Look to Austria for Summer’s Most Versatile Reds
Wines that shine equally bright at a daytime picnic or chilly evening around the fire
Memorial Day in the northeast was a complete washout — cold and dreary. My bags were packed with refreshing whites and juicy rosés, ready for a weekend celebration in the Catskill Mountains. But as torrential rains moved in, a change to the wine menu was in order. Fortunately, I knew just where to look: red wines from Austria.
Austrian reds are incredibly versatile — similar in style to Gamay and Pinot Noir. I think of these wines as the featherweight parka I pack on every trip — no matter what climactic conditions arise, they’re the right thing for the moment. With bright aromatics, juicy acidity, and soft tannins, these wines pair well with a wide range of foods, and are always crowd-pleasing.
And, as I discovered, they’re festive enough to enliven the rainiest weekend dinner parties.
What to Know
Austria has a lot going for it as a wine-producing country. It has a cool climate and varied terroir across its wine regions, located on the eastern side of the country. While Austria is best known for its white wines, including Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, red wines are on the rise. About a third of the country’s vineyard area is now dedicated to red grapes.
Zweigelt is the most planted red grape, followed by Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent, and several others. Yes, the grape names are unfamiliar, but the wines are easy to love. In general, they’re lighter bodied and acid-driven, some with richness and a smooth to velvety texture.
Zweigelt — The most widely planted red grape in Austria, it’s a crossing of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. It has crunchy acidity, with cherry and berry aromas and flavors, and often spicy paprika notes. It makes a range of wines, from fruity, everyday sippers to barrel-aged, fuller-bodied expressions.
Blaufränkisch — A crossing of two lesser-known grapes, this variety was first documented in the 18th century. Blaufränkisch is prized for its aromatic qualities, giving fruit (sour cherry, blueberry), flower (iris, peony), and spice aromas and flavors, in combination with fresh acidity and medium tannins.
St. Laurent — St. Laurent (also called Sankt Laurent) has red fruit (strawberry, cranberry) and earth notes. It tends to make lighter-bodied reds with juicy acidity and soft tannins.
Austria is also a world leader in organic and biodynamic viticulture. One-third of vineyards are managed organically, and 15% are certified organic, making it the country with the highest proportion of certified organic vineyards in the world. Austria is the birthplace of Rudolph Steiner, who developed the principles of biodynamic farming, and there are more than 60 biodynamic producers across the country.
Most estates are small, family run enterprises, and the quality of wines coming out of the country is quite high. Austria’s wine industry is also in an exciting moment of change, with younger winemakers taking over family estates, and more wineries experimenting with low intervention wines, like the ones I’m highlighting here.
Four to Try
Top value. The Nitthaus family has been farming vines in the Burgenland region since 1684, and fully converted its vineyards to biodynamics in 2013. The newest generation — sons Andreas and Martin — are focused on low intervention winemaking. This wine is juicy and fresh, and also a bit plush, with a velvety texture. Tart cherry and red plum aromas give way to red fruit, red pepper, and spices. It was a perfect match for these grilled chicken, sausage, and veggie kebabs with rosemary and lemon.
A surfer who honed his winemaking skills in California, Claus Presinger returned home to make wines for Nitthaus and later struck out on his own. He farms biodynamically in Burgenland and makes his wines as low intervention as possible, foregoing sulfur after the 2017 vintage. This Zweigelt is clean and precise, with black cherry and fennel notes, and forest floor earthiness. It has a polished sleekness, with vibrant flavors and gentle tannins. This was fantastic paired with a speck-studded riff on Cacio e Pepe pasta.
Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer farm organically and biodynamically in Burgenland, with the goal of making “living wines” that convey the specificity of their terroir. This bottling is an energetic blend of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, St. Laurent, and Merlot. It has bright fruit flavors (black cherry, blackberry) along with red pepper and allspice, in a medium-bodied frame with supple tannins. This wine is great both at room temperature and with a slight chill. I enjoyed it with a spread of Mediterranean dips (hummus, baba ganoush), raw veggies, and grilled flatbread.
This estate is run by three siblings — Mathias, Viktoria, and Leonhard — who worked at wineries around the globe and came home to convert their family vineyards in Loidesthal to organic and biodynamic farming. This St. Laurent wine is bright and refreshing, with a slight zesty prickle. Tart black raspberry and cherry aromas and flavors lead, with supporting notes of earth and spice. It is medium bodied and smooth, with fine tannins.