Few wine bottles telegraph their intentions as clearly as the 1-liter bottle of grüner veltliner: “I want you to drink me now, as quickly as possible, ideally in the company of others.”
Unlike other oversized formats—notably, the magnum, which producers often use to enhance the aging potential of serious, cellar-worthy wines—the point of the crisp, clean grüner liter is implicit in its conveniently crown-capped packaging. The first wave arrived on U.S. shores in the 1990s and early 2000s, when importer Terry Theise introduced a selection of high-quality, low-cost bottlings from his venerable stable of Austrian producers. These early touchstones included the organically farmed wines of H&M Höfer and Weingut Berger, now widely regarded as benchmarks of the genre.
According to Weingut Berger’s Erich Berger, offering liters of simple, inexpensive table wine to lubricate the local populace was nothing new for Austria. “We had been bottling our grüner veltliner in this shape for many years as a light, uncomplicated and always drinkable wine,” Berger explains. To a rapidly democratizing audience of American drinkers, however, who were just learning to treat wine as a quotidian affair, the category came to represent something surprisingly liberating: the original all-purpose party wine.
Today, the classic 1-liter bottle of grüner remains a stalwart of the contemporary retail landscape. What’s changed, meanwhile, is the wider world of wine. With the rapid mainstreaming of natural wine, it didn’t take long for the scene to take the basic concept—i.e., “Let’s put a whole lot of yummy, affordable wine into a fittingly big-ass bottle”—and inject it with its own “lo-fi” aesthetic. As a result, the liter has become synonymous with a new breed of inexpensive, easy-drinking natural wines (see Selection Massale’s La Boutanche and Ampeleia’s Un Litro, to name just two) that overdeliver on refreshment without requiring much in the way of sustained meditation.
It’s a familiar irony: The grüner liter that inspired an entire subgenre no longer hits the same for younger consumers reared on edgier, more esoteric fare. But in Austria, one of Europe’s great hotbeds of progressive winemaking, another chapter of the story has started to unfold. Upstart and established winemakers alike are rethinking what could go into the serviceable format they’ve relied on for decades. Perhaps inevitably, the cheap, gluggable liter of grüner got weird.
Recent releases radically reinterpret the genre, recasting the reliable staple in the image of Austria’s thriving avant-garde. Consider, for example, the work of fifth-generation winemaker Gerald Diem. Based in the Weinviertel region, a historic source of 1-liter bottlings, he’s one of a handful of producers—many of them working in a natural idiom—who have started experimenting with macerated expressions of the grape.
As it turns out, grüner veltliner offers itself as an ideal candidate for the orange-wine treatment, which noticeably plays up the grape’s innate savory, herbal character. Bottled unfined and unfiltered after three weeks on the skins, Diem’s aptly named D’Ora Orange liter—a blend of 90 percent single-vineyard grüner with a smidge of roter traminer—occupies that unexpected sliver of the Venn diagram where “orange” and “chuggable” overlap in beautiful harmony.
Meanwhile, in Vienna, there’s rising star Jutta Ambrositsch. A Burgenland native, she has earned her reputation channeling the unique identities of the historic hillside vineyards that have fueled the city’s vibrant wine culture for centuries. Known for her alternative versions of Gemischter Satz (literally “mixed set”), Vienna’s traditional field blend, she produces several site-specific cuvées that have become highly coveted rarities. Arguably, though, it’s her grüner-dominant Ein Liter Wien (a play on words that roughly means “a liter of Vienna”) that best articulates her mission to translate the city’s native terroir for a new generation of wine lovers.
“We’ve insisted from the beginning that the wine we produce for our liter bottling should be as serious as any of the other wines we make,” says Marco Kalchbrenner, Ambrositsch’s husband and business partner, who oversees the project’s daily operations. An unusually complex blend of second-press juice from all her single-vineyard holdings, including a plot of old-vine grüner planted in the 1960s, Ein Liter Wien is Ambrositsch’s modern take on the hyperlocal harvest blends of the Viennese heuriger, or wine tavern. Juicy, fleshy and floral, it strikes the perfect balance between drinkable and thinkable that defines the category’s new wave.
Luckily, Ambrositsch and her compatriots’ success proves that seriousness of intent doesn’t mean sacrificing all the reasons why the liter of grüner went viral in the first place. Their aesthetics and styles may differ, but the bottles currently repping this movement never depart from the format’s original promise: delivering a large quantity of delicious, drink-me-now wine for a minimal amount of dollars.