Liquids: Grüner Veltliner

As we learned during the presidential balloting fiasco four years ago, there’s nothing like a good scandal to shake up the system. Now before you check at the top of the page to be sure you’re reading the wine column and not “Political Rant,” rest assured you’re in the right place. But as we gear up to host the Democrats this summer, it might be telling to look at a winemaking scandal that also changed the world.

The year was 1985 and the country was Austria, a nation that for many Americans—or, at least, me—brings to mind Mozart, Strauss, great coffee, and, of course, the lederhosen-wearing von Trapps. The problem began when a group of unscrupulous négociants, or wine wholesalers, added a chemical called diethylene glycol to some bargain-priced Austrian dessert wines to give them more body and make them more attractive to the Germans—their principal export market back then. If diethylene glycol sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen it on the container of antifreeze in your trunk. That was the problem. Thankfully, nothing and nobody got poisoned—except the collective reputation of Austrian winemakers.

Which didn’t matter much here in America, where little Austrian wine was even available. I bet many of you probably think Austrian wine tastes just like German wine (and that many of you also discount German wines as fruity and sweet, which is only partly true). Weren’t they practically one big country during yet another scandalous period more than 60 years ago? The reality couldn’t be more different:

Austria is closer to the equator than Germany and therefore produces wines with higher alcohol levels and, some would argue, more complexity. The scandal of 1985 put the spotlight on Austria and forced the country’s winemakers to reform—refining their craft, reinvigorating their business, and reinventing their image internationally.

Austrian wine laws became the most stringent in Europe. There were also unexpected consequences. Drinkers of Austrian wine started looking for dry varietal white wines and became critical of quality and authenticity. “In effect,” Wine Spectator observed, “the change in consumer habits created the dry wine revolution of the late 1980s.”

Now, nearly 20 years later, Austria is at the top of its game. “No country in Europe has changed its attitude and upgraded its standards of wine production so dramatically since the mid 1980s as Austria,” says The World Atlas of Wine. “And yet the great majority of the world’s wine drinkers have no idea what Austrian wine tastes like.” Except for wine geeks like me, and perhaps you after you read this and run to your wine shop. Which begs the question: What exactly are all the wine wonks drooling over? Two words, one wine: grüner veltliner. That’s GROO-ner FELT-lih-ner.

While you may not have heard of it, you can be sure that many of Boston’s best chefs have. Why? Because grüner veltliner has an amazing ability to flatter food. When these wines are young and fresh, they’re wonderfully fruity, with wave after wave of acidity and flavors that range somewhere between grapefruit and dill. Yes, dill. In fact, grüner often exhibits aromas that seem implausible and complements even foods that seem wine-repellent (think artichokes and asparagus). What it does not taste like is riesling, though the two are often compared. (Riesling is also grown in Austria, and beautifully, too, but, to quote the Atlas: “To compare it with riesling is like comparing a wild flower with a finely bred garden variety.” You go, grüner!)

What Austria does have in common with Germany is its confusing wine labels. You will at least find the words “grüner veltliner,” which is what matters most. Most dry whites come from the region of lower Austria, which is, confusingly, in the northeast corner of the country, around—and including—Vienna. This area encompasses the regions of Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal, all of which are on or near the Danube, west of Vienna. Irritatingly, winemakers in the Wachau region implemented their own quality classifications in ascending order of ripeness: steinfeder, federspiel, and smaragd. So much for appealing to the international market.

But appeal they do. Jodi Stern, East Coast marketing director for the distributor Vin Divino, admits that grüner was a tough sell until she changed her marketing plan. “Instead of going to sommeliers, I went to chefs, because I knew the flavor of the wine would turn on the chefs. Grüner is so versatile—the excitement fueled the chefs to talk to the sommeliers.”

If you’re intrigued enough to pull a few corks yourself, Stern promises you’ll be blown away by the flavor array: “Spicy, white peppery, pineapple, smoke, mineral—a lot of flavors in grüner that might not sound attractive in a wine work here, like celery, lentils, stone. You get a wine that can take on almost any food.” That’s why you’ll find grüner veltliners on the lists at Clio, the Blue Room, and Legal Sea Foods, to name a few.

Now that you’ve read grüner’s references, get out there and show your support for a candidate with an impeccable record. If only you’d give it a chance. Grüner veltliner for president!