We have an interesting-looking Grüner Veltliner (GREW-ner Felt-LEEN-er) that I was curious about. My research into the varietal showed me that it’s pretty much Austria’s national wine, although it is also grown in Czechoslovakia. and Hungary. My references say that about 30% of vineyards in Austria are planted with the grape.
Although it comes in three different styles, from the light, bone-dry Steinfeder, to the full-bodied Smaragd (which I dare you try to say five times quickly), we have the mid-weight Federspiel, from Domane Wachau, which means it comes from the premier growing region, the Wachau Valley.
Typically, Grüners are known for being assertive whites, with a melon, peach and citric nose, tasting of those fruits, minerality and white pepper, plus a nice acidity and a touch of spritz. Fans of the wine recommend pairing with rich foods and shellfish, and drinking it young. Ours has the color of straw with a little greenish tinge (Grüner means green in German), and has the expected characteristics. I also tasted some grapefruit. It had a lovely long finish, which brought joy to my palate several minutes between sips.
Controversially, many fans of Grüner Veltliner feel that it pairs well with asparagus. Now asparagus is known as an impossible food to pair with wine, due to the strong taste of the chemical methyl mercaptan. I recently paired a bottle of our delicious Grüner with three dishes we have on the menu, the charcuterie plate (with Bob Sargent’s home-made saucisson sec, Black Forest ham, and pork liver paté), scallops, and the asparagus and lobster risotto. I had no qualms about the first two dishes, but Ken shook his head when I suggested that the wine might go well with the asparagus dish. “There is no wine that goes with asparagus. It won’t work!” He added, “Well, it’s true that I drink wine while eating asparagus. I just make sure I eat something else before I have the wine.”
Since several sources suggested the Grüner would do well, I decided to risk it. More on that experiment below.
As expected, the wine paired beautifully with the charcuterie: the acidic and citrusy character lending sumptuousness to the rich sausage and paté. I found that it rather overwhelmed the Black Forest ham and was in turn overwhelmed by the gherkins, but those drawbacks were more than compensated for by the combination of the other tastes with the wine.
Pairing the scallops with the wine was a revelation. Whereas the wine paired beautifully with the charcuterie’s richness and salt, the sweetness of the scallops changed the character of the wine in the mouth in a way that’s hard to describe, but was truly delicious. Instead of being bold and forthright, as it was with the meat, the wine became subtle and smooth, almost like an unoaked Chardonnay.
Finally I got to the asparagus and lobster risotto, a favorite dish of mine for some time.
Interestingly, the combination was not a disaster, but it also wasn’t an unqualified success. Possibly due to the incorporation of the lobster flavors into the asparagus, the methyl mercaptan flavors were somewhat muted, but by no means gone. What I found to my surprise was that the taste of the Grüner Veltliner completely trumped the asparagus flavor, but it didn’t clash with it. The flavor of the asparagus disappeared. I agreed completely with Ken’s comment: “It isn’t a pairing. The flavors don’t mix. The wine isn’t hurt by the asparagus flavor, but it isn’t helped by it either.” Our conclusion is that what fans of Grüner mean when they say it goes well with asparagus, they mean that the wine doesn’t suffer with the combination. However, we wouldn’t recommend Grüner (or really, any other wine) paired with Asparagus officinalis. For a white wine that goes well with many other tastes, however, particularly in the summer, there are few wines that match the versatility and deliciousness of Grüner Veltliner.
Tasted: 2010 Grüner Veltliner Domane Wachau (Austria) $35