Zweigelt: Austria’s Little-Known Signature Red Grape
Wine professionals are always seeking out the excitement of something new. How do you navigate what is the “next big thing” or just hype fueled by an advertising campaign? Zweigelt is a grape that makes wines that are spectacular and consistently enjoyable to share with family and friends. Pronounced “TSVYE-gelt”, this Austrian red grape isn’t generally promoted by a big winery conglomerate. Still, it has gained a grassroots following due to the vision of enthusiastic vintners and winemakers who are willing to take a chance on this versatile grape.
When a vintner plants a vine of a new grape variety, the most important factor to consider is the vines compatibility with the growing conditions of their region. Another essential variable in this decision is their belief that they can make a premium wine from the grape under consideration. This Austrian variety has also attracted the attention of growers in the Northeastern United States and some Canadian vineyards in British Columbia and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula.
Zweigelt is a cool-climate Austrian red grape developed in 1922 by Friedrich Zweigelt by the hybridization of two Austrian grapes, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. While St. Laurent is known as a “heartbreak” grape because it tends to disappoint both vintner and winemaker with a myriad of challenges in both the vineyard and the winery. On the other hand, Zweigelt has the reputation of being an “insurance” grape because of its dependability in the field. Zweigelt’s budbreak comes later in the spring than many other varieties, when the danger of a killing frost has passed. It also ripens mid-season before most bad weather can damage the crop later in the harvest. Thus, the acreage of Zweigelt in Austria increased substantially between 1999 and 2015 but has stabilized in recent years.
In all of Austria’s wine regions, Zweigelt is mostly concentrated in the Burgenland District. Zweigelt inherited some of the best characteristics of both of its parent vines: Blaufränkisch makes a bigger and bolder wine but can be challenging to work with at times while St. Laurent is often bright, agile, and akin to a more muscular Pinot Noir. Zweigelt makes wines that are fruit-driven, dry, medium to light-bodied with low tannins, and medium to high acidity. But it can also be used in more experimental styles such as sweet, sparkling, rosé, dessert, and even ice wine. In the glass, the wine displays a bewitching violet-red color with a spicy, floral aroma and flavors of red cherry, raspberry, black pepper, and chocolate. It is made mostly in stainless steel tanks to preserve its fresh fruit flavors, but some producers are aging it in oak barrels to render a more full and opulent wine.
It is common to find Zweigelt as single-varietal bottlings but it is also widely used in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to yield an Austrian spin on a classic Bordeaux blend. Serve it lightly chilled (57 degrees to 61 degrees Fahrenheit) to focus the acidity and pair it with any grilled red meat. It goes well with fish, especially shellfish, as well as chicken. Zweigelt makes a great picnic wine as it’s easy-drinking, affordable, approachable, and excitingly new.