Roter Veltliner Will Survive the Vibe Shift
Austria's obscure grape is delicious, pairs with literally any food, and waits patiently for the cool kids and trendspotters to discover it.
“Not everyone survives a vibe shift,” declared The Cut this week. This vibe shift, according to one too-cool trendspotter, means the “once dominant social wavelength” will soon be left behind. “It is unnerving because when you really consider it,” the article insists, “you can feel people flocking to a new thing…something has shifted.”
How will the forthcoming vibe shift manifest itself? Who can really say. Even the trend forecasters don’t point to anything specific or definitive. But a vibe shift is surely afoot, they say, and people who care about these sorts of things will be left with a choice: “Opt in to whatever trend comes next” or “stay stuck at whatever makes us feel comfortable, and if that’s in 2016 or 2012 or 2010, that’s fine.”
Personally, I’ve been blissfully unaware of this impending vibe shift. I’ve instead spent the past week focused on tasting a bunch of Austrian roter veltliner.
It’s become an annual exercise for me, sampling wines made from this obscure grape. Every year, the roter veltliner I taste is delicious. Every year, the wines feel like precisely the type of full-bodied, ripe whites that Americans would love. Every year, I grow excited and effusive about their complexity and uniqueness. And every year, in the weeks after the tastings, when I sit down to write my love letter to roter veltliner…I come to the sad realization that almost none of it is available in the U.S. market. I’ve repeated this devastating cycle for at least the past five years.
Telling my readers about roter veltliner they can’t find seems as inaccessible as telling a bunch of millennial and Gen X parents in the suburbs about which sneakers and drugs the kids in Brooklyn are digging now as they bring back “early-aughts indie sleaze.”
But maybe the time has come for a vibe shift in wine. In fact, I’m just going to declare that 2022 will be the year roter veltliner finally happens. Why not? The bar for trendspotting seems incredibly low these days.
I should admit that this is not the first time I have publicly made a case for roter veltliner. When Godforsaken Grapes was released in the spring of 2018, I appeared on Bianca Bosker’s wine segment of the Prince Street podcast. We twisted open the screwcap of a magical 2011 Leth Ried Fumberg Roter Veltliner. Bosker suggested that drinking this type of wine was “sticking it to The Man.” Obviously, we were unsuccessful in popularizing the grape, but we tried.
So perhaps I should back up. What is roter (“red”) veltliner anyway? Though the grape’s skin is reddish, it makes white wine. Though it shares a name with Austria’s most famous grape—grüner (“green”) veltliner—it is not genetically related. It’s actually the parent of rotgipfler and zierfandler, two other obscure Austrian varieties I wrote about in December.
Roter veltliner had always been part of Austria’s gemischter satz, field blends that can contain a dozen or more autochthonous grapes. At some point in the late 20th century, roter veltliner began to disappear (perhaps a 1980s Austrian vibe shift?). By the early 1990s, it was almost extinct.
A small group of organic producers in Wagram, along the Danube, committed to growing the grape. There are now around 700 acres of roter veltliner, and it’s so special and precarious that even the Slow Food organization has singled it out for protection. Roter veltliner, to be clear, is a survivor. Wagram may also finally be getting more love. Though it’s always been one of Austria’s most important wine regions, it only gained prestigious DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) status a few weeks ago.
Now, this is all interesting wine knowledge. But what I love about roter veltliner is that you don’t have to know anything about Austria or grapes to enjoy it. As I was tasting, I thought about what might be an ideal food match. On the Austrian Wine website, the following pairings were recommended for roter veltliner: kimchi; prosciutto and melon; spaghetti carbonara; fish carpaccio; tandoori chicken; linguine al pesto. (I’m dying over the mix of generality and specificity on this list!) A few years ago, I attended a roter veltliner dinner with several producers in Vienna, at a plant-based restaurant called TIAN, where each wine was paired with a vegetable dish.
So does this mean roter veltliner pairs with any type of food from anywhere? Pretty much, from what I’ve found. Over the past week, I’ve tasted these wines with a variety of takeout: mole enchiladas, maguro sashimi, buffalo wings, baba ganoush and mouhamara, paneer tikka masala. Honestly, roter veltliner may be the greatest takeout wine of all time. I don’t say that at all diminishingly, either. Every wine, frankly, should aspire to be an excellent pairing with takeout, elevating and adding joy to a casual Tuesday night at home.
Roter veltliner pairs well because it’s somewhat chameleon-like, with layers of flavor and aroma—somehow powerful, soft, lively, floral, perfumed, fruity, smokey, peppery all at once. It’s got the stranger elements of gewürztraminer, pinot gris, viognier, and riesling, yet remains different. It stands up to spicy food because it’s both fleshy and aromatic. But it also has enough acidity to stand up to raw fish and roasted vegetables, and enough brightness to contrast cured pork, bacon, and cheese.
On that podcast years ago, both Bianca Bosker and poet/sommelier Amanda Smeltz described roter veltliner in much more vivid ways than I could. Smeltz noted its “incredibly exotic and spicy nose. It smells like pink peppercorn to me. And crazy fruit, things like tamarind and kumquat and all these weird fruits you don’t normally encounter in white wine.” She insisted it was a perfect pairing with a spiced North African lamb dish. Bosker called it “a fondued pineapple” with a “rotten sweet tropical note…which is a good thing just to clarify.”
Why, then, is it so damn difficult to find this fascinating wine around here? I tasted a half dozen bottles from the 2019 or 2020 vintages for this article, and I can’t find any of them in the American market. It makes me think of the old football cliché repeated during NFL games: The best ability is availability.
So I’m calling out importers (and their wholesalers and accounts). Where is Leth’s current vintage, The Sorting Table? Where is Famille Bauer’s, Savio Soares Selections? Skurnik, why is Setzer’s top, single-vineyard bottling not even listed on your website? Who is even the importer of Mantlerhof? (I’m not even kidding: If anyone knows where to find these wines, post links in the comments!)
Distributors and retailers, wake up and take note! A vibe shift is coming soon! Haven’t you heard? People may be flocking to roter veltliner! Opt in or stay stuck!
The Hunt for Roter Veltliner
Searching for roter veltliner in the United States can be frustrating. The five producers below are the ones most likely found here. My tasting notes are from the 2020 or 2019 vintages, but the links below are trailing several vintages behind. Fortunately, roter veltliner is a full-bodied wine with good aging potential and so these slightly older vintages should still be drinking beautifully.
Swirling scents of acacia, pear blossom, and nutmeg. Full bodied but mellow, with yellow apple, ripe pineapple, and attractive notes of spice and white pepper throughout.
Melon and tropical flowers on the nose, and lots of grilled pineapple carrying onto the palate, along with juicy tangerine, and a hint of smoke on the finish. I have found the 2017, 2016, and 2015 vintages of this one.
Bright, complex nose of lime zest, citrus blossom, and sage leading to a fleshy, creamy palate of ripe mango, pear, lime, and a touch of salted lemon on the finish I can’t find Setzer’s beautiful single-vineyard bottling, which I enjoy, but their Symphoniker ($28) bottling is also worth seeking out.
Big personality and livelier acidity than most roter veltliner. Nose of white pepper, lily, and talc, with pear and pineapple on the palate, with baking spice and underlying saltiness throughout. I found a crazy deal on a case of 2011 magnums of this, 6 bottles for $180. I would buy it.
Ripe pear, pear skin, and pear blossom on the nose. Fleshy and fruity on the palate, ripe peach and mango, with a pithy, white grapefruit finish. Super pleasant and super drinkable.