Whites with a dash of sparkle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 September, 1999, 12:00am

Sitting in a leafy courtyard in a Viennese suburb, I asked for a glass of champagne. 'Sparkling wine?' asked the waitress. 'You make it yourself.' She was right. It is simple. First, order a bottle of spritely white wine made from the gruner veltliner grape; this produces more than a third of all Austrian wine. Half-fill a large goblet with wine. Then add sparkling water up to the brim. 'That's our champagne,' the waitress said.

It may lack a little elegance of the stuff from France, but it is cheap and refreshing.

Gruner veltliner is a smallish, yellowy-green grape. When first fermented, the young wine is used as the basis for Austria's delightful heuriger festivities that seem to go on throughout the year, but which reach their peak in summer.

Vienna is studded with wonderful family-owned winebars for the heuriger. These are licensed to sell only wine they make themselves. Much of it is poured from big jugs after being drawn from barrels; about a quarter of Austria's wine is drunk before it can be bottled.

Fritz Weininger, who owns one of these jolly heuriger restaurants, also happens to be a leading new-wave Austrian winemaker whose distinguished gruner veltliner is sold in Hong Kong.

It is imported by Solar Max (fax: 2554 0796) and sells for $95.

In addition to several versions of gruner veltliner, ranging from the pouring white for the tables to more elegant wines containing elusive hints of pepper and spice which we buy in Hong Kong, he is experimenting with new blends. Everyone says Vienna should grow whites, which it has done for centuries. But Mr Weininger is now making international experts sit back and take notice of his elegant pinot noirs.

He is successfully using cabernet sauvignon and merlot grown on tiny plots to show this stretch of the Danube can also do great things in cooler climate reds.

Land is the problem, of course.

Vienna is packed with palaces and parade grounds and museums and other imposing architectural legacies of the Hapsburgs. There is not much land left for grapes. So Mr Weininger and others like him have to find isolated patches of land on the plains and hills surrounding the city.

He has 17 hectares. With a total production of 100,000 bottles, he is a small producer, and at least 25 per cent of that is drunk instantly in the wine garden above his cellar. Much of the rest is ordered years in advance, even before the grapes are picked.

We are lucky to get a few bottles of this landmark wine in Hong Kong. The wine on sale here is interesting. It goes perfectly with Chinese food, having a rare delicate hint of peppery spice.

The next time you go to a Chinese restaurant with a good wine list, scan the names for an Austrian vintage. Look in particular for a wine made from the gruner veltliner grape.

This is an interesting grape and makes wines that are gentle and tasteful.