One of many pleasures of a visit to New York is dipping into the wine scene there and comparing it to its counterpart in Europe. I was in Manhattan two weeks ago and was fascinated to observe just how fashion-conscious its wine commentators are together with members of the tight-knit sommelier community.
One day I attended a tasting and lunch at Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-star restaurant Per Se. It had been organised by the generic organisation Wines of Chile to demonstrate, quite eloquently in some cases, the ageing ability of some of the country’s most admired Bordeaux blends. Both the 2009 vintage and the 1999 vintage of Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor and Montes Alpha M were particularly impressive – as well they might be when they retail at around £50 a bottle. Several of the seven or eight small courses we were served with the 10 wines were also dazzling, even if three meat courses are usually two too many for me.
But what surprised me about the event, apart from the blandness of Per Se’s private room, was how few of the tasters I recognised. This was in stark contrast to the next day’s tasting and lunch at another three-star establishment, Le Bernardin. (We don’t get three-star lunches in London, I can assure you – Carr’s water biscuits are often all that’s on offer at professional wine tastings.) Here I spied my collaborator in the World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson; the wine correspondents of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Bloomberg; and some of the most prominent bloggers, educators and wine raters. I asked a couple of them why the crowds were so different at the two events and was told, deadpan, it was because “the southern hemisphere is out of fashion”.
Now that’s a lot of wine to discount: South America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia … about a fifth of the world’s wine. I was so taken aback that when I came across the wine writer who made the statement the next day, I checked that it hadn’t been made in jest. It was deadly serious, apparently. (Although I did meet several wine professionals who said that the Australians were working particularly hard to combat this development. In September, a slew of Americans, three times as many as Brits, were invited to Savour Australia, a trade forum in Adelaide designed to refresh Australian wine’s profile.)
Image is everything in the faddish New York market. Indeed the entire point of the second event, at Le Bernardin, was to try to refurbish the image of the signature Austrian grape variety, Grüner Veltliner. The lively, peppery white wine it produces, in a range of styles, was seized on so enthusiastically by the city’s sommeliers in the 1990s that, as the head of Austrian wine’s generic organisation, Willi Klinger, admitted in his introduction to the tasting, the next generation of “somms” actively rejected Grüner as irredeemably old hat. If Groo-vee had been less popular it might just have chugged along as a welcome ingredient on any wine list, as it is in the UK, but success can be a killer in New York.
This tasting was designed to prove that top-quality Grüner Veltliner is well capable of ageing and is not just a great wine, but possibly the best-value great wine in the world. As one would expect of the Austrians, who combine Teutonic efficiency with the hospitality of Mitteleuropa, it was meticulously organised. US importers had been invited to submit samples and the finalists were selected by a crack panel of wine writers in Vienna. Just to press the point about Grüner’s ageability home, we began with 11 mature examples, from a vintage as old as 1971 to a 1999 – not a period that would readily yield white burgundies in fine fettle, for example. The 1971 was a Salomon wine, grown in a vineyard so flat that it is now a prison yard, according to David Schildknecht, the wine writer who co-presented the tasting. It certainly smelt, ahem, mature, but on the palate it was delightfully fresh.
My favourite wines in this line-up of older wines are listed below. The 1997 and 1999 tasted as though they would still be in great shape for much of the next decade. But these were relatively cool vintages: Grüner Veltliners grown in warmer vintages (of which Austria has had no shortage – 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009) tend to age much more rapidly.
The second half of our tasting comprised a dozen wines grown in this century. In this range, I was impressed by how tense and lively even the examples from the hottest vintages were. Admittedly, they had been hand-picked, but they suggest that the period of obese Grüners that was evident at the turn of the century may be well and truly over. My favourites are also in the list on the previous page.
Terry Theise, importer of German wines and grower champagnes and the man who introduced Americans to Grüner (which he’d discovered while searching for fine Austrian Riesling), said of the grape: “Nothing else tastes quite like Grüner Veltliner. It’s very versatile and the more you spend the better the value. At the top end, those dollars wouldn’t buy you a better wine.” (The dollars in question are in the $35-$75 range.)
Top quality, or at least the latest picked Grüner Veltliners, described as Smaragd when they come from the Wachau region, may be a relatively good buy in view of their longevity, but they are not necessarily what many New York wine lovers are after. Le Bernardin’s Austrian sommelier, Aldo Sohm (eating only his second meal ever in the restaurant), acknowledged that Burgundy and Jura had definitively overtaken Grüner Veltiner in the affections of trend-conscious New York sommeliers.
Some wine professionals with whom I discussed this, however, ventured that the city’s love affair with Jura may be on the wane. And a couple of them suggested that there was one sort of wine which has been so irrevocably unfashionable in recent years that it might just be on the verge of a revival. Come back, Bordeaux, says New York.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Stockists from wine-searcher.com
Favourite Grüner Veltliners from old to young
• Salomon Undhof, Wieden Kabinett 1971 Kremstal
• Weixelbaum,Wechselberg Kabinett 1983 Kamptal
• Mantlerhof, Spiegel 1985 Kremstal
• Fritsch, Schlossberg 1992 Wagram
• Pfaffl, Hundsleiten 1994 Weinviertel
• Birgit Eichinger, Gloriette 1997 Kamptal
• Jurtschitsch, Schenkenbichl 1999 Kamptal
• Schloss Gobelsburg, Tradition 2004 Kamptal
• Leth, Scheiben 2006 Wagram
• Loimer, Käferberg 2007 Kamptal DAC Reserve
• Knoll, Vinothekfüllung Smaragd 2008 Wachau
• Prager, Achleiten Stockkultur Smaragd 2010 Wachau (pictured)
• Tegernseerhof, Loibenberg Smaragd 2011 Wachau