Dr. Wine: Brawny, juicy Austrian red wines

By Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post
Posted:   09/05/2012 12:01:00 AM MDT


Zweigelt (pronounced tsvy-gelt) is Austria's “zinfandel. (Provided by Austrian Wine Marketing Board)This just in: Austria is not Germany. However, because Austrians make both dry and sweet wines, from grapes such as riesling and pinot noir, and bedeck their bottles with labels wholly Teutonic — precisely like Germans — many folk assume that Austrian wine is either a lot like or just like German wine. The impression began because Austria is the Johann-come-lately to our wine scene, while Germany has had its elbows on the bar for a long time. Nonetheless, though they share both a border and a brotherly love of riesling, German and Austrian wines are worlds apart. Austria's drier whites are fuller, richer, headier and bolder in flavor than Germany's lighter, leaner and more elegant whites. Austria's wines are always dry, save for the wee percent that it purposively produces sweet. And because red wine represents a full third of its total output, Austria makes far more red wine, proportionately, than Germany. And when it sees red, Austria completely differs from Germany. Its red wines, besides being produced from grapes little-grown in Germany, are far fatter, brawnier and juicier than Germany's generally light, elegant, but sometimes ephemeral reds. Austria's is some of the world's great red wine value — unsung, underappreciated, unbelievably delicious. Austria's several winemaking regions form a crescent that embraces Vienna, in a reversed lazy C, in the country's extreme eastern quarter. (Vienna itself is the only major world city to be its own viticultural area.) While Austria is gaining a solid international reputation for its white wine grapes (especially gruner veltliner), many red grapes grow alongside them. One of these red grapes, zweigelt (pronounced tsvy-gelt, rhymes with "high-gelt," hard "g"), is Austria's "zinfandel," that is, its homey red grape and the country's third most planted variety of wine grape. Let's tour Austria's three major red wine grapes and see what characteristics define them. St.-laurent: If you could cross, in your mouth and on your palate, both pinot noir and syrah, you'd have a good approximation of the aromas, flavors and texture of Austrian wine made from the grape st.-laurent. (St.-laurent also grows in the vineyards of Alsace and the Pfalz region of Germany; Matthew Rorick makes a delightful, lively version under his Forlorn Hope label from grapes grown in Carneros in California — America's only 100 percent st.-laurent.) Its thick skins give st.-laurent red wines good depth of color and they finish with a tangy, clipped zing, a nice foil for many a food. Another red wine that it resembles, especially in these facets at table, is Piedmont's barbera.

Zweigelt: If st.-laurent is barbera, then zweigelt is Piedmontese dolcetto — fruity, gulpable, soft and juicy, with a smooth, round-the-mouth texture, fragrant of spiced cherries and, sometimes delightfully, tasting of dried blueberry-studded dark chocolate. That's a lot for a single wine to carry, but zweigelt is extraordinarily popular in its homeland because of this range of sense experiences. It takes its name, Frankenstein-ily, from a Doktor Fritz Zweigelt who created it in 1922 from his crossing of st.-laurent and (the grape that follows below) blaufrankisch. Zweigelt is said to combine the "bite" of the first with the body and depth of the second.

Blaufrankisch: Both Germans and Americans also cultivate this grape and call it by the name limburger (or lemburger; neither has anything to do with the stinky cheese). In Austria (and, correlatively, much less so in Germany or Washington State), Blaufrankisch may make a noble wine: intense, brooding, with great life in its youth and promising potential for aging in bottle. (You could call it, to finish our analogy to Piedmont's wines, Austria's "nebbiolo.") It takes well both to wood and to blending and is often found in the company of both.

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