Food-friendly reds from Austria

Boston Globe
By Ellen Bhang
March 25, 2014

If only white wines come to mind when someone mentions Austria, you may be surprised to learn that this central European country makes a host of invigorating reds perfect for the spring table. Made from indigenous dark-skinned grapes like Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt, these splendid pours hail from a part of the wine world that many enthusiasts are just getting to know.

With Slovakia to the northeast and Slovenia to the south, Austria’s wine country lies in the east, near its border with Hungary. Red grapes thrive in regions such as Burgenland, along that eastern border, and also in Carnuntum, south of Vienna. The great news for red wine lovers is that Austrian plantings of red varietals have doubled over the last two decades and now represent one-third of grapes in vineyards, neck and neck with gruner veltliner, the country’s most famous white grape, which also represents a third of vines.

The dark-skinned grapes thrive especially well on the shores of Lake Neusiedl. This body of water — 20 miles long, but less than 4 feet deep — moderates the heat emanating from Hungary’s Pannonian Plain. (Pannonia describes an ancient province of the Roman Empire that included present-day eastern Austria and western Hungary.) Long, warm fall months allow red grapes to ripen reliably, while cool morning mists from the lake preserve acidity, which these wines offer up in spades, making them supremely food-friendly.

Austrian reds have long been favorites of Cat Silirie, executive wine director and wine buyer for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo. “Despite their Germanic-sounding names, these wines are not complicated to understand,” says Silirie. “They are synonyms for what people are already drinking.” She compares Blaufrankisch to pinot noir or barbera. Zweigelt, with its approachable structure, is similar to merlot or malbec.

Silirie had a red blend made especially for The Butcher Shop, a Gruppo restaurant like a European boucherie. The wine evolved from a friendship with husband-and-wife winemakers Gernot and Heike Heinrich, of Burgenland. Eight years ago, Gernot Heinrich, visiting Boston, tasted the restaurant’s wiener schnitzel and declared it the best he had eaten outside Europe. Soon, he and Silirie were collaborating to make a wine available only at the restaurant to go with charcuterie. Playfully named “Butcher Red for the Cat,” the 2011 blend features 70 percent Blaufrankisch, 20 percent Zwiegelt, and 10 percent St. Laurent.

If your spring table has neither schnitzel nor charcuterie, but, say, new potatoes with vinaigrette or creamy risotto with peas, an Austrian red will still feel right at home.

Peter Schandl Blaufrankisch 2011 Fresh and confident with aromas of red fruit, violets, and freshly turned soil. Cherry, rose petals, and fine-grained tannins offer an energetic palate with an appealing touch of bitterness and herbaceous lingering finish. Delicious with charcuterie. Around $20. At Social Wines, South Boston, 617-268-2974; Bin Ends, Braintree, 781-817-1212 and Needham, 781-400-2086.

Sattler St. Laurent 2012 Aromas are attractively savory and infused with floral scents of dried violets. Ripe and juicy fruit intermingles with tannins offering subtle astringency. An altogether pretty wine. We loved this with barbecued ribs. Around $22. At Pemberton Farms, Cambridge, 617-491-2244; D&L Liquors, Waltham, 781-894-1907.

Netzl “Classic” Zweigelt 2012 The nose of this young red is intensely aromatic, combining savory qualities with the spiciness of rose hips. Palate is vibrant with a dollop of smooth tannins. Terrific with a bloomy rind sheep cheese. Around $19. At Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, 617-354-4750; The Wine Bottega, North End, 617-227-6607.

Sattler Zweigelt 2011 Elegant, with aromas of rose hips, black cherry, and integrated tannins, allowing you to experience Zweigelt with some bottle age and subtle baking spices on the finish. Perfect with roast leg of lamb. Around $20. At Pemberton Farms; at Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors, Waltham, 781-893-1900.

Meinklang “Burgenlandred” 2012 This young blend of Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, and St. Laurent offers clean, high-toned earth aromas, suggesting violets and garden herbs. Red plum and cherry balanced by a delectable bitterness. At home with dressed spring greens and roast chicken. Around $17. At Brix, Financial District, 617-542-2749 x2; Streetcar Wine & Beer, Jamaica Plain, 617-522-6416.