September 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines

Grüner Veltliner Finds a Home

Austrian favorite wins over growers in the eastern United States

by Ray Pompilio
Gruner Veltliner at Galen Glen Winery
The first planting of Gruner Veltliner vines east of the Rockies happened in 2003 at Galen Glen Winery of Andreas, Pa.

Long considered Austria’s best grape, Grüner Veltliner is settling into new territory among the vineyards of the eastern United States. Planted acreage is still small, but eastern growers—as well as a slowly increasing number of growers in the cooler regions of the West Coast—have found this cultivar to their liking. Vineyard site selection is very important, as Grüner grows best in cool climates where it can be allowed to ripen later than many other white wine cultivars. Consumers and restaurants looking for something both good and different like its fresh style and adaptability to many foods.


  • While Riesling is often considered to be the white vinifera variety for cool climates, Grüner Veltliner is starting to be recognized for its potential to produce good crop loads and food-friendly wines.
  • Galen Glen Winery was the first to plant Grüner vines east of the Rockies. The vinifera pioneer winery, Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, now has the largest planting of Grüner in the East.
  • Both wineries consider how viticulture and winemaking practices for Grüner Veltliner affect the resulting wines’ sensory properties.

Galen Glen Winery in Andreas, Pa., and Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, of Hammondsport, N.Y., are among the eastern wineries that have made a commitment to this grape.

Galen Glen Winery: Grüner Veltliner pioneers
Winegrower Galen Troxell, whose family emigrated from Germany in the late 1700s, was working as a mechanical engineer in the early 1990s, when his German-owned company sent him to Baden, Germany, for a couple of business trips. His wife Sarah Troxell, a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, accompanied him, and together they quickly learned to appreciate the beauty and wines of the region.

In 1994 they decided to plant a vineyard and start a winery on Troxell family property, which had been a dairy farm since the 1830s. They began by planting 2 acres of Chambourcin and Steuben the following year, and their first wine was made in 1997.
Additional plantings of the hybrid varieties Vidal Blanc and Cayuga White were made in 1998, as
the accepted wisdom at the time was that vinifera would not survive in their part of northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Troxells’ particular vineyard site, however, was milder than surrounding areas, and after doing some more research, they decided to introduce vinifera. They planted Riesling in 1999, and in 2003 added a first planting of Grüner Veltliner along with Cabernet Franc. The following year Troxell was able to source enough Grüner vines from Amberg Nursery in the Finger Lakes to plant another acre. Based upon the information compiled in the Grüner Vineyards table on page 78, the 2003 planting at Galen Glen was the first commercial U.S. planting of the cultivar east of the Rocky Mountains; the earliest planting of the variety on the West Coast was done in 2001 at Illahe Vineyards & Winery in Dallas, Ore.

Their planting continued with Gewürztraminer in 2005, more Grüner Veltliner in 2006, Zweigelt in 2007, and the last of the Grüner in 2010—this time sourced from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia, N.Y. The winery currently has about 20 acres planted, with Grüner Veltliner totaling almost 3 acres. The Amberg-sourced vines are on 3309 rootstock, while those from Double A are on 101-14. The vines on 3309 are planted with 6-foot x 9-foot spacing, while the 101-14 stock is planted at 4.5-foot x 9-foot spacing. All vines are trained with vertical shoot positioning (VSP), except for a half-acre on Scott Henry, in an attempt by Troxell to limit vigor.

Troxell utilizes a two-cane system, but following two difficult winters, he has left two additional canes to double the buds. Previously he would hill-up the vines for winter protection, but he stopped that procedure about three years ago because he thought the hills made for more of a mess on his sloping vineyards and added extra labor costs to the vineyard.

