Grüner fights NY faddishness


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See tasting notes for these 27 Reserve Grüner Veltliners tasted at Le Bernardin (left) in New York City.

One of many pleasures of a visit to New York is dipping in to the wine scene there and comparing it with its counterpart in Europe. I was there two weeks ago and was fascinated to observe just how fashion-conscious the city's wine commentators and members of the tight-knit sommelier community are. (New Yorkers seem to see brussels sprouts as very much more à la mode than Londoners, for instance.)

One day I attended a fascinating tasting and lunch at Thomas Keller's extremely smart three-star restaurant Per Se. It had been organised by the generic organisation Wines of Chile to demonstrate, quite eloquently in some cases, the ageing ability of some of the country's most admired Bordeaux blends. Both the 2009 vintage and the 1999 vintage of Concha y Toro's Don Melchor and Montes Alpha M were particularly impressive – as well they might be when they retail at around £50 a bottle. Several of the seven or eight small courses we were served with the 10 wines were also dazzling, even if three meat courses are usually two too many for me.

But what surprised me about the event, apart from the blandness of Per Se's private room, was how few of the fellow tasters I recognised. This was in stark contrast to the next day's tasting and lunch at another three-star establishment Le Bernardin. (We don't get three-star lunches in London, I can assure you – Carr's water biscuits are frequently the only solid matter on offer at professional wine tastings.) Here I spied my co-author of the new World Atlas of Wine Hugh Johnson, the wine correspondents of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Bloomberg, and some of the most prominent bloggers, educators and wine raters. I asked a couple of them why the crowds were so different at the two events and was told, dead pan, it was because 'the southern hemisphere is out of fashion'.

Now that's a lot of wine to discount: all of South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, or about a fifth of the world's wine. I was so taken aback that when I came across the wine writer who made the statement the next day, I checked that it hadn't been made in jest. It was deadly serious apparently. (Although I did meet several wine professionals who admitted that the Australians were working particularly hard to combat this development, having invited a slew of Americans, three times as many as Brits, to Savour Australia, a trade forum in September in Adelaide designed to refresh Australian wine's image.)

Image is everything in the faddish New York market. Indeed the entire point of the second event, at Le Bernardin, was to try to refurbish the image of the signature Austrian grape variety, Grüner Veltliner. The lively, peppery white wine it produces, in a range of styles, was seized on so enthusiastically by New York sommeliers in the mid to late 1990s that, as the head of Austrian wine's generic organisation Willi Klinger admitted in his introduction to the tasting, the next generation of 'somms' actively rejected 'Grüner' because it was seen as irredeemably old hat. If Groo-vee had been less popular it might just have chugged along as a welcome ingredient on any wine list as it is in the UK, but success can be a killer in New York.

This Austrian tasting was specifically designed to prove that top-quality Grüner Veltliner is well capable of ageing and is not just a great wine, but possibly the best-value great wine in the world. As one would expect of the Austrians, who combine Teutonic efficiency with the hospitality of Mitteleuropa, the tasting was meticulously organised. US importers had been invited to submit samples for this elite tasting and the finalists were selected by a crack panel of wine writers in Vienna. Just to press the point about Grüner's ageability home, we began with 11 mature examples, from a vintage as old as 1971 to a 1999, not a period that would readily yield white burgundies in fine fettle, for example. The 1971, a Salomon wine grown in a vineyard so flat that it is now a prison yard, according to American wine writer David Schildknecht, who co-presented the tasting, certainly smelt, ahem, mature, but on the palate it was delightfully fresh. My favourite wines in this line-up of older wines are listed below. The 1997 and 1999 tasted as though they would still be in great shape for much of the next decade, but these were relatively cool vintages. In my experience Grüner Veltliners grown in the warmer vintages of which Austria, heavily influenced by Pannonian warmth, has had no shortage – 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 – have in the past tended to age much more rapidly.

The second half of our tasting comprised a dozen wines grown in this century, and in this range, I was impressed by how tense and lively even the examples from the hottest vintages were. Admittedly, they had been hand-picked, but they encouragingly suggest that the period of obese Grüners that was evident at the turn of the century may be well and truly over. My favourites are, again, listed below.

As the man who introduced Americans to Grüner Veltliner, importer of German wines and grower champagnes Terry Thiese, who discovered Grüner while searching for fine Austrian Riesling, pointed out, 'nothing else tastes quite like Grüner Veltliner. It's very versatile and the more you spend the better the value. At the top end, those dollars wouldn't buy you a better wine.' The dollars in question for a top GV are in the 35-75 range.

Top quality, or at least the latest picked, Grüner Veltiners, described as Smaragd when they come from the Wachau region, may be a relatively good buy in view of their longevity, but they are not necessarily what many New York wine lovers are after. Le Bernardin's Austrian sommelier Aldo Sohm, eating only his second meal ever in the restaurant, acknowledged that Burgundy and Jura had definitively overtaken Grüner Veltiner in the affections of trend-conscious NY sommeliers – although some wine professionals with whom I discussed this subsequently ventured that New York's love affair with Jura may be on the wane.

And a couple of them suggested that there was one sort of wine that has been seen as so irrevocably unfashionable in recent years that it might just be on the verge of a comeback. Come back, Bordeaux, says New York.

from old to young

Salomon Undhof, Wieden Kabinett 1971 Kremstal
Weixelbaum, Wechselberg Kabinett 1983 Kamptal
Mantlerhof, Spiegel 1985 Kremstal
Fritsch, Schlossberg 1992 Wagram
Pfaffl, Hundsleiten 1994 Weinviertel
Birgit Eichinger, Gloriette 1997 Kamptal
Jurtschitsch, Schenkenbichl 1999 Kamptal
Schloss Gobelsburg, Tradition 2004 Kamptal
Leth, Scheiben 2006 Wagram
Loimer, Käferberg DAC Reserve 2007 Kamptal
Knoll, Vinothekfüllung Smaragd 2008 Wachau
Prager, Achleiten Stockkultur Smaragd 2010 Wachau
Tegernseerhof, Loibenberg Smaragd 2011 Wachau