From Austria, a White Wine That’s a Steal

Weingut Steininger Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal, 2015 Langenlois, Austria, $15

Weingut Steininger’s Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal, is a light, dry white wine that’s fresh, flavorful and an excellent match with a wide variety of foods.

It’s also a wine I enjoy just sipping as an aperitif any time of year, whether it’s sitting by the fire on a chilly night or watching the sun go down on muggy summer evening.

There are a number of good, inexpensive Gruner Veltliners on the market in New England, but I think the relatively small, family-owned Steininger winery has one of the best.

The wine, which received a 90 out of 100 rating from Wine Enthusiast magazine, is a bargain at the full price of $15, but I recently bought it for $9.99, and that’s a steal.

Although Gruner Veltliner is ubiquitous on restaurant wine lists and in stores across the country, it’s a relative newcomer to the U.S. market, gaining popularity only in the last decade.

In fact, Gruner Veltliner was little known outside of Austria until the 1990s and didn’t get a burst of fame until 2002 when the wine bested highly acclaimed white Grand cru wines from Burgundy in blind tastings, according to Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.

The first tasting, organized by wine experts Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin, was sort of Gruner Veltliner’s equivalent to the 1976 Judgment in Paris, which put California wines on the world map. Seven out of the 10 top wines were Austrian and most were Gruner Veltliner, and the results were replicated by other similar blind tastings, Robinson writes in an article on her website JancisRobinson.com.

The winners were examples of the best Austrian wines, but the results proved that Gruner Veltliner was able to produce “very fine, full-bodied wines well capable of aging,” Robinson writes.

The 2002 London contest came at a good time for Austrian wines, which had suffered a serious scandal 17 years earlier. The country’s wines were considered cheap and inferior and were the butt of jokes, Karen MacNeil writes in The Wine Bible.

The Austrian economy was still suffering from the aftermath of World War II, and the wine industry was in a downward spiral. In 1985, a small group of corrupt wine brokers tried to pass off cheap wine for higher quality by doctoring it with diethylene glycol, a component in antifreeze, to make it sweeter. Fortunately, the merchants were caught and no one died, but the news went global. All Austrian wines were characterized as shoddy, and jokes spread about drinking Austrian wines to stay warm.

The scandal caused the country’s mass market for inferior wines to collapse, leaving only quality producers to build a new wine industry from the ground up. The turnaround was dramatic, and now Austria is producing some of the best wines in the world, MacNeil writes.

Gruner Veltliner is the most widely grown grape in Austria, making up more than a third of all of the country’s vineyards. In the Kamptal region and on the Steininger’s 160-acre vineyard there, half the vines are Gruner Veltliner.

Until recently, the heritage of the grape was murky, and even the name is misleading. Gruner Veltliner means “green grape from Veltlin,” a village in northern Italy. However, no link between the village and the grape have been found, and wine historians now believe Gruner Veltliner is indigenous to Austria.

In 2007, DNA testing traced the grape’s origin to a natural crossing of Savagnin, a distant relative of Pinot Noir, and an obscure Austrian grape vine found in an overgrown pasture in the eastern part of the country. After the vine, which is estimated to be 500 years old and determined to produce the grape St. Georgener-Rebe, was threatened to be ripped out and was damaged by vandals, the Austrian government designated it a protected natural monument. Cuttings of the vine are now being propagated for vineyard plantings and commercial cultivation, Robinson writes.

The Steiningers are one of the quality winemakers who survived the Austrian scandal and rebuilt the country’s industry. The family has been making award-winning still and sparkling wines since 1989, just after Kurt Steininger took over the business from his father. The third generation is now working at the winery. The Steiningers’ vineyard in situated in Austria’s largest wine-growing village, Langenlois, in the Kamp River Valley, where the soils are clay and gravel and the days are hot and nights cool.

Steininger Gruner Veltliner Kampal is a balanced wine with flavors of apple, herbs and minerals with a spicy finish, Kurt Steininger says in the tasting notes.

Gruner Veltliner is a versatile wine that Austrians drink with meats and Wiener schnitzel, writes MacNeil, who also suggests that it’s unbeatable with fried chicken.

I paired it with grilled chicken and fried green tomatoes, and it was a perfect fit.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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