Wine, Spilled: Grüner Veltliner

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Photograph: Ben Seidelman

Welcome to Wine, Spilled, a weekly column in which EMD's Justine Sterling shares the myths, legends, tall tales, and short stories of the wine world, and recommends a couple bottles that won't break the bank. Today's wine: Grüner Veltliner.

The wine industry has a reputation for consisting of stuffy, boring, bow-tie wearing men discussing the benefits of old vines, telling the hilarious tale of that one corked bottle at the Duke's Spring gala or bragging about a bottle of Chateau Something-Or-Other they just purchased at an auction and have no intention of drinking. But sometimes events happen that shake up the wine world and are worthy of a story, like the Diethylene Glycol Scandal of 1985. (Cue thunderclap and dramatic organ music). Let’s set the scene.

It’s a sunny Spring day and you’re heading to an outdoor get-together. This could be a barbecue, it could be a garden party, it could just be that your friends have recently found some folding chairs in the basement and have decided to make use of them in their weed-ridden yard. Whatever it may be, we all know that the newly arrived sunshine is best enjoyed with a glass of crisp, refreshing white. Wait! I see you reaching for that Pinot Grigio. No, take your hands off that satisfactory yet uninteresting Sauvignon Blanc. Let me guide you towards a dry, minerally, elongated bottle of Austrian white wine - namely, a Grüner Veltliner. Yes, the bottle does resemble that of a typical Riesling bottle. That's actually the perfect segue, because when you show up, cold, green bottle in hand, you’re going to have a tale of intrigue and danger on the tip of your tongue that happens to involve our dear friend Riesling and why you're drinking a dry Grüner rather than its sweet cousin. You’re going to tell the tale of the Austrian wine scandal of 1985.

Would You Care for a Refreshing Glass of Antifreeze?

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Photograph: Amantivino

Back in the ‘80’s, sweet wine was all the rage. Late harvest wines from Germany and Austria were in high demand — especially those of the highest level, like the incredibly sweet Prädikatswein, the purest and therefore most expensive. Many Austrian exporters had entered into contracts with supermarket chains to provide large quantities of the wine. Austrian wines, it seemed, were finally rising to a level of popularity that could rival those of Germany, but Austrian exporters had yet to learn not to count their late harvest wines before they hatched.

1982 was a weak vintage. The grapes were not able to sufficiently ripen and the producers were unable to fulfill their contract requirements. Nature had failed them. They had to take matters into their own hands: under Austrian law no external source of sugar is allowed when making a late harvest wine, so they didn’t use sugar. They used a substance that would both sweeten the wine and give it the fullness of body of a high quality of sweet wine. They used diethylene glycol, a substance most commonly found in antifreeze.

There’s a reason we don’t finish a meal with a nice, thick glass of antifreeze — and it’s not because it’s not sweet and delicious. It’s because it's quite toxic. Though the amount of DEG added to the wines was not a lethal amount, long-term consumption of the chemical-laced wine would have resulted in kidney, liver and brain damage. That is, unless you were unlucky enough to get the one bottle of 1981 Welschrielsing Beerenauslese that contained 48 grams per liter of DEG, the consumption of which could have proven lethal.

Make Way for the Grüner Veltliner

Still, lethal or just merely organ-damaging, when the scandal was uncovered by a German wine laboratory performing quality control, the bottles were immediately recalled and the Austrian wine industry went on lock down. 36 million bottles of Austrian wine were destroyed by way of being poured into the ovens of a cement plant as a cooling agent. It was nearly impossible to sell Austrian wine and some countries even banned importing them. In an article in The New York Times from the time of the incident, a winegrower was quoted to have said that it was “the worst disaster to hit this region since World War II.” One of the convicted winemakers, a Karl Grill, even committed suicide after being sentenced. But Karl Aiginger, a leading economist of the time, took another point of view: “In a year,” he was quoted, “it’s all forgotten.”

large_gruner_1Turns out that the winegrower was correct in his predictions. It wasn’t until 2001 that Austria’s export volume reached old levels. But in good news, the scandal caused the Austrian wine industry to focus almost entirely on dry wines, which for us means the delicious emergence of the great, food-friendly, crisp, clean Grüner Veltliner. Bonus points: Most have screw tops, so no hardware needed! [Photograph: Beth Nakamura]

Great Grüner Veltliners

  • Thierry Weber ‘Animo’ - Almost tingly on the tongue, this bright, citrusy tipple is ready for drinking at any time in the day. $12
  • Tegernseerhof 'T26' - Easy going and clean. Great for cutting through fatty, salty fried chicken. $17
    Forstreiter - The perfect example of a dry Austrian white: limestone, lime zest, and grass. Drinking a bottle solo is dangerously easy. $10
  • Schloss Kinzer - Served up in a one liter bottle this guy has a bit more soft fruit to it making it the perfect intro Grüner. $12
  • Franz Etz - Another liter bottle, this light, white pepper-tinged wine makes a great foil to dishes like ceviche or grilled shrimp kabobs (see a pattern? Really it will go great with anything seafood). $13
  • Justine Sterling

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