Gruner Veltliner's delicate white pepper notes tickling your nose

John H. Isacs
While white pepper is not a common aroma or flavor found in wines, some varieties exhibit subtle notes of the spice.
John H. Isacs
Gruner Veltliner's delicate white pepper notes tickling your nose
Ti Gong

Steeply sloped terraced vineyards of Kamptal DAC

Throughout known history the story of spices has been a fascinating tale of riches, danger, adventure, intrigue and deceit. In the spice world, pepper is king. Sorry, salt is a mineral, not a spice. Black and white peppercorns are the most ancient and ubiquitous peppers, as the green and red variants are relatively recent and rarer contributions to our diet. Somewhat surprising to many, black and white peppers come from the same pepper plant.

The piper nigrum is a climbing scrub that grows to 9 meters and begins bearing fruit after five years. The plant is native to South India where it was first cultivated for peppercorns over 4,000 years ago. The spice subsequently became a mainstay in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Romans loved peppers and their sea traders would make annual sea voyages to and from to procure the spice. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arabs monopolized the spice trade. This monopoly and a surplus of price-gouging middlemen raised the price of pepper to a prohibitive level. As a result, throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance only the very rich could afford pepper. The Arab spice monopoly was broken in 1497 when the great Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama sailed to India and opened a new sea spice root. A century later the Dutch displaced the Portuguese traders as spice kings before they were replaced by the English in the 17th century when they established the British East India Company.

Fascinating parallels to wine also exist. Both start life as bunches of berries on a flowering plant. Black pepper gets its color from the skin of the peppercorn, like red wine gets its color from the skin of the grape.

White pepper has its own special qualities. White pepper is especially popular in Chinese and other Asian cuisines. In the West, French chefs use it in cream sauces and purees so the white color of their culinary creation remains unaltered. Swedes also love the spice, using it in their famed Swedish meatballs and other local dishes. Black pepper offers more complex aromatic and taste sensations but white pepper is more focused and delicate. The flavor intensity of both depends on the piper nigrum species with the Indonesian Muntok and South Indian Malabar and Tellicherry varieties being particularly prized and costly.

While white pepper is not a common aroma or flavor found in wines, some varieties exhibit subtle notes of the spice. The variety that offers the most pronounced white pepper sensations is the national grape of a small and beautiful Alpine country. Compared with its larger European neighbors, Austria produces a minute quantity of wine. However, in terms of quality, Austria is a first-tier wine-producing nation with almost all production focusing on quality wines

There are 15 DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) appellations of which Wachau is the newest, only gaining the status earlier this month. Most top Austrian wines come from these regions. Austrian wine regulators officially recognize 35 grape varieties of which 22 are white. The most important is Gruner Veltliner, which represents over 30 percent of all plantings.

Gruner Veltliner's delicate white pepper notes tickling your nose

Some of the finest Gruner Veltliner wines come from the prestigious Kamptal DAC region. Located 55 kilometers northwest of Vienna, this small region is renowned for its exceptional white wines. The quality of the wines is in large part due to an ideal vine cultivation climate, where a confluence of warm Pannonian basin influences from the east, and cool winds from the Waldviertel forests to the east, provides marked diurnal temperature variations. This helps the grapes ripen slowly and fully while still retaining excellent acidity.

Like other DACs, Kamptal has three quality levels. In ascending order of quality, they are: Gebietswein (regional wine), Ortswein (village-level wine) and Riedenwein (single-vineyard wine). Regional wines must have a minimum of 11.5 percent alcohol while village and single-vineyard wines must contain at least 12 percent alcohol. DAC Reserve wines require at least 13 percent alcohol. Only dry Gruner Veltliner and Riesling wines are given the Kamptal DAC status but fine dry and sweet wines are also made from other varieties.

Gruner Veltliner wines from Kamptal and other DAC regions are distinctive. In addition to the signature white pepper sensations, Austrian Gruner Veltliner wines exhibit lively citrus, floral and fresh vegetal aromas and flavors, always with excellent acidity. The intense flavors and acidity of Gruner Veltliner wines make them exceptionally food-friendly. I love pairing them with Chinese white pepper spiced dishes like Sichuan sour and spicy soup, Beijing-style shredded pork and Taiwan “yansu” deep-fried chicken. In all these cases, the vibrant acidity of the Gruner Veltliner wines cleanses the palate while accentuating the most pleasing flavors.

One of my favorite Gruner Veltliners is made by Loimer Winery, one of Austria’s oldest and most respected producers. All their wines are biodynamic and represent the apex of Austrian winemaking. The Loimer Gruner Veltliner Kamptal DAC wine offers a combination of white flower aromas and intense citrus and spice flavors. Other recommended Austrian Gruner Veltliner producers with wines available in Shanghai include Brundlmayer, Nigl, Loire Lois and Wieninger. 

Where to buy in Shanghai

Loimer Kamptal Gruner Veltliner DAC

Nigl Freiheit Kremstal Gruner Veltliner DAC

Wieninger Vienna Hills Gruner Veltliner DAC

Brundlmayer Terrassen Kamptal Gruner Veltliner DAC

Brundlmayer Bankett Kamptal Gruner Veltliner DAC

Brundlmayer Alte Reben Kamptal Gruner Veltliner DAC

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