On "Burgundian" Grüner Veltliner. Or, The Need for Ried.
Perhaps you should be geeking out over single-vineyard grüner veltliner.
My most unhinged wine take of last year was that everyone should dump hyper-expensive white Burgundy and drink single-vineyard Austrian grüner veltliner instead. Yes, I said that. I had my reasons at the time. In any case, I stand by it…at least at the highest end.
The foremost reason was news of Burgundy’s “challenging” (or “devastating” according to who you listen to) harvest of 2021, full of extreme weather events like hail, frost, and drought. Chardonnay was particularly affected, and many white wine producers lost more around 80 percent of their usual yield. It wasn’t the first dicey harvest in recent years. So, with historically low volume and thirsty demand, prices inevitably skyrocketed.
To be clear, I was not saying that Austrian grüner veltliner is necessarily better than white Burgundy (although plenty of times it is). The fact of the matter is, most drinkers are not going to be able to afford great Côte de Beaune or Côte Chalonnaise or even Chablis moving forward. Wine people have been predicting this for a more than a decade. “Is it time for Burgundy lovers to panic? Are the prices of these most exquisite and expressive wines about to spiral into the stratosphere, propelled by a burgeoning generation of Burgundy fans from China?” asked the New York Times in 2012.
This time last year, there was plenty of hand wringing in wine media about all of this. Vincent Valet of Maison Pierre Bourée et Fils, a domaine founded in Gevrey-Chambertin in 1864, said this to the UK trade magazine The Buyer:
“Wine from Bourgogne is not meant to be a speculative tool. It is meant to be shared. Wine is an emotion, not part of a cheque or a one hundred dollar bill. We are happy to share our wines with as many people as possible, but, please—let’s be civilised about the prices.”
This is a problem, of course, only at the highest end, bottles north of $100. So it’s easy for someone like me to shrug my shoulders. Boo hoo, poor rich people! But the thing is, white Burgundy wasn’t always that expensive. So it’s not a surprise that sommeliers, collectors, critics, and other wine geeks who care about these things are looking around for alternatives, wines that are so-called Burgundian. Can German riesling be Burgundian? Is Loire chenin blanc from Montlouis or Savennières? I’ve even heard Soave Classico referred to as Burgundian. This chasing of Burgundian-ness has become a fixture of modern wine discourse.
That’s why I put in my vote for top gruner veltliner, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed my writing for any length of time. Grüner veltliner can have many different flavor profiles. It can sometimes seem like sauvignon blanc and viogner had a love child. It can sometimes veer riesling-like, especially as it ages. But often, at its best, it can follow down the path of chardonnay—but the very good chardonnay, not that oaky, buttery chardonnay that turned you against chardonnay. The Burgundian chardonnay.
Ironically, since I wrote my piece last April, I’ve spent considerable time exploring the more affordable side of white Burgundy. As I wrote about back in January:
I admit, I’ve never been a chardonnay fan. But lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of low-end Burgundy chardonnay. In fact, I might even venture to say that low-end Burgundy might be some of the best value whites in the world right now. This admission may be ironic since, over the past year, I’ve been using “white Burgundy” as a hobby horse for my rants against rising white-wine prices.
To be clear, I’m talking here about a specific slice of Burgundy. As a region, Burgundy might be complicated, but the wines I’m talking about are not complicated at all. Basically, you’re looking for white wines from Mâconnais, Burgundy’s southernmost region, right where it butts up against Beaujolais. Look for appellations such as Mâcon-Villages, Viré Clessé, or Saint Véran (which once was known as Beaujolais Blanc). Or look for Mâcon + a specific village, such as Mâcon-Péronne, Mâcon-Lugny, or Mâcon-Prissé.
Mâconnais wines are perfect for anyone who wants to remember why people ever liked chardonnay in the first place. They’re aged mostly in stainless steel, and are rarely oaky. They’re not the acid bombs that certain sommelier-approved lists are full of, but they generally have plenty of good acidity. Their balance of zing and fleshy fruit ends up pairing really well with a lot of different foods.
Honestly, what’s been happening for me is that the occasions for white Burgundy and Austrian grüner veltliner have completely inverted. I now reach for Mâconnais whites more often on a Tuesday night. And I’ve found myself seeking out more higher-end bottlings of grüner veltliner. I can’t tell you exactly why. I know, for one, that the “challenging” 2021 vintage—at least in Mâconnais—turned out to be pretty damn good.
