Drinking in fall's tastiest color change: harvest red wines

Drinking in fall's tastiest color change: harvest red wines
When a chill returns to the air, delicious reds return to the harvest table. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

In every October there comes a day when you must reacquaint yourself with your oven. The outdoor grill is left to gather cobwebs, not so much from neglect (this is Los Angeles, after all) but because being in the kitchen, near the feel and smell of warming things, suddenly seems like a very welcome idea.

It's as if we all have a built-in cozy meter that kicks in as the temperature dips and the harvest moon rises. It whirs smoothly by the time the house is festooned with


swag. Stewpots and roasting pans are unearthed from cupboards, and the arsenal of chilled rosés, at the ready for barbecue, recedes from the refrigerator door. Inevitably, like long familiar shadows, the red wines of fall are pulled back into rotation.

There is a type of red that seems ideal for this early-autumn feeling, a wine that occupies the middle register on the scale of power and amplitude, that provides warmth through cool nights yet nimbly manages late harvest fare. These wines reflect the tastes and feel of the season, possessing savory accents on fruit — wood smoke, fallen leaves, wild mushrooms, forest floor — as if the wines have put on an extra layer of umami to ward off the chill.

A great many of the world's wines inhabit this middle register, the varieties that tonally fall between Burgundy and the Bordeaux. But we've focused on places where cold autumn nights are commonplace, where a heartwarming red is most welcome — and that focus has led us to some interesting, out-of-the-way places and grape varieties.

Lately there is no better place to start than the lap of Europe, which on my map is




. Both countries are enjoying a resurgence among their red wines; each has an interesting collection of oddly named indigenous (or nearly so) varieties that are being revived.

In Austria, most of the attention is being paid to three varieties that bear a close resemblance to one another. Blaufränkisch (known elsewhere as Lemberger) is a racy wine with red fruit tendencies and dark fruit character, sort of like a Beaujolais in a Gigondas jumpsuit. The variety St. Laurent is finer, more elegant, with a dark, velvety core of plum fruit, a bit like oversteeped Pinot Noir. Zweigelt, named for the geneticist who developed it, is a cross between the two, presuming to capture the briskness of the former and the elegance of the latter. The best Austrian red producers — Umathum, Zantho and Moric among them — are found in the Burgenland; most make all three, or close to it (the wines fall between $15 and $26).

Your options in Hungary are more limited but potentially more exciting. Importers such as Blue Danube are bringing small-production wines into the market, like the Soproni Kekfrankos made by Pfneiszl (about $15). Kekfrankos is Blaufränkisch, a bit more gripping and rustic than Austrian versions. Hungary is also the continent's last great repository of Kadarka, a thin-skinned red variety thought to have originated in Romania, with a clean and peppery red-berry flavor, worth chilling for a stew. Look for the Kadarka from Eszterbauer, a 10th-generation producer who also makes a very drinkable Bikaver (Bull's Blood) blend (both around $20).

Harvest reds abound in


, with many found in the country's northern Alpine regions. In the Piedmont, seek out robust Dolcettos from Dogliani (by producers San Romano, Pecchenino or Anna Maria Abbona, about $18), sleek Barberas from Asti (by Chiarlo, Prunotto or Vietti, about $15), or grab what you can of the soil-inflected Pelavergas, Piedmont's nod to Beaujolais (by Burlotto and Castello di Verduno, around $22).

Or head east to the Veneto and environs, where the workhorse red variety is Corvina, found in classic Valpolicella wines, with scents of tobacco and a hint of earthiness. A


wine, wherein some of the grapes are dried before pressing, will tend to have a bit more body and a whole lot more dark plum fruit. One of my favorites is Campofiorin, from the great Amarone producer Masi (about $15).

North of the Veneto, two indigenous grapes have made a spectacular reentry into the marketplace. In Friuli, the Refosco variety makes a peppery red that marries very bright fruit accents (think ripe pomegranate) with dark, smoky tannins; look for bottlings from Fantinel and Marco Felluga (about $20). Then there is the remarkable Teroldego, a sensually dense, Syrah-like beauty almost single-handedly revived by Elisabetta Foradori — she makes several bottlings, but her basic, Rotaliano, is ideal to warm you on a cool evening (about $22).


shares latitudes with England and Italy, a climatic range that goes from bone-chilling to Mediterranean. Between these extremes, largely in the country's midsection, lie the harvest reds, starting in the Loire Valley, with smoky, herb-tinged Cabernet Franc, wines that project succulent red cherry fruit adorned with a hint of wild herbs. The Chinons of Baudry and Joguet, the Bourgeuils of Breton, the Saumurs of Olga Raffault (all around $25) are worth seeking out.

Certainly Burgundy, about 300 miles due east of the Loire across the belly of France, fits the bill for harvest reds, as does cru-Beaujolais and most of the Rhône Valley. But for a unique take on the middle range, let's consider Languedoc and Roussillon, two very different regions that borrow their varietal palette from the Rhône Valley and Spain — Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane and Syrah — and they generally offer great quality for price.

Rather than choosing one of the baldly marketed Languedoc wines, the Red Bicyclettes, French Rabbits, Arrogant Frogs and Fat Bastards, opt instead for a regionally true wine from the three very expressive subregions, l'Herault, Pic St. Loup and Corbieres. These wines are nearly always blended, with strong wild herb and mineral accents. In l'Herault, look for Moulin de Gassac and Chateau d'Oupia, "Les Heretiques"; in Pic St. Loup, Bergerie de l'Hortus; and in Corbieres, seek out the ever reliable Domaine de Fontsainte.

Roussillon, meanwhile, has a different flavor profile, with blends more given to Grenache and Carignane, deeply colored, spicy reds with wild herb aromatics and almost profound heft. Trusted producers such as Tribouley, Gardiés and Clos des Fées are making warm, wondrous wines with the tannins and the concentration for roasts and casseroles.

The U.S. has no shortage of wines that fit the bill; many employ the Rhône varieties mentioned above. In fact, blends made from them are among the most interesting wines being made in California right now, well-balanced wines that feel generous yet well-structured, with a toothy succulence that marries well with food. Seth Kunin's "Pape Star" (a groaner of a pun on Chateauneuf du Pape) is one such wine, as is the Edmunds St. John "Rocks and Gravel"; from Washington state seek out McCrea's "Sirocco" red and


Cellars' "The Third Man."

Meanwhile, in California, Carignane has been found hiding in plain sight – after decades of neglect the grape is being revived in simple, friendly bottlings. Bonny Doon makes one called "Contra," Mendocino winemaker Tony Coturri makes another. The best of the bunch may be a fruity, forward red as playful as Beaujolais from Broc Cellars. (All between $15 and $20.)


Some of the best American Grenache being grown right now is from the warm Dry Creek Valley, where the grape achieves full red-berry ripeness and a lot of complexity from locales such as Unti Vineyards, where both Mick Unti and Bayard Fox (Renard Winery) draw fruit. Good bottlings from Ridge and Quivira are also worth seeking out. (These are $20 to $30.)


I can think of no better wine for this harvest mood than Syrah, especially from the Central Coast, including Paso Robles, the Edna and Santa Maria Valleys, and particularly Ballard Canyon, where stunning Syrahs from Jonata, Beckmen, Stolpman and Larner vineyards are routine.

Perhaps the most autumnal wine I've had this year is a Syrah from Melville Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. Syrah is not their specialty (that's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). But this one, called Verna's, has, even for Syrah, an astonishingly deep color, with a cool and smoky aromatic profile so exotic and ethereal it seems to be inhabited by the very breezes that bring on the change of seasons.