He has a weather station on the vineyard site and measured the coldest winter temperatures at -4° F each of the past two winters. According to Troxell, Austrian research shows Grüner Veltliner bud damage begins at 0° to -4° F, and based on some of the bud damage he has seen the past two years in lower parts of the vineyard, he thinks the temperature there was a bit colder. Troxell also believes the vineyard elevation helps to mitigate the effects of cold weather. “We’re at 1,000 feet of elevation, and when you get cold weather moving into the valleys, we’re warmer up here. When I planted the vineyard I didn’t think it was a big deal, but now I know it’s tremendously important, regarding frost protection and absolute cold temperatures,” he said. Their vineyard is just north of Blue Mountain, a 150-mile ridge that forms the eastern edge of the Appalachian mountain range. This past winter,
temperatures on the south side of the mountain ridge fell as low as
-11° F, which might prove to be fatal for Grüner Veltliner.

Another difference on his side of the mountain is the soil. Much like the Finger Lakes in New York, the soil is composed of glacial deposits, providing loose and stony, well-drained conditions that average 5 feet in depth and is dominated with Berks shale, as it is known in the area. On the other side of the mountain, however, the soil is laden with boulders as the glacial deposits ended to its north, where Galen Glen is located. The winery is part of the Lehigh Valley AVA.

Troxell also addressed another climatic characteristic affecting his vines: the rainfall pattern. Situated between two of the higher ridges of the mountain, he said, “Here, in the middle, we get significantly less rainfall.” Winemaker Sarah Troxell added, “It’s only a small little patch here—a microclimate that is designated a rain shadow.” Such conditions warrant irrigation three out of five years, on average.

The average bud break for Grüner Veltliner comes in the first 10 days of May. Troxell does early leaf removal right after bloom, in mid-June, using a Collard leaf remover. The French machine utilizes compressed air, which flexes the leaves, then shreds them and removes leaves on both sides of the vine as well as cleaning out the cluster, encouraging looser bunches. “I clean the garbage out of the cluster and remove the leaves early on. In our climate, Grüner definitely benefits from that,” he said. He described his canopy management as “pretty standard” except for his focus on removing very large laterals that shade the fruit, which he generally does in mid-July.

He added that Grüner Veltliner is vigorous enough to often warrant a second hedging later in the season and believes his Grüner tends to be more similar to “grassy” Sauvignon Blanc if nitrogen levels in the soil are too high. “I don’t think we have the benefit of all the clones of Austria, so it’s a delicate balance between crop load and pushing the nitrogen down so you get less of the Sauvignon Blanc while still maintaining concentration,” he said. This year Troxell plans to introduce some cover crop competition to help tame the vine vigor.

Both the Troxells work the vineyard during the growing season. As winemaker, Sarah Troxell concentrates on keeping the clusters open and clean to discourage disease pressure, going so far as to open the catch wires because of the cultivar’s propensity to form its second cluster high on the cane. One problem she notes with Grüner Veltliner is “sour shrivel,” which can occur closer to harvest and is exemplified by some of the berries looking like partially deflated soccer balls—both misshapen and too soft to the touch. These berries are very sour and low in sugar, necessitating the removal of the entire cluster. “Growing Grüner is challenging; there are not many wineries here growing it,” Galen Troxell said. “I really need to take a trip back to Austria, because I’m not going to figure out the nuances and subtleties on my own.”

Typically, harvest is in early October, with dates ranging a week earlier or later. Galen and Sarah Troxell both determine ripeness in the vineyard. Winemaker Sarah Troxell thinks that Grüner Veltliner’s thicker skin of holds up well, making harvest decisions easier, for example, than for Riesling. The ripe, green berries will show more gold from sun exposure, and she looks for how easily the berry comes off the cluster. The Troxells prefer tropical flavor characters showing some pineapple and white grapefruit. Troxell feels that Grüner Veltliner is a lower acid grape at ripeness, so she doesn’t like too much acidity before picking. As for the numbers, their fruit typically ranges from 5 to 6 g/L of total acidity, sugar at 22°-23° Brix, and pH of 3.5-3.6. Grüner crop yields average 4 to 5 tons per acre.