But 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.
I do know that, currently, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board is heavily promoting single-vineyard bottlings—aka Riedenwein. There are over 4,000 single vineyard sites in Austria, though only a relative few are vinified on their own. The focus on single vineyards is rather recent. The label term Ried, designating specific Austrian vineyards, only came into effect in 2016. In 2021, Austrian Wine released a comprehensive wine atlas—perfect for geeks who love maps!
But Austria producers were modeling their system on Burgundy long before 2016. Along the Danube, the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter, or ÖTW, is an association of 68 winemakers, formed in 1992, who created a classification system of Lower Austria’s vineyards in the regions of Kamptal, Kremstal, Trainsental, Wagram, Vienna, and Carnuntum (the famed Wachau does its own thing, separately).
Specific vineyards in specific villages are singled out as Erste Lage, or premier cru. A top Kamptal wine, for instance, might label Käferberg or Loisenberg as its premier cru vineyards, in the village of Langenlois, or Heiligenstein in Zöbring, or Lamm and Renner in Kammern. So, yes, things can get just as complicated and confusing as they are with Burgundy! Still, there’s an easy way to know if you have an Erste Lage wine: It has the umlauted image of 1ÖTW on the label (below). If you want to go a little deeper, here is a map of all the Erste Lagen along the Danube (again, map alert!)
But not every Austrian winery is a member of ÖTW—plenty of great wineries are not. So this is where the word Ried comes in. If you see Ried word on the label, you can be sure the wine come from a single vineyard.
One thing that makes single-vineyard grüner veltliner distinctly different than Burgundy is price. I’ve tasted a dozen or so over the past few weeks, whatever I could get my hands on. Most everything was about half the price of top Burgundy, or less. They’re not particularly easy to find. Hopefully we’ll see more of them soon. Austrian white wine imports to the U.S. rose by 23 percent in 2021, so maybe this is the beginning of a new era of availability here.
I’ve tasted a lot of the 2019s at this point. In general, while many are often big and bold, they still have great acidity and I believe they’ will age a long, long time. I know, Americans are wary of “older” whites, but these wines will keep getting better and better.
For people who talk about these sorts of things, 2019 is considered to be an excellent vintage, one of the best of the 21st century—much like the famed 1999 and 2009 vintages. (In Austria, great vintages are easy to remember, just look for the 9). There are still a lot of great values to be had.
Seven Sexy Single-Vineyard Picks
Big and ripe in smaragd style, but very pretty,with a delicate nose of peach blossoms and fresh herbs, leading to a fruit explosion on the palate of stone fruit, mango, lime leaf, and even a hint of peach cobbler. Will totally appeal to the Burgundy drinker and has the bones to age a long time. (Find other vintages here)
Knoll’s wines are some of the most sought-after and ageworthy whites in the world. This lighter federspiel bottling is a bargain and will age beautifully. Big acidity, with aromas of lime zest, white blossoms, and tangerine with warm citrus flavors carrying through on the palate, with notes of grilled lemon, salt, and talc at midpalate and a crisp mineral finish. (Find other vintages here)
Light and lithe, an ethereal wine that whispers “spring” with notes of white blossom, almonds, lime zest, and talc and underlying peach and apricot. This will age magically.
This leans a bit more tropical, with mango and grilled pineapple, along with ripe pear. But it’s still linear and precise with a mineral backbone and great texture. (Find other vintages here)
Very “Burgundian-like” (as they say) with big tropical fruit character. Dense, rich, and ripe, this wine’s got curves. Austrian wine people are always bragging about how well grüner veltliner pairs with spicy Thai or Indian food—well, this is the wine they’re talking about. (Find other vintages here)
I absolutely loved this wine. Pretty nose of honeysuckle, iris, and pear blossom, and soft on the palate with ripe pear and lime zest, sliding to an intense stony finish. If you can find it, buy it and drink it now.
Super floral, with aromas of big, white gaudy blossoms, yet on the palate it’s crisp and precise, full of ripe pear and white pepper, and a hint of gunsmoke on the cool, mineral finish. (Find other vintages here, including the outstanding 2015)