Friday, January 24, 2014

Gruner Veltliner, Grants Pass, Oregon, and me

Gruner veltliner is a white grape that is Austria's pride, and that is, for casual wine drinkers, perhaps the most unusual new variety to come along in the last five years or so. It's a sort of "oh,-yes-I've-heard-of-that-lately" wine, just as there are "oh,-yes" books, news events, film documentaries, and for that matter, people.

This is not to say that the grape is a new variety in the universe. Frank Schoonmaker calls it "Veltliner" in his 1960s era Encyclopedia of Wine, and notes that it is a quality product of Austrian vineyards. (He advises it will remind you of a "Traminer," without traminer's very pungent floral aromas and tastes. By traminer he means gewurztraminer. Why the dropped prefixes in 1960s wine writing? Conversely, why the added prefixes in modern wine writing?) Oz Clarke in Grapes and Wines (2007) says that no less than a third of Austria's vineyard land is devoted to it. At high yields the grape, pronounced GROO-ner VELT-lih-ner, makes simple jug wines. At lower yields in the best growing regions -- Niederosterreich, in the northeastern part of the country -- it makes finer, more elegant light wines of distinct grassy, "celery," and black pepper flavors. These can even age a year or two in the bottle, and so take on what Clarke calls a "honeyed" character without losing its pepperiness. A light, fresh, but age-worthy summer white is unusual.

Also unusual, for me, is to come across a wine-related reference to Grants Pass, Oregon. "What a small world this is," as the Mad Hatter lisps, wide-eyed, in the old Alice in Wonderland movie. Biokult's gruner veltliner, produced by the Michlits family in Austria's Niederosterreich region, was introduced to the United States this month by Natural Merchants LLC, headquartered (partly) in Grants Pass. This allows me to lisp, wide eyed -- why, I've been there. The name sends me back to a family vacation a good long time ago, and memories of the Rogue River, of huge pine forests looming over two-lane roads, of feeding chipmunks right outside a hotel balcony, and of Oregon nights so primevally black that, even standing on that hotel balcony, you literally could not see your hand in front of your face. To this day I think I saw a bear in the woods, but it was probably my imagination. Incidentally, the other part of Natural Merchants is based in Cartagena, Spain. I'm sorry to say I've not been there, although I have a niece traveling in Spain at the moment. Would the Mad Hatter blink at that, and stutter, "Now, now -- don't get excited"?

Biokult's gruner veltliner is organically made (and beautifully packaged, by the way). The Michlits family runs a farm, not just a vineyard; beneficial insect populations are encouraged, an Angus cattle herd three hundred strong provides the manure for fertilizing soil, and "an infusion of horsetail" is laid down on the vineyard in the fall to fight dangerous fungus. The family have also begun experimenting with concrete "eggs," tall enough for a man to stand up in, in which to vinify wine. Twelve months' exposure to the oxygen levels that will seep in very gradually through the porous concrete will, the winemakers hope, create wines of completely fresh and "unadulterated" character. The gruner veltliner, however, has itself been vinified more traditionally in stainless steel.

The tongue running trippingly over this new name, not to mention over the wine, makes me wonder and speculate on what might be a comparable up-and-coming, yes-I've-heard-of-that red wine. Perhaps zweigelt? It's an Austrian red variety, a crossing of two other grapes, St. Laurent and blaufrankisch. "Low yields can produce stunning results" (Oz Clarke, Grapes and Wines). And beautiful packaging, too.

Biokult's gruner veltliner is available at Whole Foods ($11.99).

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