Grüner Veltliner for Later

Photo Credit: Dall-E

The Wine Friend is a figure of great importance in the life of a wine drinker. They can take the form a kind benefactor, perhaps older, perhaps wiser, one whose personal cellar heaves with decades of collected knowledge and interest, and whose guileless goal is to share these experiences with others as a form of vinous karmic pleasure. 

I count myself as lucky to have a few such friends, which is how I found myself — on one of those chilly, foggy autumn San Francisco evenings — drinking a very smart coterie of wines among a small group of pals, under the guidance of a Wine Friend whose exquisite taste was matched only by his generosity. There was old white Burgundy (1995 Domaine Montille), aging with grace and appropriately oxidized; there was riotously good cru Beaujolais (2014 Metras), old enough to make a point and elegantly sure-footed; there was a rather miraculous bottle of Kidoizumi junmai daiginjo, as acorn-laden and mushroom-fragrant as the proverbial forest floor; and there was a bottle of Grüner Veltliner. 

We tasted, we drank, we kibitzed, and then…the damndest thing happened…it was that Grüner! Wonder of wonder, miracles of miracles. It kept going and going, growing and growing, a finely pointed honey lozenge of paraffin wax and match flint, smelling of sotol and blossom water, tasting of complex nectar, never too sweet, never once dry, utterly resolved and of itself. Mature, I think is the word. I had never tasted anything like it.

…a finely pointed honey lozenge
of paraffin wax and match flint, smelling of sotol and blossom water, tasting of complex nectar, utterly resolved and of itself.

Heretofore my experiences with Grüner had been polite enough. I’ve found the grape to be often overlooked (at least here in America), appreciated but never the star, and at best damned with faint praise — ”inexpensive,” “enjoyable,” and “fine for a glass pour,” that sort of thing. This bottle — a 1993 Franz Hirtzberger Honivogl Smaragd — was the first Grüner that shocked and stunned me with its profundity, its capacity for expression and depth. It was, in that hoary old phrase, the “wine of the night” (and this was a rather competitive night). And it was the first bottle of Grüner I’d drunk with any real age on it, old enough to know itself, old enough to vote and so forth. Vintage Grüner was just something I’d never really thought about before, much less been exposed to. 

I had to learn more. Was this a one-off, a fluke, a lucky moment in which the bonhomie of a good crew and the generosity of a kind friend influenced my palate unduly? 

“Yes! Grüner can age,” says Katja Scharnagl, beverage director at Manhattan’s Koloman, led by chef Markus Glocker, they of the recent glowing three-star New York Times review. She recalled a tasting during her previous gig as sommelier at Le Bernardin, in which the room was collectively stunned by a 1992 Weingut Knoll Ried Schütt Smaragd, a 1979 Mantlerhof Spiegel, and back vintages of Bründlmayer. “You rarely find wines of that much complexity for the value,” Scharnagl tells me. On her glass list at Koloman they’re currently pouring the 2021 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Axpoint Karl Lagler, a versatile and food-friendly wine much enjoyed by the guests (and, one assumes, the critics). 

For Scharnagl, including a wine like this is something of a must, and she openly challenged my preconceived notion of Grüner having anything like a little sibling status to the star power of Riesling. “I don’t think it’s the little sibling to anyone,” she tells me. “It stands on its own, especially as a producer has so many ways that it can be used (from sparkling wine to still wine to dessert wine). It can be a fun, easy, medium-body wine up to wines that have complexity and agability! I think it deserves to be called along with grapes like Chardonnay or Riesling.”

These are strong words, but as praise continues to roll in for Koloman here in 2023, Scharnagl’s work backs it up. I couldn’t help but notice that she’s pouring a baby-cheeked 2021 at the bar, whereas my epiphany came from drinking Grüner with some age on it. Turns out she’s no novice when it comes to the pleasures of vintage Grüner, having tasted a good deal of it during her decade at Le Bernardin. 