All the fruit is hand picked, de-stemmed and crushed immediately. No press fractions are employed, as the juice goes into tanks without any addition of sulfur. “We’re in the brown juice club,” said Troxell, who identifies this technique as “hyper-oxidation.” She then adds Novozymes VinoClear Classic enzymes sourced from Gusmer Enterprises and lets the chilled juice sit in tank for a day. Due to Grüner’s high protein level, Sarah Troxell’s next step is to avoid protein instability. She calls the process “groaner” for the difficulty of adding a huge amount of bentonite to the juice: 400 grams/hectoliter. This technique was adopted after many of the Troxells’ Austrian friends convinced them of the merit of such an addition. However, in 2014 they did not employ flotation (pumping air into the juice to cause the gelatinous solids to rise to the top) because of the mass of bentonite. Instead, they let it settle out at its own pace for one or two days.

In 2014, fermentation was started by inoculating with two neutral yeast strains to better express the vineyard character in the grapes: Lalvin QA 23 and Anchor VIN 13, both from Scott Laboratories. Jacketed 500-800-gallon tanks are used at 59° F, and the fermentation takes 10-14 days. The tanks are topped off, and the sulfur level is adjusted to about 50ppm, depending upon the wine’s pH. Sarah Troxell then lets the wine rest on its lees with no racking. She estimates each tank to have only about 5 gallons of lees, because of the clarification process employed.

The wine is ready for bottling by March or April, when it goes through crossflow filtration. They use a German-made Romfil crossflow filter purchased in 2013 and, if any blending or sulfur adjustments are needed, it will happen then. Bottles are sealed with Diam corks from Hauser, and the wine will bottle age for two to three months—although the Troxells think it begins to show real development at six months in bottle. In the future, they hope to change over to screwcap closures. “I would love to switch,” she said. “It fits the style of our wine.”

Their winemaking philosophy is to keep their hands off the process as much as possible. Galen Troxell told Wines & Vines, “We spend a tremendous amount of effort in the vineyard.”

Sarah Troxell added, “I’ve been entrusted with an entire crew and growing season’s worth of work, and as winemaker, I need to protect that and make sure the wine is as beautiful as possible. I’m the watchman until the day of bottling.”

She noted, “We farm wine; I prefer that wine is grown in the vineyard.” As for Grüner Veltliner, Galen Troxell said, “I’m of the opinion that this is really the right grape for a large part of Pennsylvania, particularly in this region.” He was the first to plant Grüner in the east, and his experiences will no doubt fuel greater growth in the years to follow.

Dr. Konstantin Frank: the pioneer vineyard finds a new commitment
Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars was founded in 1962, following Frank’s planting of some 60 vinifera varieties in 1958. Grüner Veltliner was not included in those plantings, an omission that was corrected in 2008. Dr. Frank’s grandson, Fred Frank, who is now heading the winery, began planting Grüner Veltliner at its new site in Hector on the east side of Seneca Lake. Planted in stages, the cultivar now totals almost 8 acres. The site is located in what’s known as the region’s “banana belt,” which has both warmer temperatures and excellent air and soil drainage. Their vineyard totals more than 50 acres and also has Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Lemberger and Saperavi sharing the soil.

Frank’s interest in Grüner Veltliner began in the early 1980s, when he was studying winemaking at Germany’s Geisenheim Institute. He regularly visited an aunt in Vienna, Austria, and found the nearby area to offer many enjoyable wines. Upon his return, he touted Grüner to his father, Willy Frank, who was then running the family winery. Willy was interested but felt they needed a more moderate site. Negotiations to purchase the Hector property were finally completed in 2006, only a couple of months after the death of Willy Frank. “We’re very bullish on Grüner,” Fred Frank said. They planted enough to be able to supply their wholesale accounts—retail and particularly restaurants. “The goal was to show there is a high-quality, moderately priced cool-climate domestic alternative to Austrian Grüner,” he added.

The winery employs a winemaking team, headed by long-time employee Mark Veraguth. The winemaker for Grüner Veltliner and Vinifera Wine Cellars’ German-type wines is Peter Weis, who is both from Germany and trained there. Having worked at Dr. Frank’s winery since 2006, Weis is also the Seneca Lake vineyard manager and, as a result, he monitors the Grüner from vine bud break all the way through bottling. The virus-free vines were obtained from Vintage Nurseries, probably passing through the UC Davis quarantine program. The loamy soil is planted in two blocks, one with 8.5-foot by 5-foot spacing, and all the rest planted with 8.5-foot by 4-foot spacing, which consists of about 1,400 vines per acre. The closer planting helps limit Grüner’s vigor on this site. The vines are hilled up to a depth of as much as 1 foot in the winter, and that soil is removed for the growing season.

