While at this year’s VieVinum, Austria’s largest and most prestigious wine fair — and one of my personal favourite wine events, period — I entered into a debate with a journalist friend of mine as to which indigenous red grape is Austria’s best. He was in the camp of Blaufränkisch (Kékfrankos in Hungary) while I was for Team Zweigelt. In my opinion, Blaufränkisch produces great wines, but structurally, it is linear and tannic. Also, if it’s not ripe nor respected in the vineyard, it can produce harsh renditions. Zweigelt, on the other hand, can deliver a multitude of styles from light/easy drinking to modern/oaky to plush/rich to structured/ageworthy.
Ironically, Zweigelt is the progeny of Blaufränkisch and another Austrian grape, St. Laurent. Initially known as Rotberger, this relatively new crossing was created in 1922 by Fritz Zweigelt. It was prized for its adaptability in many soils and climates, its early-ripening nature, cold heartiness, rot resistance (thick skins), high sugar levels and quality coupled with high yields. Still, it remained an experimental grape until the 1950s. Enter Lenz Moser, one of the most famous names in Austrian viticulture. After World War II, the mandate was to plant all types of crops to feed and quench the masses. Moser, after seeing the attributes of the grape, started to propagate Zweigelt. By 1971, there were 1,000 hectares. That number doubled by 1978, with another twofold increase by the mid-1990s. It was also around this time that self-imposed yield control was implemented, which helped to create the first premium renditions.
Today, Zweigelt is Austria’s top-planted red grape, finding a home in all wine-growing regions, with the majority of plantings in the central and southern wine regions where the Pannonian (Central Europe’s warmest) and Mediterranean climates favour red production. Now up to close to 6,500 hectares, you can find mono-varietal renditions of Zweitgelt, which are my personal favourites, and ones blended with other red grapes of Austrian or international provenance.
In the glass, Zweigelt possesses a medium to dark ruby colour with some violet highlights. Aromatically, it is generally Morello cherry that dominates, followed by raspberry, plum and floral qualities. When new oak is added to the mix, chocolate, vanilla and spice complete the package. As for its official identity change from Rotberger to Zweigelt, that was thanks to Lenz-Moser. He promoted the idea back in 1975 as a means to honour Fritz and his creation.
And if you were wondering who won the debate, I did! After all, I am writing this story. Finally, a thank you to Master of Wine Anne Kriebel; a portion of her Zweigelt presentation at VieVinum was used to help craft this story.