Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s signature white grape, accounts for one third of the country’s vines. It thrives elsewhere around the world: the Czech Republic, Hungary—and increasingly in U.S. vineyards along the East Coast.
“Grüner can create a diverse profile of wines,” says Charlotte Adams who spent six months researching the grape at Galen Glen Winery in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley AVA for her masters in Wine and Vineyard Sciences at the University of Bordeaux. U.S. wine critics have received Galen Glen’s Grüner well. Contributing editor of James Suckling’s Wine Ratings, Stuart Pigott, comments that the East Coast winery’s expression bears “a striking resemblance to the dry wines made in the Austrian section of the Danube Valley.”
“You can harvest early to retain a lot of the acidity to make beautiful sparkling wines. You can harvest early to mid-season to get those more traditionally Austrian, beautifully crisp, clean, easy drinking table wines,” says Adams. “Or you can wait till later in the season to get some of those late harvest aromas. You can vinify in stainless or put it in oak.”
And it’s that versatility of expression that’s engaging winemakers and consumers alike.
Finger Lakes winery Konstantin Frank first planted 2.45 acres of Grüner Veltliner in 2007 and slowly increased to a total of eight acres as they continued to see more and more consumer demand for their stainless steel fermented expression.
The vines are planted in an estate vineyard in Hector, about 30 miles east of their Keuka Lake home farm, because it’s one of the warmest areas in the Finger Lakes AVA. The warmer conditions benefit the vines that might not stand up to Keuka Lake’s colder conditions.
“The grapes are not as cold hardy as a Riesling, but definitely more so than a Chardonnay or a Gewürztraminer,” says Gardner. In the six years he’s been with the winery, there’s been some bud mortality—about 30 percent in 2019 when temperatures dropped to -5ºF—but it wasn’t enough to change the balance of the vines.
The vineyard has well-draining, fertile loam soils that run four to six feet deep. That combination of fertility results in excessive lateral shoot growth that can be problematic, as it causes a more robust canopy, thus shading the grapes. Gardner mitigate this by hedging early in the season.
In New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, Mount Salem Vineyards owner, Peter Leitner, says the county’s climate is similar to Austria’s with its moderately cold winters and hot, humid summers. So, he turned to Austrian wine grapes when deciding what to plant. “Grüner is somewhat resistant to humidity. It has loose clusters,” he says. Those loose clusters allow wind to dry out the grapes and fungicides to get around the berries.
Mount Salem’s soils are a combination of silt, clay, and loam with a very high degree of glacial gravel, which Leitner says “offers excellent structure for growing fine wine grapes like Grüner.” In addition to the soils, the climate helps, too. Leitner believes that when serious cold events occur, the vines’ dormancy—which happens mid-fall—protects them.
A decade ago, when New Jersey had an unusual cold snap of -10ºF, Leitner feared his Austrian vines would have high damage.
“We sampled all of our varieties, and we didn’t find anything more than the normal 5 to 10 percent bud death,” he says.
He knows of vineyards further south in the state that lost a third of all their vines (including, but not exclusively, Grüner) that year. These lost vines still had green leaves on them when the January cold snap hit. Conversely, Mount Salem’s vines went dormant the previous November.
In terms of winemaking, Leitner oak ages his Grüner. That choice is completely stylistic: He sees the aging technique as an opportunity for his New Jersey wine to have its own character, different from what many people expect of the grape.
Further south in New Jersey’s Outer Coastal Plain AVA (OCP), Bellview Winery grows an estate Grüner Veltliner that won Best in Class at the 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Bellview uses 100 percent stainless steel for the wine.
Proprietor Jim Quarella says he must consider the yearly vintage variations in the OCP, which is about 100 miles south of Mount Salem Vineyards. Some years, Grüner can have the reserved grassy and savory flavors typical in the Austrian style in the OCP, but that quality is highly dependent on growing season temperatures.
“In a warmer year, the tropical and floral flavors will appear, but the acidity will be less,” he says. Warmer years are happening more frequently in New Jersey, where 10 of the hottest calendar years on record have happened since 2010.
That loss of acidity in warmer regions can inform how winemakers choose to vinify the grape.
At Old Westminster Winery in Westminster, Maryland, winemaker Drew Baker uses his Grüner to produce Pét-Nat.
“As a grower, I love it,” says Drew Baker, vineyard manager of the family-owned winery. “It does quite well in the vineyard. It’s winter hardy, tough, and quite fruitful.”
But, because the grape has a potential for high yields, Baker thins bunches in early August, using the dropped grapes for verjus production. Thinning allows the remaining grapes to retain more acidity and flavor intensity. This, along with sugars that haven’t fully developed in grapes picked early, makes the decision to make a sparkling wine an easy one.
“Making Pét-Nat from the variety tends to do the wine well,” he says. “The bubbles accentuate the acid and the perception of sharpness in the wine.”
Planting Grüner at Blenheim Vineyards in Charlottesville, Virginia, was an accident, says winemaker and general manager Kirsty Harmon.
In 2017, Blenheim took out a block of grapes and replanted with several different vines, but the grapes didn’t bud out.
“Not one of the vines was viable,” says Harmon. The nursery offered them other choices, including Grüner. Neighboring Gabriele Rausse had success with it so Harmon chose to plant it, too.
Because the vines are extremely vigorous, Blenheim was able to bottle its first estate single bottling in 2019. Harmon kept it simple, fermenting in stainless steel.
“I find it extremely savory and really interesting; I don’t get as zingy acidity as the Austrian versions I’ve tried. I think that’s because we’re in a warmer growing climate [than Austria],” says Harmon who picks it earlier in the season to retain the finesse and acidity of the grape.
The East Coast wineries finding success with Grüner are paving a way for other producers considering the grape. As Konstantin Frank’s Gardner put it, “With new varieties, you don’t always want to be the first, and you don’t want to be the last.” He thinks that as other regional wineries are keep a “watchful eye” on their neighbors producing the Austrian grape, we’ll see more of it.
Robin Shreeves is a drinks journalist and lifestyle features writer. Her wine writing has appeared in dozens of print and online publications including Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Courier Post, Spirited Magazine, Edible Philly, Edible Jersey, USA Today, and Drink Philly. She holds a Level 3 wine certification and Advanced Wine Speaker certification from the National Wine School. Robin is also cofounder of Thinking Outside the Bottle that offers content writing for drinks brands.