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The Summery Reds Of Austria

26 May 2012

When you hear the words “Austrian wine,” your first connotations are unlikely to be either “summery” or “red.” Although Austrian wines appear with increasing frequency on wine lists and in wine shops, almost all of it will be Grüner Veltliner (along with an occasional Riesling). I love a good Grüner Veltliner — it can pair particularly well with spring vegetables such as asparagus — but this oddly named variety can only barely be considered odd at this point. Instead, let’s talk Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt.

As I noted in this post about Austrian St. Laurent, it can be difficult to find red Austrian wines, so I was particularly excited to be able to try several in succession at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting. I already knew I liked St. Laurent going into the tasting, but I felt skeptical about Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt wines. I visited Vienna in my early and mid-20s, and I remembered these wines as a little boring and bland.

As I tasted wine after tasty wine at “Austria Uncorked,” it became increasingly clear I had been drinking at the wrong bars! These wines had excellent fruit, some balancing earth and even a touch of spice. They were great fun, and with a slight chill, they would complement any picnic or barbeque.

Blaufränkisch has been a popular variety for quite some time; it dates back at least 1000 years to pre-medieval times, when “it was common to divide grape varieties into the (superior) ‘fränkisch’, whose origins lay with the Franks, and the rest,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The Companion as well as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia note that it grows in abundance near the warm, shallow Neusiedlersee (Neusiedler Lake) in Austria’s Burgenland region.

Zweigelt, on the other hand, is a much newer variety. Also known as “Blauer Zweigelt,” this grape dates back only to 1922, when Dr. Zweigelt crossed Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. According to the Companion, Zweigelt “at its best combines some of the bite of the first with the elegance of the second,” although sometimes it produces “too much dilute wine.” Sotheby’s agrees, praising the best examples but cautioning that “the norm is rather light and lackluster.”

Fortunately, that certainly wasn’t the norm at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting. Here’s a roundup of some of the Austrian reds I particularly enjoyed, most of which are (or will be) available in the United States:

2010 Claus Preisinger Zweigelt: This winery sandwiched between the Neusiedlersee and the Hungarian border grows its grapes biodynamically, following the principles of Rudolf Steiner. It seems to be working — I certainly enjoyed this Zweigelt. The wine had an aroma dominated by iron, and lots of red fruit on the palate. The finish was surprisingly dry and tannic.

2009 Claus Preisinger “Pannobile”: This garnet-colored blend of 60% Zweigelt and 40% Blaufränkisch smelled of dark fruit and iron. The flavors took me on a memorable journey, moving from rich fruit to metal to earth to spice. Delicious.

2010 Lenz Moser Zweigelt: Since Burgenland-based Lenz Moser is one of Austria’s largest wine exporters, you might be able to find this brand at your local wine shop. This brick-red Zweigelt had the telltale aromas of fruit and iron and a rather simple, fruity flavor profile, finishing with a bit of spice. Easy to drink, and probably best with a touch of chill.

2011 Pfaffl Austrian Rosé: Pfaffl’s vineyards grow in the aptly named (and very large) Weinviertel region north of Vienna, and Sotheby’s cites this winery as one of the few in the area worth knowing about. This charming Zweigelt rosé had the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher, ample fruit and a pleasantly chalky finish. An ideal picnic choice.

2011 Pfaffl “Austrian Cherry” Zweigelt: As the name promises, this Zweigelt has a nose of cherries and earth. It’s very fruity, with just a touch of black pepper in the finish. Sure to be a crowd pleaser, pairing well with barbeque. Again, I recommend giving it a little chill before serving.

2011 Winzer Krems Rosé: The town of Krems stands on the north bank of the Danube just east of the famed Wachau Valley. As you might imagine, the hillside vineyards here produce wines of similar quality as those of the Wachau. This dusty pink-tinted rosé had a bit of a prickle to it. It tasted dry and tart, and opened into a fruity finish.

2011 Winzer Krems “Plus” Zweigelt: Aged in stainless steel, this Zweigelt smelled of dark fruit and black pepper. On the palate, it moved from fruit to red meat to black pepper. In my notes, I wrote “Excellent.”

2009 Winzer Krems “Edition Chremisa” Zweigelt: Edition Chremisa is Winzer Krems’ line of premium wines, named after the town’s first appearance in writing in the year 995 as “Urbs Chremisa.” Aged in old oak barrels, this brick-red wine also had aromas of dark fruit and black pepper, but as silly as this may sound, the nose had a brooding quality. The body, generous fruit and general finesse made quite an impression on me. I have to think that just about anyone who likes red wine will really enjoy this Zweigelt.

2010 Zantho Klassik Zweigelt: Based in the Neusiedlersee region, Zantho produces some of the most widely available Austrian wines, easily recognized by the lizard on the label. Zantho’s Zweigelt had pleasant aromas of pepper and red fruit, and intriguing flavors of ripe red fruit, green pepper and a little earth.

2009 Arachon T.FX.T “a’Kira” Blaufränkisch: The rather complicated name of this winery (pronounced Air-a-kon) comes from the initials of its three main partners. Their “a’Kira” Blaufränkisch tastes fruity and earthy as many do, but it has an unusually long and dry finish.

2009 Arachon T.FX.T “Evolution”: I still remember when I first tried Arachon’s “Evolution” years ago, when my parents and I sat down to some Viennese cuisine at Berlin’s Lutter & Wegner. The chill in the air made us long for a hearty red, and a bottle of Arachon “Evolution” did the trick. I loved this blend of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon then, and I love it now. The nose has enticingly ripe red fruit, and the flavors go on a delicious journey from wood to spice to dark fruit to black pepper. Impressive finesse.

Not all bottles of Blaufränkisch or Zweigelt will be winners, but the broad array of well-made wines presented at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting gave me confidence that many (maybe most?) of the ones that reach American shores will be delightful. Ask your favorite wine shop for a recommendation, and you might just find a new favorite barbeque wine.

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