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The Irresistible Lure of Crunchy Red Wines

Refreshing red wines with all the acidity and liveliness of white wines

Paula Redes Sidore By June 1, 2021June 4th, 2021
Three bottles of wine on a red background
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

A generation ago, red wine was synonymous with excess, with tannins seemingly measured on a Richter scale. Today, “crunchy” has replaced “chewy” as the style of choice, as drinkers seek out red wines with an energizing, racy zip.

Marc Almert, the reigning Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) Best Sommelier of the World, can attest firsthand to this change. “It used to be that guests would order a bottle of local white wine, and then switch to an international red,” says German-born Almert, who serves as Head Sommelier at hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland. “Today there’s a continued trend towards less oak and more elegance.”

But just at the moment drinkers are looking for elegance and drinkability, nature is producing less of it.

What is an elegant wine?

Although elegance can take many forms, more often than not, it has to do with acidity levels in the wine. It’s what makes a wine mouthwatering instead of satiating. Yet, even as winemakers are chasing acid, global warming is busy dropping it, especially in the warmer wine-growing regions around the world. What this means is that the traditionally cool climate regions, such as Germany, Austria, Alto Adige/Italy, and Switzerland, are finally having their moment in the sun. 

Traditionally, these regions have struggled to achieve warm-enough temperatures throughout the vine’s growing cycle to get their red grapes ripe enough to produce appealing wines. The fruit instead contained harsh, gritty tannins, and the resulting wines were inevitably either too green, too thin, or both. But with today’s consistently higher temperatures, achieving ripeness is no longer an issue. The same conditions that once held these regions back, are today their superpower. Because with acidity now in, cool is well… cool. 

The sweet spot for sour 

Grapes inherently contain four types of acid: tartaric, malic, citric, and lactic. The volumes and impact change based on, among other variables, variety, climate, harvest date, and age. Too much and the wine tastes like vinegar; too little and it is a flabby, flaccid mess. The sweet spot, in other words, is not sweet at all. It’s sour. 

Sommeliers are well aware that acid provides the backbone of ageability. They routinely use it to slice through rich, fatty, and creamy dishes with unflinching precision. Acidity heightens the senses. It seduces the appetite rather than satiating it. That acidic vein is what makes you reach for that second, third, and fourth sip. 

If there is one cool climate red that they all reach for, it’s Pinot Noir, which is also known as  Spätburgunder, Blauburgunder, or Pinot Nero. While the most acclaimed examples come from France’s Burgundy, this late-ripening grape often shows its best self in cool climate regions. The variety accounts for approximately 10% of the overall plantings in both Germany and Italy’s Alto Adige region respectively, and a whopping 27% in Switzerland.

It is a variety that expresses a wild and haunting character wavering somewhere between cool spring strawberry, wet November forest, and dried violets. “The Pinots have this lifted element which you find in many German Pinot Noirs,” muses Almert about the wines from his adopted home. “A slightly more floral and acidic touch than you would find in the Pinots from Oregon or parts of Australia.” 

Indigenous grapes in the spotlight

Back in the power red days, there was Cabernet and there was Merlot. And between them was a no man’s land of rarely-discussed smaller players, like Cabernet Franc. Further down the list again were maligned, misunderstood, and utterly unpronounceable local specialties, or indigenous varieties. 

Blauer Portugieser is one such underdog that’s now achieving prominence. Once widely planted in central Europe and even parts of the Jura in France, significant plantings of Blauer Portugieser can today be found primarily in Germany and Austria. Pale hues, crisp red fruit, and somewhat gentle in style, the wines are most interesting in the hands of winemakers willing to significantly reduce the yields, and seek out older plots of vines. A few winemakers are pushing the envelope by producing them as low-sulfur and natural wines, with a focus on individuality and an unparalleled la dolce vita dryness. 

There are many other tales to tell in this area. Take Austria’s one and only Blauer Wildbacher: a pale, indigenous relative of Blaufränkisch, with perfumed aromatics, savory spice, crunchy fruits and a line of acid more biting than Mark Twain’s wit. Look for it as a tart Steiermark rosé, still and sparkling, under the term “Schilcher.” Or Zierpfandler. Or Zweigelt, which is a crossing, to be fair, and not indigenous. 

