I spent my first few days in Italy down on Mt. Etna, observing the harvest at Passopisciaro. Andrea Franchetti, its owner, showed me how the color of the leaves and slope of the hills could allow him to predict what would be ready first – the vines with yellowed leaves were already bare, the sugars directed to the grapes on the areas where the soil wasn’t as rich (the deeper the green, the later the ripening goes his approach); and where there were depressions in the vineyard, however slight, those grapes too were still left to ripen, while the edges of the rows on higher ground were already plucked. We tasted from plant after plant, and for the first time I could really understand how much a single vine could vary from its neighbor. Some were just on the cusp of ripeness, with sweet juices bursting in my mouth and the seeds easily falling apart, where as others still maintained a tart, green edge.
I have fallen in love. Hard. Sometimes, something new and exciting just bursts into your life, and you walk around with blinders on, seeing, thinking, wanting only… I am obviously talking about gruner veltliner. My most current obsession, this Austrian wine is the answer to my white wine prayers—crisp, bright, acidic, minerally, peppery, thirst-quenching, and surprisingly full-bodied. Fortunately for me, this once-popular-then-cast-aside wine has become an increasingly prevalent presence on restaurant and bar menus, providing a unique alternative to the usual Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadet suspects (two of my go-tos).
Gruner is unique for several reasons. It is a sensory conundrum, making it both a delicious and intellectual endeavor to drink. I find it to be simultaneously light and full; fruity and peppery; acidic and slightly sweet. A perfect drinking wine, and even better with food—in fact, it might be the most-friendly wine in the world, giving its compatriot riesling a run for its money (especially considering it lacks riesling’s reputation of sweetness).
Austrian winemakers tend to make gruners to be drunk young, but it is also a wine that can be laid aside to age for years. This capacity for ageing is rare in whites, and I am obviously oversimplifying the possible descriptions of this amazing varietal. The younger wines might be crisp, clear, and minerally, with a touch of spiciness, but the older the wine gets, the more complex, full-flavored, and peppery—the signature of its flavor profile—it may become.
Even more importantly, at least in understanding our lack of exposure to the grape as American consumers, gruner is grown primarily in Austria. Although it is the most widely planted grape, the wines rarely leave the borders of the small country. Many of the wines we are familiar with are what are known as international varietals—wines like a Chardonnay or Cabernet that are grown in most wine-making regions. The proprietary attitude of the Austrians toward this grape goes beyond the notion of terroir (even though the minerality of the Austrian soil, in all its variations, plays a huge component in the wine’s flavor profile)—gruner is the unofficial national grape of the Osterreich. I just hope they are willing to share it with me.