Austrian reds have a certain flair

Published: September 14,

Second of a two-part series on Austrian wines

Look for Austrian wines in a wine store and you might find a few tucked among the German selections. That’s understandable because of the linguistic, historic and cultural ties between Germany and Austria.

Both are known for their white wines. In Austria, gruner veltliner joins Riesling as the country’s standouts.

You’ll probably find more reds from Austria than from Germany, though. German reds are few and far between, even in Germany. Austria’s reds are not widely available or trendy here in the United States, but they are worth paying attention to. Here’s why: They are food-friendly wines with moderate alcohol levels and very little oak influence. They appeal to wine lovers unafraid to stray from the familiar grape varieties of cabernet, pinot noir and merlot.

These wines are similar to reds from northern Italy or the Loire Valley of France — medium-bodied with relatively high acidity. They are so far from being overripe fruit bombs that they can struggle with green flavors from underripe grapes, so you might find one you like and then try it again a year later and wonder, “What was I thinking?”

But vintage variation is part of what makes wine so fascinating, if sometimes frustrating. And like their Loire Valley counterparts, Austrian vintners are becoming more experienced at ripening their grapes even in challenging years, so quality at the higher end is becoming more consistent. The 2011 season yielded a particularly ripe vintage in Austria, meaning the wines are above average across the board. Some basic wines for early drinking are reaching our shelves already. Higher-end wines will be released over the next year or two, so we are entering an excellent opportunity to explore Austria’s red wine potential.

Don’t expect the weight or depth of a California cabernet when you try an Austrian red. These wines tend to feature the high notes of a musical chord, meaning light-bodied fruit flavors. The earthy resonance of lower notes is there but not prominent. You will find interesting grape varieties distinctive to Austria, and in my mind that’s a good thing.
Blaufrankisch sounds like something that would make horses whinny in a Mel Brooks movie; it isn’t scary, even though its unfortunate alias, Lemberger, conjures a stinky cheese. In weight and texture it resembles gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, with flavors of sweet cherries and tobacco. Some blaufrankisch is grown in New York and Virginia, and Shooting Star winery from Washington state makes a respectable version called Blue Franc.

St. Laurent is a rare wine, found primarily in red blends, that resembles pinot noir.
Zweigelt, Austria’s most prominent red grape, is not as hard to pronounce as it looks. It is a cross of blaufrankisch and St. Laurent and resembles syrah in flavor but without the weight.

Austrian vintners are not immune to international trends. Cabernet sauvignon did not take root, but merlot, syrah and pinot noir have. The first two appear primarily in red blends, adding an international flair while zweigelt and blaufrankisch provide the Austrian accent. Pinot noir by itself is often respectable though more a matter of national pride than interest to a wine lover with global tastes.

These red wines may be hard to find, but if you see them tucked away on a retail shelf or a restaurant wine list, consider them for their individuality, personality and versatility with food — as well as their value.