|Where and What on the Winelist: Austria’s Zweigelt
Austria. While known more for its white wines, especially Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, Austria actually produces a fair amount of red wine as well. (Because almost three-quarters of the country’s total wine production is consumed domestically, many producers didn’t bother to export their red wines until more recently.)
The Weinviertel, north of Vienna, is home to a large portion of the country’s Zweigelt plantings, though most of the wine produced there is still consumed locally in the heurigen of Vienna and thereabouts. Elsewhere, most of the red wine vineyards are in the south of the country, especially Styria, which runs along the Slovenian border, and Burgenland, which runs north from there toward the Neusiedlersee. Most of the Zweigelt available in the U.S. currently comes from Burgenland and the Neusiedlersee.
Zweigelt. Austria’s most planted red grape, occupying almost 9% of the vineyards, is a relative newcomer; it was developed by a Dr. Fritz Zweigelt in 1922 by crossing two other grapes indigenous to the area, St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch. Part of its appeal for winegrowers was its resistance to disease, which is a problem for one of its parents, St. Laurent, and its high yields, especially when planted in fertile soils. While the latter might appeal to farmers in search of high volumes, limiting yields is important for creating quality wine from Zweigelt.
Wines made from Zweigelt tend to be light-to-medium-bodied, often around 12.5-13% alcohol, with gentle tannins and sometimes a Barbera-like acidity. Cherry aromas are quite typical—sometimes red cherries, sometimes sour, occasionally black—as is the occasional spicy touch, but not the pepper of Blaufränkisch—more of a baking spice, nutmeg-like note, turning toward chocolate in richer examples. While Austrian producers have been fond of aging their reds in new oak (often too much new oak) of late, Zweigelt often avoids this fate as its acidity and freshness are rarely suited to it. Zweigelt also finds its way into many blends, often with so-called international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, where its bright character plays off the lusher, deeper notes of those other varieties.
Zweigelt makes an excellent food wine. Its acidity, moderate alcohol, and low tannins make it an excellent red for fish dishes, and the low tannins also make it a viable red choice alongside spicier cuisine, especially Mexican or even Chinese food (overly-oaky examples may have problems here, however). It’s at its best with white meats like veal, pork, or turkey. Like Barbera, Zweigelt is flexible, with enough presence to go with many meats or stews, but not overwhelming for fish and some starters. With a freshness that suits summer temperatures, lighter examples even drink well with a slight chill.
From the Neusiedlersee region, look for Nittnaus, Heinrich, Josef Pöckl, or Sattler. Nittnaus produces five different bottling, plus a mixed blend and a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon. As with most producers, the cheaper wines are more traditional, whereas the more expensive wines tend to be more modern, more extracted, and are more likely to have seen new oak. Sattler, for example, keeps it simple with a Zweigelt and a Zweigelt Reserve, and the latter is a degree or so higher in alcohol, darker in its fruit expression, and aged in a percentage of new oak. Heinrich and Pöckl also make 100% Zweigelts, and use the varietal as a main component of their red blends.
In the Burgenland, Leo Hillinger gives the grape a fairly restrained, but modern treatment, quite smooth and suave, especially in his flagship Hill #1 blend. While Hillinger has planted several international varieties, Umathum focuses on the indigenous grapes of Austria, in varietal bottling and in blends. Also look for Weninger and Sepp Moser; the latter has been making steady advances in quality of late.
Elsewhere, Fritsch is one of the few Weinviertel wineries easily findable in the US, and recently converted to biodynamics. Carnuntum’s Glatzer, and Huber, from the small wine region Traisental, which is more known for white wines, also make good examples of Zweigelt.