German and Austrian Reds For Warm Weather Sipping
Balanced, elegant, fruity and refreshing: these are go-to red wines for spring and summer.
When people say “German wine” most think of riesling. When Austrian wine is mentioned, grüner veltliner first comes to mind. These are arguably two the world’s highest quality white wines, but have you discovered the countries’ reds? These varietals have been a bit more difficult to come by outside of Germany. Yet they are as equally well-made as their paler cousins, with low to moderate tannins and an ability to come alive with a bit of a chill—meaning you can, and should, elevate them to must-sip status, especially during the warmer time of the year.
Let’s start with Zweigelt, Austria’s most widely planted red grape and one that’s become fairly accessible on shelves and wine lists. So why aren’t more people drinking it? Klaus Wittauer, a former sommelier and current wine merchant who operates importing company KW Selection, says the biggest challenge is how to say it. (It’s pronounced SVEYE-gəlt, by the way. Remember: we all stumbled over the pronunciation “gewürztraminer” too at some point.)
Zweigelt was made for Austria’s terroir—literally. The hybrid was developed in 1922 by phytologist and entomologist Dr. Fritz Zweigelt, who crossed St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch in an attempt to create a varietal that could withstand the country’s harsh winters, ripen early and produce high yields. He succeeded in making the grape so prolific, in fact, that early harvests were drinkable at best and forgettable at worst. But Wittauer says that once winemakers cut yields back, quality increased significantly. “Zweigelt has no [or low] tannins, fruit-forward cherry notes and is an uncomplicated easy red,” he says. Likened sometimes to the “poor man’s pinot noir” (no shade intended) it also lends comparisons to other fruity, low tannin reds like gamay from Beaujolais and dolcetto from Piemonte.
Wittauer calls Netzl one of Austria’s top Zweigelt producers, bottled both varietally and in blends with Blaufränkisch, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The 2017 Netzl Zweigelt Classic bursts with cherries and a hint of spice yet remains elegant, youthful, smooth and easy-drinking on the palate. For the 2016 Netzl Anna Christina Ried Bärnreiser, 65% Zweigelt is blended with 25% merlot (for a velvety smooth mouthfeel) and 10% cabernet sauvignon (for a bump up in structure and power.)
Because Zweigelt is low in tannins, it’s drinkable at an earlier ripening stage than other grapes, explains Jan Kux, a consulting enologist and external sales manager for Stefan Pratsch, a wine brand owned by Winesellers, Ltd. “[It also has] lots of spice and berry flavors which are currently very favorable in various international markets,” he says. The 2017 Stefan Pratsch Zweigelt from Niederösterreich (lower Austria) is made with 100% organic Zweigelt grapes grown on alluvial soils, aged eight months in stainless steel and large old oak barrels and shows raspberry, cherry, black pepper, spice and balanced acidity.
Burgenland is the region where most of Austria’s reds are grown, which has the same latitude as Burgundy. Setting at the outskirts of the Alps, it has soils comprised of schist and slate (like Germany’s Mosel region), which gives minerality to wines. Blaufränkisch, which does well in hotter climates and sandy soils, thrives here, Kux says. “It usually results in fairly dark, berry-dominated flavors and a bit heavier body.” But Wittauer points out that large, shallow Neusiedler Lake, the Danube River and the cool breezes moving through the region all do their part to allow grapes to remain balanced, fresh and elegant. The 2016 Hillinger Blaufränkisch, made with grapes grown in Leithaberg, Burgenland, shows notes of tart red cherry, blueberry and baking spices and an angular, spicy finish.
In Germany, Blaufränkisch is called Lemberger (when the grape is grown in the states, it often goes by this name also), and Rainer Schnaitmann, owner of Weingut Rainer Schnaitmann, Fellbach/Remstal, considers it to be an especially promising red varietal. While in the 1990s and early 2000s, high yields and overuse of oak made for high alcohol wines that lacked elegance and drinkability, today that’s changed quite a bit, and high quality Lemberger lends comparisons to a cross between syrah and pinot noir. The 2013 Lämmler Lemberger Trocken is deep ruby/purple in the glass with aromas of blackcurrant, blueberries, cherries and lingonberry jam—once aerated you may notice pepper, tar, licorice, wild sage and blackcurrant leaf. The palate has good grip and a line of minerality, with a refreshing slightly saline finish.
Frühburgunder is an early-ripening clone of pinot noir and results in wines with a velvety smooth mouth feel. “Similar to other pinots, yields and picking times are very important for the style,” Schnaitmann says. In warmer years, this means harvesting in mid-August for wines like the 2016 Simonroth Frühburgunder, which boasts notes of roasted hazelnuts, porcini mushrooms, Morello cherries, wild berries and a perfect balance of tannin and acidity (editor’s note: this bottle may be tough to find in the US market, but is well worth exploring in Europe).
You’ll see common themes in all of these fun and funky reds: restraint, juicy acidity and food-friendliess. They aren’t showy, over-the-top, super tannic, super jammy wines jumping out of the glass. Isn’t that just what we want this time of year? It’s time to take a sip trip.
Other bottles to try:
2016 Domäne Baumgartner Blauer Zweigelt ($30), a nuanced, layered wine with lush berries and spice balanced by freshness and a line of acidity.
2017 Netzl Zweigelt Classic ($20) bursts with cherries and a hint of spice, yet remains elegant, youthful, smooth and easy-drinking on the palate; try it with olives, stir fries, cheeses and soufflés.
2016 Netzl Anna Christina Ried Bärnreiser ($69) is complex and multi-layered, with good tannic structure and concentration balanced with elegance and charm.
2017 Stefan Pratsch Zweigelt ($18/1 liter), shows raspberry, cherry, black pepper, spice and balanced acidity.
2017 Markowitsch Blaufränkisch ($19) is an affordable but elegant example of this wine, perfect served with a slight chill with grilled fish or poultry.