The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
On the world stage, Austria shares at least one thing with Canada besides mountains and snow. Both inhabit the shadow of a mighty neighbour. For Austria, that means Germany. There's considerable cultural overlap among the European comrades, of course, including language, more sausage varieties than cardiac wards and an obsession with the "correct" way to prepare wiener schnitzel. But Germany tends to hog our lame foreigners' attention with "serious" money-making matters, like engineering, a powerhouse economy and soccer supremacy. Austria? It has Mozart, Wolfgang Puck and better coffee. In the World Cup of fun, Austria would make a formidable opponent.
Austrian wine, too, faces a PR challenge. German riesling is the undeniable regional star, the white all connoisseurs are supposed to love even when they'd prefer Burgundy. While Austria also produces superb riesling, the country's signature grape, gruner veltliner, lags in the popularity sweepstakes – too far, as far as I'm concerned. Gruner is one of wine's most underappreciated treats. Made from the white-wine grape of the same name, it's crisp, almost always dry and subtly redolent of stone fruit, with a trademark peppery nose and mineral-like edge that betrays the stony soils on which it thrives.
Maybe gruner's PR problem lies in its subtlety. Medium-to-full-bodied and rarely as punchy as riesling or as thick as chardonnay, it whispers. Like a geologist poring over seismic data in search of oil, you've got to listen – or taste – closely to divine its wonders. I suspect it would not make brawny Arnold Schwarzenegger's day, Austrian-born though he may be.
Or maybe its pronunciation (gr-OONER velt-LEE-ner) is the issue. It sounds better in German, and I wouldn't say that about many other words or phrases. If you're nervous about venturing into grunerland, ask your restaurant server for "the grooner, please," or point to an invariably well-priced entry on the wine list. You'll be making your sommelier's day. Wine professionals love the grape mainly because it's so versatile, and, maybe just as important, because it's not "boring" chardonnay.
Dubbed "groo-vy" by cheeky wine pros, it can pair surprisingly well with most red meats, including spicy or smoky sausages, as well as most poultry and fish dishes. One veteran sommelier of my acquaintance once told me it's the great wine-pairing solution for the cuisine of great Canadian chef Susur Lee because it meets challenging Asian ingredients, such as peppery wasabi and salty soy, head-on. For that reason, gruner goes well with sushi, too. And there's hardly a vegetable that gruner can't befriend, even "problematic" artichokes and asparagus. Vegans, your wine is waiting.
Most gruner veltliners are best consumed young, but the finest, particularly from the terraced vineyards of Kamptal, Kremstal and the Wachau along the Danube west of Vienna, can age gracefully for up to 10 years and display the full-bodied elegance of cellared white Burgundies (made from chardonnay) at a fraction of the price. Expect to pay $15 for good versions, $18 to $30 for some of the best. And expect them always to pair well with wiener schnitzel and potato salad.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.