There is something afoot in Oregon’s wine country—a movement, a trend, a look toward something different. Producers known for their reds are starting to experiment with small batches of white wines to test both how the land and climate will accept the vines, and how their customers will respond.
Grüner Veltliner is one wine on trial. The grape is thought to be indigenous to Austria where it is made in a variety of styles from light, crisp and mineral-driven to fat, rich and supplely textured. Some grüners are made to consume early, others to age and a few more are made into sparking wines. She’s quite the versatile grape.
Grüner is aged in oak and/or steel and has been considered a darling to sommeliers since the wine tends to pair effortlessly with a variety of foods (especially with notoriously difficult to pair items, such as artichokes and asparagus).
From the Willamette Valley to Southern Oregon, grüner is beginning to grow on vines and fill wine glasses. Producers such as Bethel Heights, Illahe, Raptor Ride, Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards, Chehalem Vineyards and Johan are experimenting with plantings, vineyard methods and production techniques. The results are encouraging, and dare we say, exciting.
Stephen Reustle—winemaker at Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards, in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley—has been making grüner since 2005 from vines planted on his estate. During a trip to Austria, Reustle was inspired to work with the grape after wining and dining at local Austrian restaurants, where Reustle was continually guided toward the variety by local sommeliers.
“I was immediately impressed with the fruit and crisp acidity of the Austrian wine,” says Reustle. “Upon starting my own vineyard, I realized no one was producing grüner here in the states, so we took a risk and became the first to commercially make it.”
Ben Casteel, winemaker at Bethel Heights Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills, has been making grüner since 2009 from vines grown at Illahe Vineyard in the Willamette Valley. So far, the marine sedimentary soils and cooler climate of the region seem to be ideally suited to the grape. “Having now worked with grüner in warm vintages (2009, 2012), a cool vintage (2010) and a cold vintage (2011), I am convinced it will thrive in our soils and climate,” says Casteel.
The gracious grape is also grown at a fellow Willamette Valley winery, Johan Vineyards in Rickreal. Chad Stock, winemaking and sales for Johan, shared that their decision to plant grüner was based on extensive research. Prior to transitioning some of their Pinot noir rows to grüner, Johan personnel studied the conditions of the Danube River macroclimate—which encompasses the Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions of Austria—where, arguably, the country’s best grüner veltliner grapes are grown.
“The Danube River moderates the temperature of the area, creating the high diurnal shift [going from warm days to cool nights] necessary for growing great wine grapes,” says Stock. “The river also creates air flow that is necessary to decrease disease pressure in the vineyards and increase skin thickness and total phenolic content in the grapes.”
How does that relate to Oregon? The coastal winds that flow through Oregon’s Van Duzer corridor, in which Johan Vineyards is directly situated, mimics the conditions along the Danube.
For Scott and Annie Shull of Raptor Ridge, the love for grüner came about twelve years ago on a visit to Chicago, where they dined at a high-end Thai Restaurant and enjoyed a grüner that had been suggested to them on account of their affinity for food-friendly, high acid, delicate white wines. “We looked at each other as we enjoyed that marriage of grüner and spicy yet nuanced and layered Thai foods, and knew we had found our new favorite white varietal,” says Scott. Their estate vineyard also has soil and climate that are similar to the prime grüner-growing areas in Austria.
So what about this friend of food, this darling of the sommelier? What makes it work so well with food and what how should we pair it? Well, if you ask Reustle, he’ll tell you flat out: everything. “Believe me, I don’t say this about every wine, but it’s hard to find something that doesn’t pair well with grüner. It seems Casteel would agree, saying, “I don’t think there are any wrong answers with grüner. Halibut and cod have been my favorites this year, but I have had it paired with [foods from] pasta to red meat and never found it to be anything other than complimentary.”
A large part of the decision for the folks at Johan to work with the grape was its versatility with food. “We chose to plant our grüner because we think that the grape produces a wine that is highly distinct and strong in character; a character that we think is delicious and has food applications that very few wines can work well with,” says Stock. The Shulls, of Raptor Ridge, recommend oysters or, not surprisingly, Thai food.
Crisp or fat; young or aged; with oysters or red meat. It seems there could be a grüner for every palate—an occasion for every bottle and a wine for every meal. That is certainly something to raise a chameleon glass to.
2011 Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyard Estate grown | Umpqua Valley | $29
Aged 100% in stainless steel, this wine is fresh and lively with notes of crisp yellow apple, lemon pith, mandarin, honey and white tea with a characteristically textured palate and pleasing acids.
2011 Johan Vineyards Estate grown | Willamette Valley | $24
Fermented in large used oak barrels, spice and fruit mingle to create richness in aroma and palate weight. Yellow melon, baked apple and tropical fruit characters are balanced with honey, clove, and savory spices. A lovely wine with intriguing aging potential.
2012 Raptor Ridge Estate grown | Chehalem Mountains | $20
100% stainless steel aged and fermented, this is another luscious version of grüner with crisp minerality. White peach and pineapple marry with notes of honeysuckle blossom, white pepper, spice and and sweet grass for a long and lingering finish. Ready for great drinking.
2012 Bethel Heights Vineyard Illahe Vineyard | Willamette Valley | $18
Aged in a combination of steel and large used oak barrels, this grüner combines the best of both worlds with hints of fresh and lively acidity as well as rich and textured notes from its oak exposure. Spices of cinnamon blend with lemon, yellow plum, white and yellow flowers, and honey for a seemingly everlasting finish.