The Pavarotti of Grüner Veltliner

Ten years ago it was still major news that Jancis Robinson MW had confessed her love for Grüner Veltliner. Today, it’s one of the most happening varieties; it appears on the wine lists of every serious restaurant around the world, and you can’t get hold of the top Grüners of the Wachau superstars for under 50 euros a bottle, even at the cellar door. The fact that they managed to give it an effective, catchy and umlaut-free English abbreviation, GruVe (pronounced as groovy), could also be a factor behind its considerable international success. Yet, the main reason – apart from its striking quality – is the variety’s approachability: it’s gentler than Riesling, a good subject for a terroir puzzle game and ages excellently. Furthermore, beside its white pepper spiciness, it’s essentially fruity. As a devoted Riesling fan, Jancis Robinson didn’t even want to hear about Grüner Vertliner for a long time. She regarded it as a “poor relative”, or even worse, as a local spritzer wine. Incidentally, in Austria, Grüner Veltliner accounts for one-third of Austria’s area under vine.
Then, in 1998 came the landmark “Parisian tasting” of Austrian wine, which turned out to be a great defining moment for Grüner Veltliner. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board commissioned a Munich-based wine merchant of Swedish origin to organise a tasting in order to discover where Austrian white wines stood based on international comparison. Paulson selected the Austrian wines himself, and left it to local experts to select the foreign ones. He assembled an international jury in the name of fair play. Nevertheless, he still allowed himself a bit of naughtiness when he smuggled four Grüners alongside the 17 Chardonnays into the second section of the tasting. What is more, these four Grüners left the Burgundies standing. Of course, the Burgundy supporters challenged the result, complaining that it was unprofessional to mix the varieties. In addition, they also argued that the Burgundies were too young. Paulson defended himself, saying that based on this there would be nothing the Grüners could be measured up to. Besides there are lots of similarities between Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnay: neither are too acidic, both have good body, weight and alcohol, plus they both have serious ageing potential and are capable of capturing the uniqueness of the terroir. When in 2002, Paulson was once again asked to organise a similar tasting, he attempted to set even more objective conditions; they invited 39 wine judges from 13 countries and classified the wines into three age groups (2- to 3- year-olds, 4- to 7- year-olds and 10- to 12- year-olds). The result was just as unequivocal as four years earlier. Out of the seven Grüners, six finished in the first eight. Out of the six Burgundies five ended up in the last eight. Paulson, like the relaxed gentleman he is, warned everyone against reading too much into the test results, but saw it as proof that Grüner Veltliner was capable of making world class wine that ages well. Indeed, no wine expert would question this today.
But what exactly is Grüner Veltliner? People have suspected from as early as the 1990s that it doesn’t have much to do with the other Veltliner varieties, and learnt that one of its parents is Traminer. This is the ancient Traminer, which should not be mistaken for Gewurtztraminer. However, we had to wait until as long as 2010 to discover the identity of its other parent: a decrepit and nameless 400-year-old vine. The variety was named St. Georgener Rebe, after the little village next to Eisenstadt. Unfortunately its sudden fame almost cost it its life. In 2011 an Austrian vandal almost destroyed it. The priceless fossil has since recovered from the mutilation and other such vines have also been found in the vicinity. In the family tree of grape varieties, Grüner Veltliner is a lonely branch of Traminer. Among its closest relatives, there are such strongly differing varieties as Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Silvaner and Pinot Noir. The two varieties that one would instinctively link it to, Riesling and Chardonnay, are the furthest away from it genetically speaking. Altogether, the Austrians have every right to regard Grüner Veltliner as their own variety.  

Why opt for Ott?

The Otts have been growing grapes since 1889, for four generations, on the loess hills of Wagram. They had to wait for more than a century for their first real success. In 1994 the best-known German sommelier of the era, Paula Bosch, put Otts’ Grüner Veltliner on the wine list of two Michelin-starred Tantris, and with it set the Ott wheels in motion. Bernhard Ott took over the management of the cellar out of necessity at the age of 21: due to his father’s serious illness he had to cut short his wine studies abroad and return home in 1993. Since 1995, he has officially been the owner and chief winemaker. Bernhard has carried out a whole lot of innovation in the vineyard and winery, and during his first decade achieved success with his XXXL wines, which also reflected his physical build. When Austria’s Falstaff magazine named him winemaker of the year in 2008, he was in the middle of a transition in style. The nickname attached to him by Falstaff, “the bull of the loess”, might have appeared accurate back then – even if it wasn’t the most considerate choice. However, by today this nickname has lost its validity, especially regarding the wines. Looking back, possibly everyone involved would be happier today if back then another idea for a name had popped into the journalists’ head, such as the “Pavarotti of Grüner Veltliner”. There may not be another Austrian winemaker whose name has become so associated with the variety and who has had such great success with the variety.
Grüner Veltliner grows on 95% of the 30 hectare estate. Wagram lies only 15 kilometres away from the border of Wachau, yet considering their geographical characters the two regions couldn’t be any more different. Wachau is characterised by steep slopes and rocky soil. Wagram, on the contrary, is a plain that was filled up by the Danube where only loess hills break the monotony of the flatness. However, this is no ordinary loess and is of top quality. It’s unusually thick, 15 metres deep in places and so robust that they could dig a cellar out of it. In the summer, day time temperatures are high with the continental heat from the Pannonian plain sneaking in. The nights are cool, with the cold coming from the surrounding forests. The wide diurnal temperature range provides ideal conditions for maintaining the acidity and for forming intense aromas.
Even though the success of the last two decades can be primarily attributed to the work and philosophy of Bernhard Ott, the foundation for environmentally-conscious, chemical-free farming was put in place by his father, who stopped using chemical fertilisers in 1971. Since he took over the management of the estate out of necessity at the tender age of 21, Bernhard Ott has changed every step of the viticultural and vinicultural work. Whatever counts as cutting-edge in 2013, you are sure to find at Weingut Ott. They don’t use chemicals, they cultivate biodynamically, they use soil slotting between the rows, they’ve changed from ageing in barrel to ageing in steel, they hardly stir the lees (if at all) and they use screw caps for all bottles. Since 2009, they’ve been making a wine (Qvevre) that recalls a 10,000-year-old tradition, which ferments and ages in amphorae buried in the ground. Shifting to biodynamic cultivation has helped a lot with the aforementioned change of style. Earlier Ott was a devotee of big wines, i.e. those made from grapes harvested at the last possible minute at complete ripeness, which was the style that made him famous and successful. However, he gradually changed direction in the mid-2000s, and seeks to make more elegant and more sophisticated wines, which conquer rather with their balance and richness of layers. He observes that since he switched to the use of biodynamic preparations, the grapes reach their physiological ripeness with less sugar piling up in the berries, and this way alcohol doesn’t run loose in the wines. It’s a fact that in the hot vintages of 2011 and 2012, the alcohol percentage in his wines is around 12-13 %. This can be considered refreshingly moderate compared to the 14.5-15% ceiling reached by many Wachau wines. “I would like to lift the character of the terroir and the variety purely into the bottle. Elegance, power, delicious minerality and sophistication is a lot more important than superficial, primary fruit aromas,” he says, detailing the style he’s aiming for.