Wine: Austria's Reds, Under the Radar
"Do you have any Austrian reds?" I asked the saleswoman at Calvert Woodley. She blinked a few times and looked beyond me, as if an intergalactic void had opened up just behind my left ear. Then she refocused and announced, "I have a rosé!"
Thirty minutes later, a bit farther down Connecticut Avenue, I stood before the Austrian wine section at Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits. There were a few reds -- two Zweigelts and a pinot noir, if memory serves -- scattered at knee level. A young couple crouched beside me; the husband, moving a few bottles aside to see what was hidden behind, said, "Look, they do have some reds."
"Do you like Austrian reds?" I asked.
"Yes, we had one the other night, and it was very nice," the man said. Though most wine lovers enjoy discussing their passion for the grape, he instead clutched a bottle of Zweigelt to his chest and hurried his wife to the cashier, as though I were a homeless person asking for money or, worse, a pollster.
Austria and red wine don't seem to go together in our preconceptions. The country is best known for its crisp, thrilling whites made from Gruner Veltliner and Riesling. (Calvert Woodley has a nice selection of those, as do several other stores in our area.) Austria's red wines have languished in the shadows, hampered by difficult names and unassertive personalities.
But I love those personalities. In an age when red wine has become synonymous with in-your-face oak and steroidal alcohol levels, Austrian reds offer a subtle counterpoint of elegance and finesse. Instead of gobs of this and that, they whisper hints of fruit, spice and earth. (Most of them, anyway. Some do aspire to the "international" style, which renders them indistinguishable from indistinguishable wines produced anywhere else.)
"It's not that these wines are overly seductive but that they haven't forgotten how to be pleasant and drinkable," said Terry Theise, a Silver Spring-based wine broker who specializes in wines from Austria, Germany and the Champagne region of France. "People too easily confuse simplicity with simple-minded."
Austrian reds tend not to stand out at wine tastings against bigger, showier wines, said Klaus Wittauer, an Austrian native who specializes in importing wines from his homeland. Wittauer carries several reds in his all-Austrian portfolio under his KW Selections label.
"They are not showy up front, but once you present them with food, they show well," he said. "They are not all blueberry pie filling."
Indeed, in my tastings I frequently reminded myself to pay attention to the wine, only to find that the bottle was nearly empty. These wines complement food and conversation rather than dominate them.
Aside from their unassuming simplicity, Austrian red wines suffer from unfamiliarity. They make use primarily of three grapes that are rarely, if ever, grown elsewhere.
Blaufrankisch is a middle European black grape variety also known as Lemberger. Very nice examples are produced in the United States in New York and Washington state. In weight and texture it falls somewhere between gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, and a Rhone Valley syrah.
St. Laurent is a rare wine (at least in this market) whose aromatic fruit and silky mouth feel call pinot noir to mind.
Zweigelt, Austria's most popular red grape, is a cross of Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent. It resembles syrah in flavor, with black fruit and some earth, while its texture and acidity suggest pinot noir. Those are two rather delicious grapes to resemble.
In the 1990s, as the world's wine drinkers turned to cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir, so did Austria's producers. Cabernet has largely been abandoned there as too vegetal, but some merlot and especially pinot noir remain. Oregonians will not recognize Austrian pinot, but fanciers of Savigny or other of the more delicate appellations of Burgundy might appreciate it.
Austrian red wines may be hard to find. But the better examples will reward rummaging around store shelves and pestering your favorite store to stock a few. When your palate gets jaded by brawny reds, a svelte little Zweigelt might be the change of pace you need.