A Real Summer Red

Paul Blow

What makes a summer red? I think it needs to be light- to medium-bodied and fairly high in acidity, with flavors of bright, fresh fruit, not stewed or jammy … basically how you’d describe a white wine, only red. The only problem is that, aside from Pinot Noir and Gamay (Beaujolais), there’s not a lot to choose from on store shelves in this category. Most of the reds we drink—and certainly most domestic reds—are far too substantial and concentrated to be good summer wines.

I was reminded of this dearth recently while in Portland, Oregon, at the restaurant called Bluehour, which has a small but fairly well-chosen wine list. I was feeling Pinot-ed out, and wanted something different. It was warm outside, and my father (whom I was dining with) was having pork cheeks on a smoky tomato sauce (think upscale barbecue), while I was having sturgeon in a crimson beet sauce. If there was ever a call for a summer red, this was it. So I was happy to discover, on one of the last pages, a wine that fit the category: Lagrein.

A fairly obscure red grape from north-central Italy, Lagrein is rarely found outside the region called the Trentino-Alto Adige. Bordering Austria and Switzerland to the north, the region is also known as the Südtirol and incorporates the Dolomites and the southernmost sweep of the Alps. This is predominantly a white-wine area (Tocai, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc), but a few red grapes have managed to survive, including Lagrein, which has been grown mostly in monastery plots as far back as the Middle Ages.

Obscure little grapes from abroad are often obscure for a reason: They don’t really offer much vinous pleasure outside of the alcohol. Lagrein, though, is a different story, as it offers a set of flavors and aromas that you don’t really find together anywhere else. A well-made Lagrein can have bright red color, aromas of wild blackberries and raspberries, notes of dried herbs like rosemary and thyme, a dark hint of violets, and a nice seasoning of freshly ground black pepper. It has moderate alcohol, punchy acidity, and thin, though sometimes spiky, tannins. The latter qualities put Lagrein solidly in the “food wine” category, meaning that it will be far more pleasurable as an accompaniment to food than by itself.

My father was a little taken aback when our bottle of wine was poured. It was purplish in color and smelled not like a summer wine, but rather big and full-fruited. However, when he put it in his mouth he discovered that it was squarely medium-bodied with lively acidity. And he noticed the pepper and the wild-berry fruit. Not terribly long-finishing, it was substantial enough to hold down his rich pork dish, while light enough to complement my fish. We sucked down the whole bottle in about 30 minutes.

One thing to note about this grape is that it can be vinified into a big red wine. This type, called Lagrein Scuro, tries to make a massive, show-stopping wine out of Lagrein, and therefore typically involves heightened ripeness and long aging in new oak—making it not very summery. To avoid these wines (not that they’re bad, just not what I want in July), I look for Lagreins that are relatively inexpensive, suggesting that they might be lighter and fresher. A good example of this style—and which only costs about $12—is the Lagrein from La-Vis. It spends only a brief sojourn in neutral barrels and then gets bottled: vibrant, fresh, and full of life, just as a summer red should be.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.