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?

Incomprehensible vineyard name: Nk’Mip Cellars

Wine could very well be one of the few products that can have a confusing name and still sell well.

This goes against the ethos of most branding experts. Our supermarkets and department stores are bursting with products whose creators went to great lengths to find the easiest, most recognisable names. Nike. Arm & Hammer. Apple. Google. Tesco. You get me.

But look at most French, Italian or Spanish wines. Unless you are fluent in all three of those languages, there is a strong chance you have been flummoxed by a winery name, the name of the wine itself, the name of the region where it came from or the name of the grape used to make the wine. And if you hit the jackpot, you were confused by the lot.

Yet you still bought it. Why? Because it’s wine. Because no one can pronounce most Italian words anyway. Because no one really knows where the Cotes de Blaye appellation is but they know it’s probably drinkable. And that’s all that matters.

Now, for us Anglophones you would have thought most of the English-speaking New World would offer us a welcome respite from the confusion all those foreign labels have created.

Then the Canadians come along and decide to screw with our minds…

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Ignore my bald head for a moment and focus on the sign in the background.

Nk’Mip.

Now try to pronounce it. Think you got it right? Probably not.

It goes like this: In-ka-meep.

Nk’Mip is a First Nations word from the Okanagan language that means ‘bottomland’ and refers to the area where British Columbia’s Okanagan River flows into the north end of Osyoos Lake (where you’ll also find the town of Osoyoos). Founded by the Osoyoos Indian Band, Nk’Mip Cellars was the first aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America. And they’re no slouches. The winery is part of the greater Nk’Mip resort project, which includes a golf course, resort and spa, as well as a desert cultural centre. It’s a serious business.

The winery/cellar door is in a modern building that on one hand is impressive and new, but on the other seems a little soulless:

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But there’s no denying that this is in a beautiful setting. Here we see the rolling hills just outside Osoyoos:

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And here we see views of Osoyoos Lake from the winery looking over the vineyards:

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Like any good winery, they have a restaurant and patio. It turns out this is how you make big money in wine country:

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Not to be outdone, their tasting room is large and spacious. And if you’ve ever watched Sideways or been to Santa Barbara County, you might find it to be in the same spirit as the Fess Parker winery (known as Frass Canyon in the film), complete with cheesy souvenirs that fit in with the vineyard’s theme:

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Yes, that’s me looking a little bit lost in the cavernous tasting room:

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Now to the wine. I managed to work my way through quite a few of Nk’Mip’s wines and overall I found them to be fairly pleasing. They arguably make the best chardonnay in Canada and, being that it’s the only wine of theirs I’ve actually bought and dragged back to London with me, you could say it gets my seal of approval. It is Burgundian in style but not too oaky or flabby like so many New World examples.

Anyway, to the tasting notes, which had to be fished out of my recycling bin a few weeks ago. If the little stars that I drew on my tasting sheet are to be trusted, I was particularly fond of the winery’s Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 and Chardonnay 2011, as well as the Qwam Qwmt Series (Kwem Kwimt) Chardonnay 210, Pinot Noir 2010, Syrah 2008 and Meritage 2008.

The Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 is from their basic range of wines and sells for $17.99 Canadian. But it isn’t a slouch. It has a classic gasoline/petrol nose, has plenty of citrus and has a grassy, chalky palate with a pleasing minerality. For the price, you probably can’t go wrong, although I accept that there might be better examples from Australia and of course Germany and Austria – albeit for more money.

The basic Chardonnay 2011 is predominantly aged in steel (60%) but it also sees (40%) French oak to give it some much-needed depth. It had hints of vanilla from the oak, was medium-bodied and also had a mild creaminess. Not at all bad for the price, but it left me wanting more.

My favourite wine of the tasting might have been the Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2010 ($24.99). This sees 10 months of new French oak and extended ageing on the lees. It is a nutty wine of medium body and acidity with just enough hints of vanilla to be pleasing without going overboard. I found it to be aromatic, full of citrus fruits and minerality, as well as a long-lasting finish.

Other wines on offer included a fabulous Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2010 ($29.99) that reminded me of a pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Plenty of red berries, mild oak, caramel, along spices and earthiness. It was quite a bold pinot, but also enjoyable.

The Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2008 was also a top wine and, if I’m not mistaken, earns high scores from critics. It seemed reductive on the nose, but I could have just been imagining things. It displayed the classic pepper and spice you’d expect from a syrah, but also seemed to have some sort of scent of tree sap or pine, which many people in the Oakanagan believe is a characteristic of some wines there. Whether or not this is truth or fiction remains to be seen.

