December 4, 2013

Wine: Austria’s cheery red wine dances with warmth

By Joe Appel

Blaufrankisch is so easy to love. The most interesting, most capable of Austria’s native red-wine grapes, it is cultivated to highest levels in the relatively warm southern Burgenland region. Its naturally high acidity dances with the warmth of its home climate to produce wines that are fresh, pure, graceful and floral; savory but cheery; nimble. That word “dances” is perfect: I can’t think of a single red varietal whose natural state is more expressive of flowing movement.

Don’t be put off by the grape’s name. Blau-frank-ish. It’s only three syllables, and takes less time to say than “Cabernet Sauvignon.” We could start calling it “Blau” and see if that takes off. There are actually flavor similarities between Blau and Cab, too, though the former’s cooler personality and less strident tannins make it more amenable more of the time.

The edge obtained by the Blau is that, unlike the Cab, it hasn’t become an internationally marketed Wine Signifier and Seriousness-Endowing-Blending-Agent, and so hasn’t been produced in such quantity that your chances of drinking a bad one are greater than your chances of drinking a good one. The single-varietal Blaufrankisch wines that make it here are usually at least quite good; otherwise, why would anyone take the time to export and import them? (Blends that include BF, often with Merlot and Zweigelt in the majority, are fine, not off or anything, but they’re less compelling; I don’t drain my glass.)

When people talk about turning more to red wine as the seasons turn cold, there’s a background preoccupation with sleep, if not death. Leaves are falling, animals are preparing to hibernate, no one wants to go outside; cold rains – and worse – are coming. I’m not quite there yet; hence Blaufrankisch.

Blaufrankisch is an expansive breath, a late-autumn “Hail Mary” – the last of a verdant, energetic sort of life in red wine before all goes dark. Wings flap just enough to keep you in the right thermal, before a calm settling into the nest with the babies.

That’s my heart’s bad-poetry reaction to the Blau wines I’ve been drinking recently. My palate’s reaction is less fancy. These wines offer such immediacy in their floral bouquet that you’ll be instantly hooked. There’s often a blueberry note, and blue steel too, black cherry, a woodsiness that’s more mossy and moist than dead-leaf crunchy, black tea. But it’s the clarity of flavors rather than the simple flavor note itself, how they travel so cleanly and unencumbered and communally, that compels me so.

And let’s talk about acidity. Technical analyses of Blaufrankisch show it to have a lot, and if you’re a numbers guy you might be skeptical that these grapes in that climate could develop enough sugars to match the acids. But the wines themselves belie the stats. Bounteous and poised, every Blau I’ve drunk tastes thoroughly ripe and lists alcohol at 13 percent. Blaufrankisch frankly revels in its acidity, prospers with it, and comes across as pure refreshment and precision.

Counter-examples are generic Chianti, or most inexpensive Cabernet-based Bordeaux, where you actually taste acids and even sourness, spreading everywhere, joylessly. Blau wears its acidity thrillingly well and broadcasts appreciation, cool like a Parisian woman who won’t even trot down to the corner store without first taking a little time to preen.

Let’s start with the one available in Maine that I love most. Everything I’ve just written is based primarily on my experience with it: Prieler Blaufrankisch Johanneshohe 2009 ($22, SoPo). It’s one of those wines where you’re not compelled much to notice individual characteristics, so taken are you by the overall composition. That must have something to do with the integrating effects of three years in bottle (other, current releases of Blau are at least a year younger). A quiet wine, but both mature and so thoroughly charming you’ll miss its company the moment the bottle empties. Which it does quickly.

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