In a recent article in the Australian Financial Review, wine writer Tim White talked about alternatives to sauvignon blanc. (When sauvignon blanc just won’t do, The Australian Financial Review, 21-23 January 2011). Not surprisingly, riesling and chardonnay topped the top-five list among sommeliers, winemakers and retailers. And of the alternative varieties, three grape varieties stood out: chenin blanc, viognier and grüner veltliner.

Grüner veltliner appeared on my radar when I was researching the Canberra District and its growing reputation for fine riesling. According to James Halliday, in Austria grüner veltliner is grown in all the same regions as riesling. Now two excellent biodynamic wineries, Lark Hill and Hahndorf Hill Winery, from two of the great riesling regions in Australia – the Canberra District and the Adelaide Hills respectively – are demonstrating grüner veltliner’s potential in Australia.

In 2009 Lark Hill released the first grüner veltliner in Australia. It was made from a tiny amount of fruit from their original plantings in 2005. It was very well reviewed, including a 94/100 from James Hallliday:

At long last, a Grüner Veltliner to write about… It is strongly varietal, with a waft of white pepper on the bouquet adding complexity to the fig and ripe pear fruit; best of all is the texture and mouthfeel. Lark Hill is certified Biodynamic – an holistic farming practice established by Rudolph Steiner in Austria in the late 1920’s – so it brings a lovely synergy to produce this classic Austrian variety from the home of Biodynamics. (James Halliday, 2011 Wine Companion)

Lark Hill just pipped Hahndorf Hill Winery to the post with the first release of grüner veltliner in Australia. Hahndorf Hill’s debut vintage was released in 2010, four years after the winery had imported from Austria three different clones of the grape with the aim of producing a fresh, New World version of the wine. The variety is famous for its great minerality, and the team at Hahndorf Hill believed that the complex mix of its vineyard’s loamy topsoils, generously mixed with blue slate and quartz, would endow its grüner veltliner with this special quality.

The wine was great hit with critics and consumers alike. Independent Weekly wine critic Philip White scored it 94 points. Here are a few snippets from his lengthy, glowing review:

I’ve never smelt anything like this in Australia before. It was completely, disarmingly seductive…Very few wines manage such an exquisite balance of fleshy sensuality and mineral austerity without leaving a hole in the middle.(A Crystallising Moment by Philip White, The Independent Weekly, 13-19 August 2010)

Unfortunately, the debut vintage at $28 a bottle has already sold out. Hahndorf Hill Winery also makes a blaufränkisch, an Austrian red grape variety that renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson has referred to as ‘the pinot noir of Eastern Europe’. Hahndorf Hill is currently the only producer of blaufränkisch in Australia, but judging from the very favourable reviews to its debut 2008 vintage, I don’t think it will be long before other wineries follow its lead!