Gruner veltliner: I still don’t get it

DSC_0189It used to be the height of fashion, but these days you’d be hard pressed to overhear anyone who doesn’t work in the wine trade ordering it at a bar or restaurant.

In fact, there was a time, not too long ago, when it was the sommelier’s darling, a grape few people outside of Austria understood that offered up refreshing wines and something different from the monotony of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

Then, as quickly as it ascended to popularity, the sommeliers of the world moved on to the next big thing (Assyrtiko? Torrontes? Albarino?). And so gruner veltliner fell to the wayside.

But why?

Maybe it was the name that did it. Gruner veltliner. Can anyone pronounce it? Is it ‘grooner velt-linger’, ‘grunner velt linner’ or ‘grooner velt linner’?

Then again, I can’t pronounce gewürztraminer properly either, but that doesn’t stop me buying it.

Whatever the case, the more I read about gruner veltliner, the more I feel obliged to love it. The only problem with this is that I simply don’t.

A while back I droned on about how I didn’t understand Chilean wine. What we have here is a grape-specific discussion in the same vein, a confession of my confusion when it comes to this particular example of vitis vinifera.

I drink gruner veltliner infrequently, but not by design. For instance, when I’m at a bar or restaurant and the other options by the glass consist of water sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, an over-oaked Californian chardonnay or something that was clearly incinerated by the heat of the Languedoc’s midday sun, my eye diverts to the gruner veltliner in a hopeful attempt to drink something that won’t sear my epiglottis.

Rarely does this extend to buying an entire bottle, either at a restaurant or from a shop. For the most part, it’s because gruner veltliner simply leaves me bored.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that I am missing out on something. If it was good enough to become the sommelier’s choice once upon a time, surely this is a grape worth noticing?

Jancis Robinson has described the grape as being “capable of producing very fine, full-bodied wines well capable of ageing”  that “produces very refreshing, tangy wines with a certain white pepper, dill, even gherkin character.”

The wines are spicy and interesting and in general this is because of the grape’s own intrinsic qualities because the great majority of them, unlike chardonnays, see no new oak. — Jancis Robinson

Similarly, Jamie Goode has described it as being food friendly, versatile and able to gain complexity as it ages.

So what have I been missing? Well, it seems that I haven’t exactly been on the wrong track all along. Even Jancis Robinson used to consider gruner veltliner to be a “poor second” to riesling that can lack character when it is over-cropped.

The example of gruner veltliner that I’ve been drinking is Josef Ehmoser Grüner Veltliner Hohenberg 2012. At £16.50 a bottle from Berry Bros & Rudd, this isn’t a weekday wine for the average consumer, but this bottle came to me as a sample bottle in a mixed case.

Now, this is a good gruner veltliner. Who could say it better than Berry Bros themselves?

Finely detailed with delicate, floral and white pepper/stone aromas, there’s a broad, soft, pulpy undercarriage, with salty/sweet, white peach stone flavours that echo those of Sarotto’s Bric Sassi Gavi di Gavi. Very pure, generous, with a distinctly sapid finish; one that cries out for a sea fish platter. — David Berry Green – Wine Buyer

My overly simple way of describing it is that it is floral, has some peach and apricot aromas, tastes of stone fruits (again, peaches) while also being fairly delicate, and finishes quite surprisingly dry despite giving the impression that it might be off-dry. This is definitely a seafood wine, which is to say that it almost tastes salty at times.

It’s good. Very good. And yet it hasn’t exactly made me a gruner convert just yet. In fact, it’s just made me even thirstier for a glass of sauvignon blanc or maybe a Chablis. What am I missing?

How to sound like you know about wine while having the sommelier decide for you instead

ID-100105602Some people think I know ‘a thing or two’ about wine. But what they don’t realise is what I don’t know about wine could probably fill the millions of bottles of Blossom Hill produced each year.

The fact about having a just little bit of knowledge about something is that all the things I don’t know about it become apparent when I’m in the company of those who truly know a lot about it – such as people who actually earn a living working in the wine business rather than those who blog about it incessantly, like yours truly.

Needless to say, I get by with what little I know about wine with a bit of luck and a lot of blagging. I suspect most people are doing this anyway, so it works out for the best one way or another.

So there I was the other week eyeing up the ravioli and Cote de Boeuf at London’s Bleeding Heart restaurant and sweating slightly after being given the task of choosing the wine for the my hosts.

In other words, for the two people who invited me to this lunch specifically because they like wine, they knew I liked wine and they knew they would like wine even more if they drank it with me at what happens to be one of London’s best restaurants.

It was a tall order. And even though I often head straight for the Bordeaux when steak is discussed, I’m also someone who wants to try something different. Lately I’ve been sizing up the offerings from the South of France, so my eyes instantly locked on to the Madiran.

Enter the restaurant’s sommelier, adorned with a bunch-of-grapes pin and a very French accent. Now, when you’re at a restaurant nice – or just expensive – enough to have a full-time sommelier, it can go one of two ways. Either he/she will be attentive, informative and helpful, guiding you to the right wines for the occasion and your tastes. Or he/she will do none of this and give you vague answers to all of your questions and say only positive things about the wines you’re considering.

Sometimes we get sommeliers who just want to please you by agreeing with everything you say. But the last thing we need is a sycophantic sommelier, someone who will only say positive things about your choices. Certainly not.

What I want – and need, because I really don’t know as much as I would like to pretend – is someone who will stop me making a massive gastronomic faux pas, a person who will be willing wedge his body between me and an awful bottle of wine that will make my Chateaubriand taste like a petrified cowboy boot.

So, in terms of the two kinds of sommeliers in the world (I accept there might be more than two), sometimes we get the former, sometimes we get the latter. On this occasion, I got the former, and I tried my utmost not to looked relieved in front of my hosts.

Standing before me was a man who, free from judgement on his face, said matter-of-factly that his Madiran was in a light style and probably wouldn’t give me the satisfaction I desired. How bout the red Pic St Loup, I asked? What you want, he said, is the Faugeres – and you will not be disappointed.

The Faugeres in question, Domaine de Cebene Les Bancels Les Faugeres 2010, was everything we were after. Spice, depth of character, a satisfying viscosity, plenty of black fruits and enough backbone to stand up to the obligatory slab of meat you eat when a person goes to the Bleeding Heart.

Like any good wine ought, it made me look like a hero. But in reality it was all a blag, a lucky result garnered from a helpful sommelier who knew what I was after and almost certainly saw how befuddled I had become when handed his tome of a wine list.