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Grüner Veltliner Is Comfort Food
Thoughts on chicken paprikash, autumn, and the cold November rain.
The cold November rains are upon us at the Jersey Shore. It’s been chilly and wet the past couple mornings in the coastal town where I’ve been living for the past several months, with fog rolling in off the ocean. As we’ve moved deeper into fall, on our end of the island, visitors have dwindled to a sparse handful, most of the summer houses stand empty, and most of the businesses are closed. The beach is nearly deserted, except for a few fishermen and surfers.
I haven’t spent a November here since the early 1990s, when I worked as a cub reporter at The Press of Atlantic City. So perhaps you’ll forgive me if my mind drifts to that era, to the enduring wisdom of Guns N’ Roses, which reminds us: Nothin' lasts forever. And, dear reader: We both know hearts can change. This may be true, but we also know that hearts can, sometimes, come full circle.
For instance, the other night, I decided to make chicken paprikash and egg dumplings, the classic Hungarian comfort dish. This chicken paprikash recipe comes from my favorite social media cook, Carolina Gelen. (Seriously, if you’re not subscribed to Carolina’s newsletter, Scraps, what are you even cooking?) What I love about Carolina’s recipes (I’ve written before about her cottage cheese bread) is that they’re made with straightforward ingredients that you usually already have in the house or you can find at a basic grocery store—a not insignificant thing when you’re staying out of season in a seasonal resort.
Chicken paprikash is a home-spun dish Carolina grew up eating in Eastern Europe, and so you just inherently trust her modern take, one that substitutes coconut milk for sour cream and boneless thighs for the traditional bone-in chicken. You take things slowly, letting the red bell peppers and onions cook down into a red-orange paste, and use more paprika than you think you should. The egg dumplings (made simply with six eggs and flour, and boiled in salted water) are the perfect carb delivery vehicle. The result is amazing. Comfort food at its best. The only deviation I made from Carolina’s preparation is that she suggests serving the dish with a side of whole scallions that you bite into raw and I chopped mine and sprinkled them on top.
I didn’t grow up in Eastern Europe, but this is a dish I’ve eaten quite a bit while traveling in Austria. I particularly recall one weeks-long research trip to wine regions along the Danube, in a quixotic, ill-fated attempt to write a book about Austrian wine. It was November, just after harvest, and it was cold. I would visit four or five wineries during the day, and even then, I had the sinking feeling that no publisher would want a book about Austrian wine. At night, I would dine alone at some cozy, quiet dark-wooded inn or beisl, eating schnitzel or goulash or chicken paprikash, along with grüner veltliner. Eventually, I realized the project was bigger, but that November trip to Austria became the beating heart of the book I eventually wrote.
The other night, as I was getting the ingredients together, I realized I wanted to pair a grüner veltliner with the paprikash. Since our town is dry (ie. selling booze is prohibited) this would mean leaving the island to find a wine shop.
Until recently, it would have been laughable to think I might find an umlauted Austrian wine at a Jersey Shore liquor store. But these days, with a little bit of searching, you can even find grüner veltliner in deepest South Jersey. It was only a 25-minute drive to find what I was looking for. To be fair, they only stocked two Austrian wines and only one was grüner: Nigl Freiheit Grüner Veltliner 2021 from Kremstal and Schloss Gobelseburg Riesling 2021 from Kamptal. Still, I proclaim this a victory for lesser-known wines. As we’ve talked about recently in this newsletter: Things are changing.
In any case, both wines were lovely with the paprikash, though I will say that I preferred the grüner veltliner. Which likely surprises no one who’s read my wine writing for the past decade. As I wrote in Godforsaken Grapes:
I want to be clear about one thing: I am not fickle. I’m being sincere when I tell you this: I have always loved GV. Always. I’m not one of those wine writers who fell quickly in and out of lust, only to newly “revisit” the grape lately because I needed a new story angle. I am true of heart. Please believe me, GV. I have never, ever stopped loving you! I love how diverse, how unpredictable, your mood and character can be, sometimes rich and aromatic, sometimes crisp and mineral, often peppery or spicy, and always lively, with big flavor without being too fruity. I love how friendly you are with food, how you step back just a little and let the food do the talking, and how you pair with just about everything, from fried chicken to barbecue to guacamole to sushi to pad Thai to tandoori. You even play nice with salads and vegetables, like asparagus, which notoriously don’t get along with wine. Even chardonnay lovers might consider straying if they tasted you.
I look back fondly to the late 1990s, when grüner veltliner was just becoming trendy. I was still a young man, but had passed through my flannel-shirt-grunge-failed-novelist days and had begun a semi-respectable career as a food writer. Grüner veltliner dominated the wine lists of the restaurants I was reviewing. “If viognier and sauvignon blanc had a baby,” we were told, “it would be grüner veltliner.”
But here’s the thing. Recently, I kinda have been fickle about grüner veltliner. At the around-$20 end, I’ve been fooling around just as much with Mâconnais chardonnay or obscure Italian whites or other things these days. Back in April, I even published a note of skepticism about where good-value grüner veltliner seems to be heading:
I also worry a little bit that, in Austria, the higher end is beginning to separate itself more and more from the everyday (which has always been Austria’s strength). Though I’ve been a pretty close observer of Austrian wine, maybe this is just my perception. Maybe all of this is just a cycle.
Perhaps this was just my way of saying: Nothin' lasts forever…And we both know hearts can change.
But now it’s November, and raining, and I’m living once again in the place I lived before I had ever heard of things like grüner veltliner. When I lived here 30 years ago, I was working on a failing novel, and it was time to figure out what to do next. How the twists and turns of that journey took me to writing about wines that most people haven’t heard of is a mystery that I still cannot explain. But here we are. Gazing at the late fall ocean, I realize that it’s always time to figure out what to do next.
By the way, that 2021 Nigl Freiheit is a classic under-$20 GV with a nose of citrus blossom, herbs, and fresh-cut hay, flavors of pear and apple, and that classic white pepper finish. Those are the tasting notes, if you care. More importantly, it’s the kind of wine that restores my faith in everyday grüner veltliner, and in life. It’s comfort wine in the best way possible.