Wine: The pride of Austria

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The Independent Online

Small but perfectly formed applies to 108,000 different things according to Google, but there's only one European country in the running when it comes to wine, and that's the land of Mozart. Austria may be better known for its swish ski resorts and calorific Viennoiserie, but it's hardly surprising given that Austrians themselves glug the lion's share of their country's 28 million cases of wine. Thanks to an outward-looking approach, not to mention an inclination to make a bob or two, the Austrians have doubled exports of their precious liquid since 2000. Yet compared to that of their main overseas markets of Germany, the Czech Republic and the US, our own consumption of one in every 200 bottles produced remains a blip on the radar screen.

Another reason we're not better acquainted with Austrian wine is that there's relatively little chardonnay or sauvignon blanc and no big brand to catch a supermarket wine buyer's eye. More than two-thirds of Austria's wine production is white, and the biggest share, a third in fact, comes from a grape variety that's relatively obscure. Step forward grüner veltliner, or Gru-V, as I've heard it cheesily described. GV is the alter ego of riesling, producing a variety of styles from the light and zesty right through to rich, exotic whites with exceptional balance. As a result, what GVs have in common is an affinity with food, especially fish and spicy South-East Asian dishes. Instead of gracing supermarket shelves, GV is a sommelier's darling that puts its best foot forward on restaurant wine lists.

Being a niche product may keep Austrian wine outside the commercial fold of big brands, but its individuality is a welcome breath of fresh Alpine air. Austria's GVs are wines whose character derives strongly from their terroir. Austria's best GV vineyard sites are on steep, sunny terraces over the Danube in the rock, loam and sandy soils of the dramatic Wachau and the less famous but larger, neighbouring regions of Kremstal and Kamptal. In these three regions, GV's opulence lends itself to subtly peppery or spicy flavours. The sprawling Weinviertel, or "wine quarter", has hitherto been regarded as more plonky, but its reputation is growing and its size gives it the value for money edge.

Unfortunately, with one or two welcome exceptions, supermarkets and the high street do little to encourage Austria's own enthusiastic promotion of its grüner veltliners. Waitrose stocks two good value versions, Kamptal's citrusy, lightly peppery 2004 Gobelsburger Lamm Grüner Veltliner, £5.99, and the refreshingly juicy 2004 Felsner Grüner Veltliner Moosburgerin from Kremstal, while Majestic stocks the spicy, dry 2004 Pfaffenburg Grüner Veltliner, £7.99, from Dinstlgut Loiben. The Freie Weingärtner Wachau Co-op too, is a good value producer, with wines like the light, crisply peppery 2004 Grüner Veltliner Terrassen (£6.99, Adnams, 01502 727222).

The best GVs are not cheap, but specialists like Noel Young Wines in Cambridge (01223 844736) are making more effort to introduce value brands such as the fragrant, full-bodied 2005 Kurt Angerer Grüner Veltliner, £7.99. Nikolaihof's grapefruity, poised 2004 Hefeabzug Grüner Veltliner is a step up (£11.50, Raeburn Fine Wines, Edinburgh, 0131-332 5166), while to experience GV at its most ravishingly opulent best, try Prager's intense, complex yet delicate 2004 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten (£24.94, Berry Bros & Rudd,, or Hirtzberger's fabulously rich and complex 2004 Honivogl Grüner Veltliner Smaragd (£34.95, Berry Bros & Rudd).