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posted: 12/29/2013 5:33 AM

Gruner Veltliners offer value, rival top chardonnays

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By Elin McCoy
Bloomberg News

NEW YORK -- Remember the Gruner Veltliner craze?

More than a decade ago, hip U.S. sommeliers were pushing the peppery, lively Austrian white as the chic antidote to oaky Chardonnays and boring, faceless sauvignon blancs.

Then they moved on to other wine fashions: Burgundy, the Jura, sherry and esoteric grapes nobody had ever heard of. Poor Gruner Veltliner was demoted to the "been there, tasted that" category.

Too bad. The grape probably makes the best-value great white wines in the world and deserves a serious image upgrade.

That's my take-away from the immodestly named "Austrian Monuments" tasting of top-quality reserve Gruners held recently in New York at Le Bernardin.

The 31 wines span four decades, from 1971 to 2012. All are variations on the grape's pinpoint balance, vibrant acidity, intense flavors of white pepper, spice and minerals, and rich textures that don't rely on new oak.

At $30 to $70, they cost about half the price of comparable complex whites such as Burgundy and California chardonnay and rarely turn up at auction.

"The grape should be on the Austrian flag," jokes Willi Klinger, managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, who moderates the tasting's expert panel.

As I sniff and sip, he reminds the room of wine professionals that Gruner is the country's signature wine and most widely planted grape, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the country's vineyards.

Until 60 years ago it was rarely bottled on its own. Most wineries now offer two to three styles, from the familiar light, crisp examples to the less-known opulent, complex and full- bodied ones.

Grapes for these reserve wines are harvested later, which translates into more alcohol and concentration, and velvety textures. Most whites and reds are drunk within a couple of hours after purchase, but longevity has always been a hallmark of great wines.

In this taste-off, the 1971 to 1999 vintages easily pass the test. Even 1971 Salomon Undhof Kabinett Wieden from Kremstal -- the vineyard was once an old prison yard -- still shows freshness.

Wines from both warm and cool years seem to have aged gracefully, though I prefer the cold, high-acid vintages with more zing.

Importer Terry Theise, who introduced Gruner to the U.S. in 1994, insists the best outlive those from Austria's elite grape, riesling. He's convinced that Gruner Veltliner makes equally "classic" wines, which he likes to define as "Tantric sex between grape and ground."

Terroir looms large as the key to all these wines' character, as reserve bottlings mostly come from single vineyards. Over the past decade, top vintners have refocused on wines that reflect the soil by shifting to organic viticulture and more traditional cellar techniques.

What surprises me most in this lineup are the radical differences in aromas and flavors. The 1985 Mantlerhof Spiegel from the Kremstal region is dynamic and bright, with smells of flowers and green stalks, while the 1992 Fritsch Schlossberg from the Wagram region is bold, rich, powerful and peppery, and the 1997 Birgit Eichinger Gloriette from Kamptal is succulent and juicy, with a long, laserlike finish.

Among this century's wines, several from the prestigious Wachau region northwest of Vienna, where steep terraces of vines rise abruptly from the Danube, really wow me.

In keeping with Austria's new appellation rules, most regions label the latest-picked wines Reserve. But the Wachau uses the term 'Smaragd,' the name of the green lizards that sun themselves in the vineyards.

The 2010 Prager Achleiten Stockkultur Smaragd ($65), from a vineyard planted in 1930, has a powerful mineral character, with intense notes of lavender.

A 2008 Knoll Vinothekfullung Smaragd ($60) is savory, with tingling acidity and a long finish. 2001 F.X. Pichler Kellerberg Smaragd ($70) has a wonderful lively tension.

So I'm not surprised to hear that top Gruners bested some of the world's top Chardonnays, even Burgundy's grand Corton- Charlemagne, in a legendary blind tasting in London in 2002.

Panelist Aldo Sohm, Le Bernardin's chef sommelier, extols Gruner's amazing versatility with food, deftly shown off in his pairings for the lunch after the tasting.

It's the only wine I know that can take on well-known wine- killers like artichokes, one of the main ingredients in the first course of wild striped bass tartare.

A juicy 2010 Hiedler Maximum Reserve Kamptal ($35), with hints of lime, is up to it. The rich, powerful 2007 Josef Schmid Gebling Reserve Kremstal ($30) points up the sweetness of the ultrarare smoked wild salmon and succulent braised baby leeks, the third course.

Zith so much going for it, why did Gruner's prestige stumble? I'm convinced nicknames like Gru-Vee, designed to give the wines easy-to-pronounce accessibility, helped create the downscale image of Gruner as a pinot grigio on steroids. So did the influx of new plonky brands in bargain-priced liter-size bottles.

It's time to discover serious Austrian Gruner Veltliner before prices go up.

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