The first time Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen heard of anyone growing gruner veltliner in Washington, he was skeptical. There’s a reason the yellow-green grapes with loose clusters and thick skins produce the signature wine of Austria; they flourish in that country’s alpine climate, where vines thrive on steep slopes of dense rock, and a sharp chill curtails the sugar levels and preserves the flavors and aromatics within.
Half a world away, sun blazes over Washington’s major vineyards, fueling our signature high-octane reds and lavish whites. It’s here that Lindsay-Thorsen occupies an uncommon vantage point as both a partner and winemaker in tiny, Woodinville-based W.T. Vintners winery and lead sommelier at RN74 (the Washington State Wine Awards’ somm of the year, in fact). Though we’re surrounded by masterful wines, it’s often hard to pair these showpieces with food. So guys like Lindsay-Thorsen harbor a soft spot for gruner veltliner’s acidic, lower-alcohol charms: “It’s a single grape that can take you from a light aperitif to holding up to a pepper steak.”
For W.T. Vintners’ first white wine, Lindsay-Thorsen and his partners wanted something more delicate than Washington’s lush chardonnay or viognier, “but not as ubiquitous as riesling.” They weren’t alone. The state’s grape growers and winemakers have recently begun climbing our mountain slopes, pressing beyond hot hillsides and valley floors to explore cooler elevations.
James and Poppie Mantone, the owners of Syncline Wine Cellars, pointed Lindsey-Thorsen toward Underwood Mountain Vineyards. There, in the Columbia River Gorge above the Washington bank across from Hood River, a young six-acre plot of gruner veltliner grapes sat 1,000 feet above sea level, enjoying an enviable view of Mount Hood.
Syncline started making small amounts of gruner using Underwood grapes in 2008. It so impressed Lindsey-Thorsen that he went to see for himself the vineyard and its namesake mountain, an extinct volcano layered with basalt boulders that impart a mineral flavor absent from most of Washington’s silty soil. Underwood Mountain’s western slopes are the last point in the state to catch the maritime winds, and up at 1,000-feet elevation, grapes get ample sun, but only a gentle daytime heat. He was sold.
It took W.T. Vintners two years to get off the wait list for the short supply of grapes. The first bottling in 2012 was a gamble; the winemakers worked in a refitted garage, with a canoe stashed behind the fermenters, trying to create a slow, cool fermentation process in a stuffy room with no temperature controls. When the thermometer climbed, they pushed the tanks outside.
Just like on the vine, heat is the enemy of a good gruner. If things get too hot, explains Lindsay-Thorsen, “you can literally cook off a lot of aromatics. You have to be patient and paranoid.”
Once the wine was fermented and blended, the sighs of relief were huge. That first rendition was full of fresh, green notes, with a proper edge of acid—very much a gruner. This year’s version tastes more of stone fruit, but hits those same acid notes that makes it so companionable to food.
By Lindsay-Thorsen’s guess, fewer than a dozen U.S. wineries make gruner veltliner commercially. This year it’s his winery’s largest offering, though that’s still just 235 cases, due out in April. Syncline makes more gruner veltliner than any of its other white wines; the 2013 release arrives in May. Meanwhile, Underwood Mountain growers have been busy planting more grapes.
Washington will always be cabernet country, but gruner’s young, green flavors are perhaps the best proof of how our wines have matured.