My conversation with Scharnagl helped reinforce my own stumble upon rapture with that 1993 Hirtzberger, but perhaps you know how it is with old wine — one great bottle, one great moment, can it ever really be repeated, even if you could find that bottle again? According to Austrian Wine’s website, 1993 was a year marked by extremes: a long, cold winter, a dry May promoting early flowering, a notably cool July, and a harvest season that began a full two weeks early in Lower Austria, in which the Wachau region (home to Franz Hirtzberger) is located. “Fruit, elegance, and acidity” are the noted vintage takeaways.

At Chateau Hirtzberger (I’m using the term literally — the domaine is described as “castle-like” and dates to the 13th century), some 45% of the vines are Grüner, and all of it is vinified using native yeasts in stainless steel before being finished in large foudres. Franz inherited the estate in the early 1980s from his father, also called Franz Hirtzberger, who helped found the influential winegrowers’ association Vinea Wachau. Alongside F.X. Pichler, these estates are considered among the very best in the Wachau, prioritizing single vineyard wines such as Honivogl, from whence my memorable bottle came. Honivogl is actually the lower slope of a very steep terrace called Singerriedel; the upper slope is planted to Riesling, the lower bit to Grüner, but they share the same soil and minerals, the same paragneiss, which is dominated here by ribbons of quartzite, and the same — at least in 1993, before climate change really kicked in — desirable southern exposure.

I’ve always had an interest in the … let’s call it something like an art-and-science of vintage prediction, the idea that one can divine from things like growing conditions and barrel samples how exactly a wine will turn out in 10, 20, or 30 years. I understand there is a roaring industry for this in the upper echelons of wine criticism, and I do appreciate its predictive guidance, but it also strikes me as containing a least a soupçon of kayfabe, the term used in professional wrestling to describe the mutual suspension of disbelief between audience and performer. You never really know how something is going to turn out 20 years later. (Don’t believe me? Attend your high school reunion.) Austrian wine-watchers had a polite-enough response to vintage 1993, preferring the conditions of 1992 by a considerable margin, especially with regards to agability, but here I am, rhapsodizing over a 1993. In the end, wine is like art: you like what you like, and there are a myriad of potential factors that, when taken together, find their way to rapture.

And when it comes to liking old Grüner, I’m happily not alone. “Aged Grüner is something of a passion of mine,” says Mark Guillaudeu. As the former beverage director at Oakland’s Commis, Guillaudeu built a notable Grüner-forward program, and his words helped confirm the emotional connection I stumbled upon with that bottle of Hirtzberger. “No other grape have I known that can make so many different styles from dry to sweet, sparkling to fresh to full, and all of them ageworthy,” he tells me, adding that it is exactly this stylistic diversity — and in particular, the underlying umami note at the core of many Grüners — that makes it such a terrific foil for food, and promotes lengthy aging. 

Guillaudeu also had a take on why, exactly, Grüner occupies a second-city status in at least some wine drinkers minds, or at the very least, mine. “I think Grüner earned the ‘little sibling’ the same way anyone does,” he tells me cleverly, “by being the youngest. Not the grape itself, of course — but its presence in consumers’ minds.” 

“Grüner (and all of Austrian wine, really) went through a massive quality revolution in the late 1980s,” Guilleaudeau continued, “not to say there wasn’t quality work done before that…it just tended to be the exception rather than the rule.” In his reading of the situation, the 1995 opening of Charles Phan’s influential San Francisco restaurant Slanted Door marked a moment of awakening for Grüner Veltliner’s charms in the mind of the American drinking public — and even then, it would take until the mid-00’s for GV to reach “alternative varietal” status on stateside wine lists. “The typical American consumer is most familiar with Grüner in its most accessible, highest-yielding, least-age worthy forms,” says Guilleaudeau, “like when your younger sibling messes around in the theater department after school even though they have perfect scores in math.”

