging.
- To determine what type you are buying, check the bottle! Grüner is one of the few wine types that might actually give you a clue on the label, especially if you buy from Wachau.
- Steinfeder – light-bodied, fruity, low in alcohol.
- Federspiel – “classic”: medium-bodied, mineral and structured with a bit of fruity
- Smaragd – high alcohol, full-bodied, complex
The Best Years for Grüner Veltliner
Like so many wines, Grüner needs a mild climate and it needs moisture. Fortunately, since most of it comes from Austria, it isn’t hard to narrow down the best years!
2017 – concentrated acidity
2012 – creamy and full-bodied
2011 – easy to drink, choose Kremstal first!
2008 & 2009 – perfect for aging
Top 5 Affordable Grüner Veltliner in 2019
2017 Martin Muthenthaler Grüner Veltliner “Vergelt’s Gott” Wachau $34.99
After the very first sip, Vasiliy and I both turned to each other and yelled “pears!” This bottle tastes exactly like biting into a perfectly ripe pear. The making of this bottle involves both indigenous yeast and fermenting on the lees (meaning the wine stays on the skins for part of its aging).
The effect? Just a touch of nuts and cream in the back palate. Aging in stainless steel creates a crisp, pure wine with striking minerality despite being so full and rich. “Vergelt’s Gott” is a really exceptional bottle if you can find it!
- Eye: Pale Gold, faint green hue
- Nose: Faint pears, strong lime, and radish notes
- Palate: Pears, full papaya with a bit of lime and rush of white pepper. Brazil nuts and cream in the back palate.
- Finish: Full-Bodied but with Sharp Acidity and Minerality
- Drink: Now or hold for 5 more years
- Serving: Let rest for 10 minutes out of the fridge
- Pairs with: Sausages, Poached Salmon, Fall Harvest Salad
2018 Fuhrgassl-Huber Wiener Grüner Veltliner Klassik $15.99
Probably the most similar to a dry Riesling on this whole list. When consumed very cold the acidity is like a smack in the face, very strong and bright. Lemon acidity starts and ends the palate. There is something faintly fruity in the middle, like a memory of fresh pears. There’s also a faint taste of something like Earl Grey, but that only appears after it’s warmed up.
A warning: do not serve this too cold. Fresh out of the fridge the acidity was a bit too punchy for me. But after letting it rest it’s a much more mellow and refreshing wine with distinguishable flavors other than just lemons.
- Eye: Pale Yellow
- Nose: Lemon, creamy pear, stone fruits
- Palate: Lemon, faint pears and Earl Grey tea
- Finish: Dry and quick
- Drink: Young, Now
- Serving: Allow to rest out of the fridge 15 minutes before drinking!
- Pair With: A light salad, Pasta with butter sauce, Shellfish
2018 Schlosskellerei Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Kamptal $16.99
A bright, light, refreshing bottle. Perfect for a hot summer’s day. There is a bit of effervescence in this one, you can see the bubbles rising in the bottle even before opening and the glass is quickly lined with fine bubbles. Pear and lime zest are strong on the nose here.
The first sip is bursting full of a pleasant sour lime acidity in the front palate. But it very quickly fades to rich and deep yeast, bread notes in the back palate. The finish is surprisingly dry and salty, which makes you want another sip…it would be way too easy to finish this bottle in one go!
- Eye: Very pale green
- Nose: Lemon, Lime, Yeast Bread, A bit of Salt
- Palate: Lime, green apple, savory arugula, green beans, yeast, bread, salt
- Finish: Light and short, intensely dry and salty
- Drink: Young, now
- Pair with: Seared tuna, Baked salmon,
I’d recommend pairing it with some Seared Ahi Tuna Steaks. This wine is just so bright and well balanced but full of acidity. It can cut right through fatty, meatier fish like tuna and salmon. Perfect for a light seafood meal!
2018 Loimer Lois Grüner Veltliner Kamptal $16.99
Bright acidity without being overpowering or punchy. It is light with subtle complex flavors, everything ranging from crisp salad greens to creamy pear. There are faint hints of green apple and lemony acidity on the first sip. But that translates into green leaves and a touch of minerality. Overall light and bright and a very complex and unique Grüner for this price!
- Eye: Pale yellow with green flecks.
- Nose: Pear and green beans
- Palate: Lemon, apple, salad greens, minerality, pears.
- Finish: Dry and brightly acidic
- Drink: Young, now
- Pairs with: Pork chops or oysters and clams
2017 Salomon-Undhof Reid Wachtberg Grüner Veltliner Kremstal $25.99
An example of pure terroir expression. Brightly acidic on the nose with strong citrus notes, but there are hints of minerals, stones, and flint in the back – indicative of its native gravel home. Still a rather full-bodied and intense wine, you’ll note touches of pair and something reminiscent of Asian cuisine.
- Eye: Soft Yellow
- Nose: Lemon, Flint
- Palate: Lemon acidity followed by pear and minerality, soybeans, green herbs, miso
- Finish: Dry, savory, bright, lasting minerals and salt
- Drink: Young, Now
- Pairs with: Chicken, Pork, Venison, Sushi
Riesling – grown in the same country, Grüner and Riesling work in tandem to fill the Austrian countryside and vineyards. Since they are both pulling from the same terroir, they do tend to have many of the same traits.
They are similarly lightweight and young unripe Riesling will have many of the same citrus notes of lime and lemon. However, the older Riesling gets, the more fruit character develops with notes of ripe stone fruits and tropical fruits. Grüner, on the other hand, tends to be more “green in character.” They are both high mineral.
Aged Grüner and Riesling can often be indistinguishable to the novice palate. Aging has the opposite effect on each wine bringing them to a similar end place full of depth and complexity.
Sauvignon Blanc – Sauvignon Blanc is a notoriously “green” wine, and as “Grüner Veltliner is actually named “the green wine,” you can imagine the similarity. Both Grüner and Sauvignon have strong green notes like lime, green pepper, green beans, salad greens, and grass.
However, Grüners tend to be much spicier with notes of radish or white pepper. They are also much more acidic which is why they can pair with foods that Sauvignon Blanc dare not!
Most white wines should be chilled and served immediately. Its crisp acidity and occasional bubbles lend themselves to ice-cold glasses to refresh hot, sweaty days.
If you have an aged Grüner however, try to let it sit out for just 5-10 minutes to allow some of that icy chill to fade so you can taste the more complex nut and fruit flavors!
Everything! You likely first encountered Grüner Veltliner on a restaurant menu and there is a reason. Grüner Veltliner is one of the most food-friendly wines on the market. The bright acidity that makes it so refreshing also makes it perfect for pairing with nearly anything.
It naturally pairs with seafood, fresh and cooked, and acts as the slice of lemon squeezed over your fish. But that same bright acidity can pair with heavier, fattier foods like chicken, pork, sausages, venison, duck, goose, quail, and even some beef and lamb dishes!
The acidity and green character also make it perfect for pairing with difficult, spicy foods like Mexican, Japanese, India, or Thai. And of course, Austrian food is a given.
Ready to Help me Put Grüner Veltliner Back on the Map
If you’ve made it this far, you clearly have an interest in one of the most impressive wines to come out of Austria.
You know it’s food-friendly, so it will pair with pretty much anything you are planning to make this evening. You know you can find it in a range of styles. And you know good Grüner is remarkably affordable. (You can even age some of your favorite bottles to see how they fair!)
What is not to like? Go out there are try a bottle from Wachau or Kamptal. You’ll thank yourself.
Images were taken by the author on November 2019.