The Taste of Zweigelt
on 18/03/12 at 5:13 pmWine
If you can tear yourself away from the gorgeous facades and ancient spires of Vienna, to head south-southeast as if your goal is Hungary, you quickly leave behind the cultured world of music and stone, and cleave through soil rich with history. Sweep away from the plateaus carved by the Danube across the Pannonian plains, with windmills churning lazily and winter-bare trees rimming vast fields of tilled soil. The earth, in rich shades of ochre and umber, also catches and reflects back the pale steel-blue of the sky. The nearly imperceptible tilt of the landscape away from the hills of Vienna is interrupted occasionally by bumps and ridges, like a carpet that has been pushed from one side, with forested hillocks, and shallow ridges that resemble nothing so much as they do Burgundy.
Is it any wonder, then, that when the Cistercian monks ended their journeys here from the abbey of Cluny in the 12th Century, they planted their red wines, and built their abbeys and village as if they were still in France. It is their viticultural legacy to which the region of Burgenland owes its current status as the heart of red wine production in Austria. Though, notably, this debt does not include the name of the region itself (which comes from Vierburgenland “the land of four castles”).
The stony soils of what would become Burgenland after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1921 represent the hottest growing region in Austria, and the most reliable place in the country to ripen red grape varieties. Here the intrepid palate can encounter the triumvirate of Austrian reds: St. Laurent, Blaufrankisch, and Zweigelt, along with Pinot Noir, of course, along with other international red grape varieties. Burgenland grows a full 50% of all the red grapes of Austria, and a full 30% of all the grapevine acreage in the entire country.
Burgenland coils around a lake named Neusiedlersee, which lends its name to several of the sub-regions within the Burgenland appellation, and which trickles down and across the border with Hungary. This shallow lake (at its deepest, about 6 feet) cannot be underestimated in its importance for the region. The bullrushes that grow in much of the lake were an historically important commercial product in the region, but more importantly, the lake produces weather effects that among other things allow the reliable and consistent production of botrytis in the vineyards closest to the lake (more on this in a forthcoming article).
Neusiedlersee is ringed at regular intervals by the towns of the region, many of which are key centers of wine production and commerce. Chief among these is the town of Gols, which in its own quaint way resembles a town at the heart of any major wine region. Wineries and restaurants front many of its streets, and tourists from three or four countries spilling from one to the other are a frequent sight during peak tourist times.
Here in Gols you can find the Weinkulturhaus, a prettily restored ancient home that offers education, sales, and a deep representative cellar offering the wines of the region. Upstairs in one of its ancient rooms I was met by a few local winemakers to show off one of their local jewels, a grape named Zweigelt.
Also occasionally known as Blauer Zweigelt, Zweigelt is a cross between St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch produced by Fritz Zweigelt in 1922, and is easily the most commonly planted red grape variety in Austria. This early ripener is also the most commonly consumed, everyday red wine in the country. Zweigelt has long been the grape upon which Austria hangs its red wine hat, in a matter of speaking.
By and large, Zweigelt makes mellow, easy-drinking wines, with plush, faint tannins, and pleasing cherry and cassis fruit flavors. It has no hard edges, and very little bite, reminding me at times of a golden retriever, 100% cuddly enthusiastic love all the time, but lacking a bit of sophistication as a result. Indeed the grape variety is so accommodating according to winemakers I spoke with, it ripens to the point of being able to produce 13.5% alcohol by volume, and no matter how much longer you let it hang it won’t concentrate further.