Two Buck Chuck: If you’re going to slum it

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I have a few fond memories from my youth that involved experimenting with the cheapest booze I could get my hands on, but the best one involves a wine few people would admit to drinking.

A student’s budget and a general ignorance when it came to alcohol meant I tasted more than my fair share of oddities and abominations of the alcoholic kind.

But the worst of them all came into my life when my brother emerged from a B.C. Liquor Store with a bottle of red fortified wine called Bounty, a truly awful concoction with an alcohol level of about 20 per cent.

It featured a dramatic, square-rigged sailing ship on the label and a tagline that, if memory serves, suggested its contents promised us “the exhilarating taste of adventure.”

This was the sort of wine that was often seen on the side of the train tracks where the local alcoholics hung out. In fact, the only reason my brother bought it was because he spotted an empty bottle of it next to the train tracks that day, just a few steps from the liquor store.

We should have known drinking this ungodly elixir was going to be difficult. In the end, it had to be cut with a high ratio of tonic water. Even then it was still a challenge.

You would think, then, the same can be said for all cheap wine, that all of it is impossible to drink and nothing good can come from being a tightwad. And in many cases, this holds true. But sometimes you come across surprises – even if, deep down, you were hoping not to.

This came to mind when I heard the news that American grocery chain Trader Joe’s was raising the price of its Charles Shaw wines to $2.49 a bottle from $1.99.

If you don’t know of Charles Shaw, you might have heard of Two Buck Chuck. Yes?

I was sad to find out Two Buck Chuck would never be known by that name again. It was heartening to know there was a wine out there that could be bought for less than we pay in taxes alone on a bottle of wine in the U.K., which is £1.91 per bottle + 20 per cent VAT. (Annoyingly, even at its new price it is still cheaper than what we pay in taxes.)

In an absurd way, I am happy to say I got to try two of the last bottles (by last I mean among the last few million, no doubt) before the increase.

Being able to drink an entire bottle of wine for just $1.99 – or even the new price of $2.49 – is mind-boggling, although I know this isn’t unheard of in other parts of the world (I am reminded of a roadside sign in Castillon, France, advertising ‘rosé’ for €2 a litre).

The fact it tastes nothing like ethylene glycol or acetone is an achievement the Bronco Wine Company should be proud of.

Anyway, the two bottles of Two Buck Chuck (a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay) I recently acquired came to me by way of my friend Mel, a Los Angeles native who now lives in London. During his trip to the city of Angels over Christmas, he had the genius – and I mean genius in the best possible way – idea to buy them for me.

I always knew about this wine, but had never had a chance to drink it. It was featured on the California wine series hosted by Oz Clarke and James May, and my own father drank it when he was in California a couple of years back . From what I’d heard, it was perfectly drinkable and innocuous, albeit bland.

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The cabernet sauvignon, however, was a quantity I’d not come across before, but based on my knowledge of volume wines, I figured wasn’t going to be completely putrid. Perhaps it would be awful, but certainly it wasn’t going to burn through my stomach lining and cause me internal bleeding or anything like that.

Now, let’s take a step back here a moment. Think back to my experience with that bottle of Bounty. Or think back to your own experience with a horrendous, cheap bottle of wine.

If your first memory is that of a gagging reflex, you are on the right track.

But much to my surprise, the Charles Shaw wines didn’t burn as they went down my throat. They didn’t have obscene, rough flavours. They weren’t overly sweet like a lot of cheap New World wine. They were they were simply neutral, dry as they should be and, overall, completely inoffensive.

The chardonnay wasn’t over-oaked or flabby like many a bad California version, which should earn it a medal for that achievement alone. Meanwhile, the cabernet sauvignon didn’t have that sweet edge you would expect from, say, a Yellowtail wine, and if left to breathe for a while, had typical if uninteresting cabernet aromas and flavours, and tasted like an honest, if not complex, wine of acceptable quality.

Let’s remember here, these bottles were just $1.99. What else can you buy for $1.99? Here in the U.K., it won’t even cover the taxes.

Sara Benwell: The ABC club might still be going strong, but they are just plain wrong

“I love every wine except chardonnay….
I’ll have the Chablis please”

Mythbusters 2: Why you should ignore the chardonnay haters

Last time I guest-blogged for Geordie, I wrote about how I thought rosé got a bad press and why you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Continuing in the same vein, today I’m going to talk about chardonnay and tell you why the people who say “I never drink chardonnay” are idiots who should immediately be ignored.

But first I’m going to tell you a story.

A good friend of mine (he works in sales) had taken a prospect out to lunch. The prospect, whilst perusing the wine list, said:

“I’m pretty flexible about wine, I’ll drink almost anything, but I won’t touch Chardonnay”

My friend, very sensibly, handed over the wine list and suggested that since the prospect knew what they liked, perhaps they would like to choose the wine. (First rule of any client-facing industry, always let them choose the wine).

