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Eschewing fads, Austrian whites remain a summer pleasure

| Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pinot Grigio may enjoy universal name recognition, but don't overlook Austria's Grüner Veltliner whites for refreshing, deliciously crisp, summer thirst quenchers.

If you're asking “Grüner what?,” you're not alone.

Grüner Veltliner (pronounced groon-er felt-leener ) enjoyed a turn in the American spotlight back in the late 1990s. Hot-shot sommeliers — always looking to “discover” the next “it” trend — briefly embraced the wines. As with most fads, other wines quickly grabbed attention. Grüner Veltliner slipped back without firmly penetrating American consumers' consciousness.

Austrian winemakers remain unfazed and continue producing. Exports actually play a relatively minor role, so the vicissitudes of international demand do not undermine Grüner Veltliner 's firm place in Austria's domestic wine culture.

Many producers operate taverns at their wineries and in Vienna, where Austrians and tourists enjoy local delicacies such as schnitzel and sausages with unpretentious, young Grüner Veltliners by the pitcher. Frivolity and pleasure reign supreme, sentiments no doubt blessed by great Bacchus himself.

So pay no heed to feckless sommeliers. Rather, focus on discovering and enjoying dedicated Austrian producers' Grüner Veltliners.

You'll recognize the wines from the easy-to-open metal screwcaps vividly branded with the red-and-white Austrian colors. Serve the wines well-chilled either as aperitifs or with all manner of picnic fare for a little summer time pleasure of your own.

Try:

Winegrowers Sylvia and Martin Hugl's 2012 Hugl Weine Grüner Veltliner, Niederösterreich, Austria (Luxury 46425; $13.99 for 1 liter) comes from vines in the Niederösterreich region just north of Vienna. The estate's southwest-facing, sloped vineyards feature loamy soils rich in minerals, a trait that promotes Grüner Veltliner's crisp, fresh fruitiness. To ensure quality grapes, the Hugls limit yields by thinning the crop with green harvesting.

Fermentation under temperature control frames the fruit's terrific aromas and flavors. Aging before bottling on the lees, i.e., spent yeast cells, in tanks and older, large barrels adds creaminess without imparting intrusive woody traits.

The pale-yellow color offers quince and white-pepper aromas. Quince and apple flavors balance with zesty acidity through a creamy, dry finish.Recommended.

One of Austria's top young winemakers, Johannes Hirsch, offers the 2011 Hirsch “Veltliner No.1” Grüner Veltliner, Niederösterreich, Austria (Luxury 46443; $20.99). In German, “hirsch” means “stag.” Johannes flashes whimsical Austrian wine humor with a bottle label depicting a cartoon stag blowing a horn. The savvy marketing also helped boost sales abroad.

Hirsch cultivates vineyards in the Kamptal, a highly regarded subregion of the Niederösterreich. The vineyards' south-facing slopes provide outstanding sun exposure and drainage, while the loess soils — fine yellowish brown silt with plentiful mineral particles — lend steely acidity and mineral notes.

To capture the fruit's innate complex aromas and flavors, Hirsch follows biodynamic principles that eschew treating the vines chemically. Natural compost applications and good, old-fashion physical work in the vineyards prevail. For this “introductory” Grüner Veltliner, Hirsch incorporates fruit grown by a fellow winemaker using similar vineyard practices.

In the winery, Hirsch avoids new oak barrel aging again to highlight the fruit's terrific natural traits. The pale-yellow color with subtle green hints unfolds quince and apple aromas. Grapefruit and quince flavors with creamy notes balance with brisk acidity through the fruit, dry finish. Recommended.

With the 2012 Hielder Grüner Veltliner “Löss,” Niederösterreich, Austria (Luxury 46442; $20.99), veteran winemaker Ludwig Hielder favors a ripe and voluptuous, yet beautifully balanced, style.

Hielder takes full advantage of his well-placed vineyards in Kamptal by allowing the grapes to ripen fully over an extended growing season. Like his colleague Hirsch, Hielder favors a “sustainable” approach with natural composts and integrated pest management. The efforts succeed by placing Grüner Veltliner's authentic personality on full display.

In the winery, Hielder's use of natural yeasts allows the fruit to sing without distortion. The wine then rests on the lees which Hielder stirs regularly to add extra creamy layers.

The wine's light-gold color offers forward grapefruit, apple and peach aromas with intriguing peppery hints. Ripe citrus, apple and white-pepper flavors balance with rich acidity, mouthwatering mineral notes and pleasing creaminess. The fruity, yet dry, finish lingers nicely. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at ddesimone@tribweb.com.

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