Copied from my column Unscrewed in the Village Voice…
It’s frightening that we are already one week deep into September and are marching towards shorter, cooler days. For many, the change in weather means a welcome return to red wine. But what do you drink when the humidity abates yet temps still hover in the shorts and t-shirt zone?
Reds from Austria.
Gruner Veltliner, Austria’s white wine darling, is almost a household name (maybe not in Iowa), but what about red grapes like Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt? About a third of Austria’s wine production is red, concentrated southeast of Vienna primarily in the Burgenland region on the border of Hungary. Warm winds flow off the Pannonian plain, making red wine production possible in an otherwise cool country. Many vineyards lie on the shores of the Neusiedlersee, one of central Europe’s largest lakes and also a source of warmth. But you needn’t worry about the geography in order to appreciate the grapes’ charms. Their lean, aromatic, and acidic profiles make them food friendly and easy to drink–and an ideal way to transition into fall.
Here’s a quick crash course:
Blaufränkisch: Although a fickle grape to grow, this is Austria’s oldest red, and some say it’s also the finest for its ability to loyally reflect the nuances of terroir. It’s generally medium bodied, bright, and spicy, showing a range of dark fruit flavors. It’s also known as Lemberger in Germany, Washington State, and the Finger Lakes.
St. Laurent: Satin-textured, sometimes lean, sometimes plump, this wine draws comparisons to a Pinot Noir with brawn (or a cross with Syrah), and it displays a wide expression of flavors from smoky-mocha-blueberry to meaty-wet earth-Morello cherry.
Zweigelt: Genetically a cross between the first two, this grape was created in 1922 by Austrian scientist Fritz Zweigelt. Generally lighter in body, it’s often juicy, cheerfully fruity, smooth, and quaffable, supplemented with notes of spice and floral aromatics like cinnamon sticks and violets.
Now that you know your grapes, hit these four spots in the city to get your Austrian fix.
Café Katja, 79 Orchard Street
Once a microscopic speck of a joint, this recently expanded restaurant offers authentic, homey fare at reasonable–and not just reasonable for New York City–prices. When the Austrian importers are in town, they come here. The homemade liverwurst is spectacularly good in its simplicity, as is the emmentaler sausage that oozes rich cheese from its cavity when sliced open. The wine-by-the-glass options are so affordable you can sample a few for the twenty in your pocket.
Edi and the Wolf, 102 Avenue C; The Third Man, 116 Avenue C
An instant hit when it opened, this East Village resto features a contemporary take on rustic, hearty fare in an equally rustic, woodland fantasy-like setting bedecked with overgrown plants and reclaimed wood. Executive chef/owners Eduard Frauender and Wolfgang Ban were inspired by Heuriger, the casual, neighborhood wine taverns prevalent in their native Austria. The wiener schnitzel with potato salad, creamy cucumbers and lingonberry is a classic, but less identifiably Austrian dishes like squid ink risotto with scallop are also skillfully prepared with soul. If you get stuck waiting for a table (the line can be outrageous) or are interested in lighter fare with your wine, head a few doors down to The Third Man, a Viennese-inspired cocktail bar from the same owners.
Seäsonal, 132 West 58th Street
Another Eduard and Wolfgang tribute to home, this midtown spot is on a re-design hiatus and will reopen in a few days, the interior refreshed by Brooklyn-based designer Florian Altenburg, who also contributed to the duo’s two downtown haunts. The menu will continue to honor their seasonal food agenda, but the renewed space departs from its former monochrome white with warmer elements including hand-made brass light fixtures, natural wooden tables, and forest-green leather banquettes. The revamped beverage program and addition of a raw seafood menu will make the bar a more prominent focus of the space.
Upholstery Store, 713 Washington Street
One can’t talk about the steady proliferation of Austrian restaurants in the city without acknowledging Kurt Gutenbrunner’s influence. With four successful establishments, each offering a twist on the cuisine of his homeland, Gutenbrunner undeniably spearheaded NYC’s Austrian food campaign. Wallse, Blaue Gans, and Café Sabarsky are all good places to daydream about Viennese and Alps getaways, but the Upholstery Store is a straight-up bar in a no-nonsense setting for getting down to the business of drinking wine. Supplement your drinks with charcuterie, cheeses, and other gourmet snacks, all available for nibbling while you explore the depths of your three new vinous friends.
Wines to Find:
Heinrich, Bläufrankisch 2011, $25. Medium-bodied, balanced wine with an attractive punch of fresh blueberry and blackberry fruit.
Paul Achs, St. Laurent 2009, $30. Spicy and earthy with cherry aromas, the delicate structure and fine tannins evoke Pinot Noir.
Umathum, Zweigelt Classic 2011, $20. Good complexity for the money, tastes like a bushel of black cherries stuffed in the bottle spiced up with fresh black pepper.
Where to Buy:
Sherry-Lehman, 505 Park Ave, 212-838-7500
Astor Wines and Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500