The prospect quickly agreed and made their selection – they chose a Chablis.

Now this kind of sums up the entire point I’m going to make. Some people are snobby and dismissive of chardonnay without even fully understanding what it actually is. And even amongst those who should know better, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club is still going strong.

Why do people hate chardonnay?

I think there are three main reasons that people say they hate chardonnay, one of which I can sort of understand, but should be corrected, one of which is a bit depressing and the third of which is downright unacceptable.

1. “I don’t like oak”

Okay, so a lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay because they don’t like oak. Now, on the one hand this is sort of acceptable; a lot of Chardonnay out there is heavily oaked and if you don’t like that style, some might tell you not to take the risk. But this is also very misguided, narrow thinking.

White Burgundy is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest white wines in the world. But it’s made from the chardonnay grape.

What’s more, white Burgundy is often aged in oak barrels before being bottled, meaning that it will have a degree of oak flavours. Of course, the amount of oak detectable in the wine depends how much new oak was used and how much time it spent in barrel.

Conversely, if the wine comes from Chablis it might not have touched any oak at all and will therefore not have those vanilla flavours caused by oak.  Side note – many of your ABCs will drink white Burgundy, particularly Chablis, not realising it is made with chardonnay grapes.

So why is oak considered to be such a bad thing?

The main reason (I think) is that in the 1990s, when the chardonnay grape was (gasp!) extremely fashionable, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Unfortunately going against all the principles that made white Burgundy great, this wine was produced on an industrial scale, often from huge vineyards in hot climates (California) where the grapes ripened easily but lacked character.

Instead of ageing their chardonnay in oak barrels (or even tank) over a long period of time, winemakers who wanted to add oak flavours had to fine another way to do this at a lower cost.

The answer they came up with was to use wooden planks or shavings that are dropped into the wine while it is fermenting. This can often overpower the wine and produces the horrible, cheap, cloying, sawdust-y wine that so often pops into an ABC’s head when you say the word chardonnay.

Another problem is the use of malolactic fermentation, a point referenced in the film Sideways. This is what produces much of that buttery flavour ABCs detest in chardonnay. It takes the harsh malic acid and converts it into softer lactic acid, and in turn makes the wine seem softer and buttery.

So yes, there are some terribly made and awful tasting Chardonnays out there, but if you think that’s a reason to avoid them altogether then you are kind of missing the point! SOME chardonnays are rubbish, but some are exquisite.

2. “I know what I like and chardonnay isn’t it”

These people are the ones who are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and don’t like to try new things.  Now obviously you shouldn’t listen to these fools because taking wine advice from someone who is afraid to step outside one variety is like asking for directions from a blind and deaf Englishman who finds himself in France for the first time.

Aside from the obvious reasons not to listen to these people, it’s also a bit baffling. If there is any grape they’re willing to go outside their comfort zone for it’s a chardonnay.

Chardonnays done well are light, subtle, unassuming with neutral flavours like citrus and melon, and the oakiness can produce those amazing (but not necessarily overbearing) creamy vanilla flavours. Hardly something that should scare the pants off of anyone really (unless you’re a lover of sweet wine perhaps).

3. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a glass of Chardonnay”

Now these people are the really awful ones. The ones who have decided that chardonnay just isn’t that fashionable any more, and that the ‘cool’ thing to do is to steer clear. Fortunately these people are easy to fox, buy them Chablis, tell them they’re drinking White Burgundy, offer them a glass of Champers – and then laugh at their utter stupidity.

So what is there to love about it?

I’ve already touched on this a little, but just in case you aren’t already sold I’ll sell it some more. The best thing about chardonnay in my mind is its versatility. Because it’s naturally subtle and smooth, winemakers can develop a whole host of different flavours, textures and styles.

More than this though, they can take the grape and imprint their personality on to it, and as long as their personality isn’t wood planks then you are going to get an interesting wine that tells you a lot about the person who made it. It is also the kind of grape that can be grown in a variety of regions and climates which further adds to its versatility.

The second thing I love about it is it’s dryness. Chardonnay tends to be much drier than sauvignon blanc, though for some reason people often assume the opposite, and if you know me even a little you’ll know that in my book – the drier the better!

The third thing I love about chardonnay is that its grapes are almost always used when Champagne is made, and a life without Champagne would be a far poorer life.

In fact next time you hear someone saying “Anything but chardonnay!” order a bottle of fizz and then calmly inform them that they aren’t allowed any.

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. You can follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net