Time for Trollinger

Once cultivated across most of western Europe, a generation of vintners is reenvisioning the ancient-yet-scorned grape variety known as Blauer Trollinger, or sometimes Vernatsch or Schiava Grossa. The fragrant, late ripening, and high-yield variety can be traced back to the 13th century in northern Italy’s Alto Adige region. Today it continues to thrive there, and in the warm hills of southern Germany’s premier red wine-growing region, Württemberg.

Plantings of this pale, light-footed variety have been declining in recent years in both regions due in part to the fact that ease — in the vineyard and the glass — is both the variety’s great asset as well as its Achilles heel. “Traditionally [Trollinger] was planted in the best sites because it needed the warmth,” says Rainer Schnaitmann of Weingut Schnaitmann. “At some point it ended up becoming the wine that Württemberg staked its reputation on. Then once it started being overproduced, with high yields and sweeteners to match what the public wanted, it shot itself in the foot. For a time, it nearly destroyed the reputation of Württemberg wines.”

The new approach seeks to balance tradition, old vines, and modern know-how, in what Alto Adige winemaker Martin Foradori Hofstätter of Tenuta J. Hofstätter calls “back to the future.” Be it Italy or Germany, the secret to the so-called “modern trolli” seems to stem from a lo-fi approach. Highly reduced yields, whole bunch pressing, wild fermentation, to name a few. For Schnaitmann, one of the biggest discoveries has been how well Trollinger reacts without sulfur. “The wine just seemed to come to life.”

Pale hues, tart aromatics, savory herbal essence, sleek tannins, crisp acids, and low alcohol translate into delicious, taut drinkability — the holy grail of the refreshing red.

Here are five to try:

Shelter Winery ‘Lovely Lilly’ Baden Pinot Noir 2018 ($19)

A graceful, juicy, and balanced Baden brilliance that shines so brightly, it practically needs its own pair of sunglasses. The go-along-to-get-along, easygoing character of Germany’s sunniest wine-growing region Baden here belies its taut, volcanic core. Simple yet never simplistic. Delicate berry aromas and a range of approachable red fruit make this the sort of wine whose hand you’d be honored to shake, time and time again. An absolute value for the money. 

Alois Lageder Alto Adige Pinot Noir 2017 ($24)

Climbing temperatures in the steep, snowy hills of Alto Adige make us appreciate transparent beauties such as this one all the more. Alois Lageder has produced a jubilant, juicy Pinot Noir with fine floral accents and a cool, acidic core. Light and lovely.

Weingut Beurer Württemberg Trollinger Trocken 2019 ($23)

Take the fearless determination of a BMX biker, a family tradition, and a Swabian joie de vivre and it’s easy to understand Jochen Beurer’s delightful Trollinger. Here, he has taken his talents for edgy, elegant Rieslings and applied them to Trollinger’s juicy whims in a sleek bottle that is equal parts fruit, flowers, and fun cinched tight with a taut ribbon of  supple tannins. Impeccable structured grace with the natural ease and comfort of a kiss on the cheek after a hard day at work.

Strohmeier Schilcher Steiermark Frizzante Rose NV ($35)

The dusty rose hues of this regional Austrian specialty belie its wild energy: loose pulsating power lines of zip for next-generation acid fans. No matter how you cut it, this sparkling Blauer Wildbacher from the tiny, organically farmed vineyards of Christine and Franz Strohmeier in Austria’s Steiermark bites back. Hand harvested, with a second fermentation in the bottle, its focused linearity shapes the tart strawberry aromas, fine floral character, and tiny bubbles (2.5 bar of pressure). It leaves just enough aromatic red fruit waving from the chiseled edges to keep you coming back for more. And at only 11% alcohol by volume, there’s little reason not to. 

Andreas Durst Pfalz ‘P’ Portugieser 2016 ($47)

Andreas Durst makes his wines in the same compelling style as his photographs — with an unadorned, haunting, nearly Faulkner-like command of subject and language — in this case the language of wine and nature. From the northern corner of the Pfalz in the town of Bockenheim his century-old ungrafted Portugieser, grown on solid limestone, has established a cult-like following. And with good reason: smoky floral fruit, a savory essence, deep, sleek tannins; a pervading, agile coolness. A deceptively complex focus and finish that, like the good book that stays with you days after its back on the shelf, is impossible to forget.