What is Zweigelt?

So what exactly is Zweigelt? While Austria is better known for its white wines, most notably the peppery Grüner Veltliner, and the minerally Riesling – both of which have been garnering more attention these days –  a fair amount of red wine is produced there as well. And at the top of the red wine production is Zweigelt, Austria’s most planted red grape variety.

Zweigelt (pronounced TSVYE-gelt) wines have been compared to everything from young Italian Barberas to French Côte-du-Rhônes, to spicy Pinot Noirs, and even as a spicier Beaujolais. But since almost three-quarters of Austria’s total wine production is consumed domestically, this unique grape variety and its exceptional wine is not well-known here in the U.S.

Zweigelt is a cross of two indigenous Austrian red vitis vinifera grapes (St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch), bred by Dr. Fritz Zweigelt in 1922, in an attempt to produce a red variety with greater resistance to vine diseases, and yet capable of producing higher yields. It combines the ripe, fruity character of Blaufränkisch with the round body of St. Laurent. It appears to grow well on all but the most chalky soil types, and is not sensitive to frost or to most vine diseases. Zweigelt ripens quite early, typically in the latter half of September or in early October.

Despite its relative youth, and its classification as a “new” variety, Zweigelt is now an Austrian “classic”, and the most important red variety in all of Austria’s wine-growing regions, second in planting only to the popular white Gruner Veltliner. Zweigelt plantings now comprise 14.1% of Austria’s vineyards – an increase of 48.9% over the past decade.

A Little History

As early as 1921, at the oldest viticultural and oenology institute in Europe known as the Höhere Bundeslehranstalt für Wein- und Obstbau [Higher Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology] at Klosterneuburg, in Austria, Professor Dr. Fredrich “Fritz” Zweigelt began a series of experiments and cross-breeding attempts in the hope of producing a higher yield grape variety, an important goal at the time. Equally as important was the need to produce a hardier grape, one that was more resistant to vine diseases. Thousands of crossings were reportedly made, but in 1922, Dr. Zweigelt was successful with what was referred to as Klosterneuberg 71 – a crossing of two red grape varieties native to the region – St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch. Dr. Zweigelt, in wanting to draw attention to the birthplace of the variety, named this new cultivar “Rotburger” – the suffix “burger” a reference to Klosterneuburg, in honor of its origins.

“Rotburger” a dark, blue-skinned grape, proved to be a superior red grape varietal, one that seemed to embody all the positive aspects of each parent, with little or none of the negative aspects. The vine offers the strong fungi-resistance of Blaufränkisch, ripening even earlier, yet budding later than St. Laurent, making it well suited for Austria’s early spring frosts and fall cold weather and rains.

It took many decades of field testing, practical trials and propagation, before different winemakers began, independently, to recognize the superior properties of this new varietal. Influential Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser was one of the first to recognize the potential of the new varietal, and had planted it extensively in the post-War era, with great success, utilizing his own innovative “Hochkultur” (high culture) training system to further increase yields.

By 1975, as part of the restructuring of the Austrian wine regulations – the “Qualitätsweinrebensorten-Verordnung” [Quality of Wine Grape Varieties Regulation] – Dr. Zweigelt’s increasingly popular grape, “Rotburger”, was thought to be too easily confused with the dark-skinned “Rotberger”grape, an unrelated grape variety developed in Germany (with Riesling as one of its parents). At Moser’s urging, the Rotburger grape was officially renamed “Zweigeltrebe”, literally Zweigelt grape, in honor of its breeder, Dr. Fredrich Zweigelt.

Zweigelt can now be found in nearly all of Austria´s wine-growing areas, especially in the Weinviertel region, which boasts the highest number of Zweigelt vines.

Zweigelt has great growing potential in other cool climates and following Austria’s success with Zweigelt, plantings of this variety outside the country have been most experimental, with limited plantings in Hungary, Germany and England. In the Czech Republic, however, it is the third most widely planted red grape variety – more commonly known as Zweigeltrebe it comprises approximately 4.7% of their total vineyards. It also grows in some of the wine regions in Slovakia, and in neighboring Slovenia, especially in the lower Sava Valley region. As of 2010, newly-established Belgian and Polish vineyards have also started to plant Zweigelt. In North America, Zweigelt vines have made inroads in the colder Canadian wine regions of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula and in British Columbia. Successful plantings have also appeared in the U.S., mainly in Washington with smaller experimental plantings in New York, in the Finger Lakes, and now, the Hudson Valley.

Viticultural and Vinicultural Aspects

From a viticultural standpoint, Zweigelt is seemingly a blessing from above: it is both high-yielding and easy to grow – it appears to grow reliably and plentifully in all but the most chalky soil types. In fact, in deep, fertile soils – especially in young and moderately young vineyards – Zweigelt can yield large amounts of grapes. In order to create high quality wines with proper storage potential, it has been determined, yields must be rigorously limited.

Easier to grow than Blaüfrankisch, Zweigelt is also very resistant to frost, and so has excellent potential for cool climates: It buds late and ripens early, thus potentially avoiding bad weather at both ends of the growing season. It is also robust, highly resistant to dryness and various vine diseases – in fact, part of its initial appeal for grape growers was its resistance to disease, which can be a problem for its St. Laurent parent.

Wine made from the Zweigelt grape can be quite rich with soft, subtle tannins and a pleasant acidity with fresh cherry and fruit aromas (some say cinnamon and even violet) with fruit flavors of ripe cherries, raspberries, and other red fruits, though it is often known for its pepper and spicy qualities. Zweigelt wines are deeply colored, often ruby red to dark violet in color, with a fruit forward taste and clean finish. Zweigelt is very versatile – its acidity, moderate alcohol and subtle tannins all make it ideal for meats and stews, yet without being overwhelming for poultry, fish, and cheese or other simple appetizers. With a lively and fresh fruit forwardness, Zweigelt is also excellent for summer drinking, and young styles and rosés do well slightly chilled.

While most Zweigelt wines are often meant to consumed within a few years of their release many have the potential to cellar well if properly barrel-aged. In fact, Zweigelt is well-suited for maturing in small barriques, as well as large wooden barrels, to add an intensity and depth to an otherwise smooth and balanced structure. The ageing potential of these high-end Zweigelt have not yet been determined, as such wines have only begun to be recently produced. In addition, varietal “cuvées” or blends of Zweigelt are now becoming more common, blended often with Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger here in the U.S.), and lately even with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, in order to produce red wines with even greater depth and body, and a more pronounced tannic structure. Such wines are still in their infancy, though seemingly with great potential for the future.

Want to know more? Try the following sources for more details:

 Peter Moser: The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide 2012/13. Falstaff Verlags-GmbH, Vienna 2012.

 Philipp Blom. The Wines of Austria. Faber and Faber Ltd. London 2000.

 Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Austrian Wine. Documentation 2011. Structure Wine Country Austria. November 2011 Edition. [Österreich Wein Marketing GmbH]

 wein.pur – Zweigelt: Eine österreichische Erfolgsgeschichte. Weine und Winzer im Porträt. Österreichischer Agrarverlag, Vienna 2008.

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