He and I spoke at length about the nature of aging as it relates to Grüner, and along the way something sort of clicked into place for me; it wasn’t just that I’d been exposed to some old Grüner that happened to catch me on a good night. This particular Grüner had about a dozen things going for it: the meticulous vineyard work and downright Burgundian approach to sensitive winemaking by Franz Hirtzberger the younger; the vineyard itself, among the most prized in all Wachau; the year, one of chaos and early resolution, perhaps overlooked at first, but yielding something like wonder with the passing of decades; and perhaps most of all, the designation, Smaragd, which in Guillaudeu’s opinion “shouldn’t be touched until at least 25 and ideally 30 years, and ought to go much further than that besides.”

As a somm who prides himself on sourcing and serving older Grüners like this one, Guillaudeau was in a position to speak to the bottle’s rarity and scarcity. “It is just such a pain to find Grüner bottles of good provenance entering their peak drinking window because the American public wasn’t cellaring them from the late 90’s through late 00’s,” he tells me, words dripping with emphasis. “If you’re very lucky and have access to the gray market, you can find some bottles from collectors in London, Germany, or Austria itself — but these are such precious and limited reserves. It will probably be another 20 years before enough consumers have seen what Grüner can do with 10, 15, or 20 years of age before it starts to become a serious collector item and we begin to see it widely available in the secondary markets. Buy as much as you can now.”

It will probably be another 20 years before enough consumers have seen what Grüner can do with 10, 15, or 20 years of age before it starts to become a serious collector item.

I kept rolling around his words in my mind — in particular the part about “if you’re lucky” — as I went deeper down the vintage Grüner rabbit hole. While Katja Scharnagl had been to a vintage Grüner tasting before, Guillaudeu actually hadn’t, and I began to suspect that they were vanishingly rare affairs. So I convened a casual tasting of my own, held in another Wine Friend’s bottle shop. Alongside a half a dozen or so curious wine drinkers we sipped and sniffed our way through a 2006 Schloss Gobelsburg, 2009 Bründlmayer, 2005 Salomon Undhof, 2012 Hirtzberger, and a 2002 FX Pichler, the last of these provided by the shop owner and located not far from Hirtzberger. It was an informative experience, with clear winners (the Bründlmayer and Gobelsburg bottlings) and wines that none of us particularly enjoyed, including strangely enough, my beloved Hirzberger. Perhaps it was too young, and hadn’t found itself yet, or perhaps the 2012 was no match for that glorious 1993. I was particularly impressed by the multi-day experience of the F.X. Pichler, which was firmly middle of the pack on day one yet leapt out of the glass with complexity and grace by day three. Wine is funny like that, too, like a marriage or a sporting match — you don’t really know what’s at hand til you get past the early innings. 

Not one of the vintage Grüners we tried matched the electric tension and complexity of that lightswitch moment with the early ‘90s Hirtzberger, but I did find my head turned in another direction along the way. Thinking about old Grüner left me quite naturally contemplating young Grüner, and the pathway by which vintage wine becomes vintage in the first place. Someone must cellar it, and to do so they must first be excited and impressed by the wine’s youthful graces. It was my pleasure to try a bottle of 2021 Johannes Zillinger Velue, which had shown well at a recent tasting in New York. This wine hinted at the taut intensity and complexity inherent in beautiful Grüner, with just a pinch of that savory, umami-ish middle-weight fatty note that figures itself out across the decades. It was easy drinking and lithe in its youth, but I began to wonder, as the bottle neared the end, where this vintage might be in 20 years time. 

The inverse of the notion of Wine Friends is one of cosmic reciprocity. If you’re so lucky (there’s that word again) to have been treated by the largesse of a Wine Friend in this life, you should strive to become that very same sort of Wine Friend to others down the track. It is the celestial order of wine drinking to share what’s been learned across the decades, uncork what’s been stashed, and to open someone else up to new horizons, deriving pleasure and bestowing joy along the way. Which is why I’ve now begun the process of stashing my own hoard of Grüner Veltliner in my cellar, from standard bearers like Hirtzberger and Bründlmayer plus new gunners like Zillinger, each with a firmly affixed “do not open” sign across the bulk of it. 

Come find me in 20 years and we’ll get amongst it. Really, it’s the least I can do.

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