The heat is on. Summer has arrived in full force. While Durango temperatures seem hot, be thankful they’re not Phoenix temperatures. With the heat of summer comes the thirst for white wines and light reds. Austria makes excellent summer wines, both red and white.
Despite how unknown as Austrian wines are, the country has a long history of viticulture dating as far back as 500 BC. Ironically, the area produced 10-times as much wine in the Middle Ages as it does today. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, protectionist measures were implemented that prohibited foreign wines from being sold. Jump ahead to the 19th century and the country opened its first viticultural and oenological school. It is estimated that there are 32,000 grape growers in Austria, with only 2,500 growers that own plots over 12 acres. Most growers sell their grapes to other producers or co-operatives.
There are upwards of thirty varietals grown in Austria, many of which are familiar to most. However, let’s focus on just a few varietals that are quintessentially Austrian.
For those seeking a new crisp white wine, enter grüner veltliner. Over the past twenty years, this unique varieta has been proven to be world class in nature thanks to terroir driven growers. Originally, the grape was planted on less than ideal locations which led to the wines being fat and flabby without any focus or precision. Today, we are seeing this grape make wines that are spicy with notes of black pepper (intriguing for a white wine), crisp fresh acidity and a mineral backbone that deserves applause. Most of these changes in quality are a direct result of hillside vineyards, lower yields and cooler longer fermentations. Thankfully, this somewhat esoteric wine has yet to reach its full fame and as a result, the prices are reflective. Prices start at $15.
Because of their lighter style, Austrian reds can offer a refreshing alternative to whites or rosés. Adding a slight chill (30 minutes) seems to be just right.
There are two varietals that are ideal summer reds and uniquely Austrian.
St. Laurent is a feminine, lighter wine that is a relative of pinot noir. Typically slightly denser in color and flavor than pinot noir, the wine can offer notes of black cherries, licorice and a vibrant silky-smooth finish. These make excellent cocktail wines but also can accommodate an array of summer foods ranging from burgers, cheeses or even bologna sandwiches.
Zweigelt is by far Austria’s most famous black grape or red wine. The grape variety is the result of crossbreeding by Dr. Zweigelt. In 1922, he crossed the aforementioned St. Laurent with Blaufränkisch. For growers, this relatively new grape variety is desirable due to its late budding in spring and early harvesting in fall. Both of these attributes assist in assuring a yearly harvest by avoiding spring frosts during bud break and late season frosts. There is potential to make an ageable wine with proper barrel aging, but most is produced for early consumption. Notes of blackberries and black pepper emanate from the glass, and its medium body can easily stand up to bbq ribs and steaks. Prices for both red wines start at $15.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.