"Gruner Veltliner" sounds as if it could be the name of a sleeper car of the Austrian Federal Railways.
It actually is the name of both a green grape and the varietal wine made from it, both as familiar in the Austrian countryside as one of the country's streaking trains.
In Austria, gruner veltliner accounts for nearly a third of the nation's vineyards. In California, only a few small plots are scattered about. State agricultural officials put the total at only 69 acres, all planted within the past five years.
Austrian gruner veltliner reputedly is former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite wine, so perhaps growers and vintners have been counting on that celebrity connection to provoke consumer interest in the varietal.
Unless a bottle of gruner veltliner pops up as a product placement in Schwarzenegger's next movie, however, chances are slim that that tie will provide much benefit for the state's farmers and winemakers gambling that an audience will develop for one of the world's more obscure and more challenging wines to pronounce. It's pretty much on its own, but nevertheless has the potential to become a hit.
For the record, "gruner veltliner" is pronounced "groo-ner felt-LEE-ner." With some success, however, sommeliers on the East Coast of the United States, where Austrian versions generate some excitement, have gotten diners comfortable with ordering the wine by using such shorthand names as "GV" and "Gru-Ve."
Fortunately, California growers and vintners cultivating gruner veltliner have something going for them other than a shaky association with Schwarzenegger. And that's that gruner veltliner is a quietly seductive wine that is lean in build, direct in flavor, brisk in momentum and refreshingly sharp in the finish.
Its most telling characteristic is a distinct, fleeting dash of white pepper.
One of California's tiny plots of gruner veltliner is planted at Clarksburg, just south of Sacramento in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. There, it shares the region's rich soils and invigorating breezes with a bunch of other grape varieties not widely cultivated in California, such as gewürztraminer, albarino and verdelho.
They all reflect the tastes and hopes of Tom McCormack, a fourth-generation Delta farmer who in 2001 founded Dancing Coyote Wines, a brand of the family's McCormack-Williamson Winery, housed in a looming and handsomely restyled structure built in 1868 to house a granary along Highway 99 at Acampo.
During vacations in Europe, McCormack became enamored with gruner veltliner, verdelho and similar varietals not often seen in California. He also recognized comparable growing conditions between some areas of Europe and the Delta, and further sensed that American wine enthusiasts were willing to experiment with varietals other than mainstream choices such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Thus he began to cultivate unheralded grape varieties from Austria and elsewhere. His 8.5-acre block of gruner veltliner is just off Twin Cities Road.
The McCormack-Williamson tasting room is large and cool, and though smartly attended by Dorace Falone, was vacant except for us during our weekend stop. People who find the place, however, are in for a surprise if they don't recognize the name Dancing Coyote and aren't familiar with the kinds of varietals the McCormack family is creating in the Delta.
Their wines, made by Chad Joseph, are lean and taut, but not stern. They speak to the clear expression of fruit expected in California wines but also are honed in a traditionally European style, which is to say they are lithe wines of focus and finesse.
The current Dancing Coyote lineup includes a brassy and racy 2011 verdelho; a textbook 2010 gewürztraminer that won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition early this year; a honeyed, peachy and floral 2011 moscato; and a classy 2011 rosé of pinot noir that is all persistent fruit from the strawberry family.
The McCormacks know something about introducing to California consumers unfamiliar varietals from unfamiliar places, and that something is to keep prices low enough to encourage a gamble. Their wines customarily are priced in the $11-to-$13 range, and given their consistent directness and balance, they aren't much of a gamble at all.
And that goes for the Dancing Coyote Wines 2011 Clarksburg Gruner Veltliner.
This is just the third vintage Dancing Coyote has made of the varietal. When I tasted an earlier vintage, I found myself wishing it packed more of the white-pepper spice I identify with gruner veltliner. The 2011 still is light in the pepper department, but it is there; think of a crank or two of the pepper grinder over baked pear.
The wine is fine-boned but not slight. It's got a substance that suggests more muscle than usual for a white wine, but it's more nimble than weighty. In smell and flavor, it has its charm, but it's also demanding, inviting speculation about just what is going on here. There's fruit, all right, ranging from apple and pear to melon and peach, but presented delicately, against a backdrop of earthiness and structure. The finish is vigorous and refreshing.
It's pretty complicated for a white wine, and begs a couple of questions, one being: Just how did Chad Joseph make this wine to make it stand out so much?
For one, it isn't totally gruner veltliner. He blended in small portions of verdelho and albarino to heighten the complexity and to round out its flavor and feel on the mid-palate.
Second, for a couple of months he let the wine rest in stainless-steel tanks on its lees, the yeasty sediment that falls out during fermentation. This technique helps the wine in several respects, from minimizing the negative influence of oxygen to capitalizing on compounds that help round out and improve the mouth feel, said Joseph.
"The few months we leave this wine on yeast lees helps make the wine more vibrant, plush and mineral in texture. Without lees' contact, it would tend to be more simple, thin and metallic in texture," he adds.
The result is a white wine of unusual layering, sophistication and elegance, showcasing the fruitiness of Delta grapes on a frame that is light but solid.
Dancing Coyote Wines 2011 Clarksburg Gruner Veltliner
By the numbers: 13 percent alcohol, 618 cases, $12.
Context: Best served chilled, the gruner veltliner is an ideal companion for sushi, said winemaker Chad Joseph. "Its clean, crisp acidity makes it a wonderful palate cleanser when paired with fresh fish and Japanese cuisine." He also recommends that a bottle be opened to accompany "grilled heads of romaine that are lightly dusted with sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, white-wine vinegar and olive oil. Add some herbed linguini and this makes for a great summer evening meal out on the patio."
Availability: Dancing Coyote's gruner veltliner can be found at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, some Nugget Markets, Corti Brothers and the Sacramento wine shop Beyond Napa. It's also sold by the bottle and by the glass at the Sacramento restaurant Grange. Dancing Coyote wines also can be ordered through the website, www.dancingcoyotewines.com.
More information: Dancing Coyote's tasting room, 3125 E. Orange St., Acampo, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, and by appointment other days.