The vines are trained with VSP, leaving a maximum of four canes per vine. Since Grüner Veltliner usually produces large clusters, Weis likes to use two to three canes, leaving each cane with 10-11 buds. Leaf thinning is done by hand on the east side of the vines right before or at bloom, and sometimes it’s repeated a bit after bloom. If Weis feels he has left too many clusters, he will trim the excess once the berries are pea-sized. He also averages two summer prunings with their hedger and cultivates every other row. By July he ceases cultivation, which helps avoid soil compaction from the tractors and harvester. Thanks to the relatively loose clusters, Weis doesn’t see a lot of disease pressure, although he said, “It’s a little more tender to downy mildew.”

As harvest approaches, he aims for good fruit flavors and acid structure. “When the acids go down, the flavors fade a little bit,” Weis said. He looks for the berries to start developing a golden hue to complement the usual green, and he likes the flavors to include grapefruit and passion fruit. In 2010, the Grüner grapes had more yellow color, and the flavors were more intense, but not as fruity or crisp. That vintage also produced a higher alcohol level.

Grüner Veltliner is harvested about five days before Riesling, usually by mid-October. The grapes are both hand- and machine-picked, with a yield of 4 tons-4.5 tons per bearing acre, which comes to a bit more than 6 pounds of fruit for each of the 1,400 vines per acre. Since the vineyard is almost an hour away from the winery, the grapes are picked as early in the morning as possible, around 5 a.m., to keep them cool and limit maceration from the machine picking.

Once delivered, the grapes are given an addition of 50 ppm of SO2, are de-stemmed and crushed, and go into the press. Weis sometimes chooses to separate part of the must and allows four to six hours of additional maceration before pressing. The pressing is limited to 2 bars, and press fractions are utilized. The juice is cold-settled, followed by a clear racking and, if needed, diammonium phosphate (DAP) is used as a yeast nutrient. Fermentation takes place in 2,200-gallon tanks, and Weis inoculates with SIHA Active Yeast 7, a highly active dry yeast isolated from German Riesling vineyards in the Mosel. Weis also uses Zymaflore Delta yeast from Laffort, which emphasizes tropical expressions such as grapefruit, passion fruit, mango and lychee. Fermentation is controlled at 59° F and completed in about 18 days.

Following fermentation, Weis likes to leave the new wine on its lees up to two months, if possible, and looks for a balance between creaminess and fruit flavors. The wine is filtered once, using a Pall crossflow filter, and bottled with 40 ppm SO2 into 750ml bottles topped with Saxco screwcaps. The winery switched most of its white wine production closures to screwcaps in 2014, with Chardonnay the only cork-finished white wine. All the Dr. Frank red wines are also cork-finished. Ideally the wine would be bottled early in the spring, but the 2014 Grüner Veltliner was bottled Dec. 14, 2014, and released this February. Weis prefers to bottle age the Grüner for a minimum of two months, and preferably a bit longer, but this early release was based on the economic need to replace the sold-out 2013 vintage.

Weis said he likes his Grüner Veltliner to be fruit forward, have good acid structure and a moderate alcohol level. To fulfill that style, he focuses on trying to get the crop level balanced in the vineyard, stressing that the vine vigor must be moderated. Balance is also the key to the success of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars. The winery is producing an average of 60,000 cases annually, according to Wines Vines Analytics, with a selection of wines made from at least 10 vinifera cultivars. The original estate vineyards on Keuka Lake are now complemented by the new ones on Seneca Lake, and with their commitment to Grüner Veltliner, the winery is providing a foundation for fellow American growers to build on—providing a new home for an old Austrian classic. 

Ray Pompilio is a wine writer based in Ithaca, N.Y., where he has close access to the largest concentration of wineries in the state.

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