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, and other international red grape varieties. Burgenland grows 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.
Some very good wines are clearly made from Zweigelt, as my tasting demonstrated, but I wonder if it is a grape that can truly produce wines of greatness. In my experience with the wines below, it doesn't take too well to more than a modicum of new oak, not that this is a requisite for profundity. By comparison, however, I found much more interesting and compelling those wines that were blends of Zweigelt and other grape varieties.
For most American consumers, Austrian wines are uncommon to unknown, and its reds especially so. Even those consumers slightly more knowledgeable about the country's wines have had much less exposure to Austrian red wines. I certainly counted myself in such company prior to my recent trip to the country.
After this tasting, which was the single largest group of Austrian red wines I had ever tasted in a single session, I can safely say that while I was not bowled over, I certainly had no doubt that Austria could produce very good red wine that I would be happy to drink on almost any occasion -- a discovery that was quite pleasing indeed, and the beginning of a series of Austrian red wine discoveries I look forward to sharing with you in the coming weeks.
Here are the wines I tasted at the Weinkulturhaus, and what I thought of them. In the latter group of blended wines were several that were the product of an interesting movement in the region known as the Pannobile group. This group of eleven Burgenland vintners have banded together to produce wines that they all label "Pannobile." These wines (of which there is a red and white) must be made from indigenous regional varieties and are permitted for sale under the name after passing a tasting panel. The group and its wines are an attempt to create some branded recognition for the region, along with a top tier of signature wines. I have no idea how well recognized these wines are in greater Austria, but I found both the idea and the wines compelling.
100% ZWEIGELT WINES
2010 Zantho Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of dusty cassis. In the mouth, dark cherry and cassis flavors mix with dusty earth and faint tannins. Simple and pleasurable. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $13. click to buy.
2010 Weingut Michlits Werner "Meinklang" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of tangy cassis and hints of floral notes. In the mouth flavors of cassis and leather mix with a nice wet dirt quality. A stony, nice acidity counterpoints leathery but drying tannins. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2010 Weingut Juris Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Light to medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of woodsmoke, evoking vivid images of the burning of vine canes on a cold winter's day. In the mouth, bright cassis and dark cherry flavors have a light tannic base and beautiful earthy component. Elegant and stony, with a crystalline purity. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2010 Paul Achs Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells faintly of burnt rubber, reminding me of what people often object to in Pinotage In the mouth, tacky, drying tannins enclose cherry and sour cherry flavors. The wine has a bitter note as it finishes. Good acidity, but not fully hanging together. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2010 Weingut Pöckl Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in color, this wine smells of bright floral violets and cassis. In the mouth, the wine has a bright juicy cassis and violet quality, with leathery tannins that emerge and thicken through the finish, which takes on a dusty note. Very pretty, Might benefit from some time in the bottle. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2010 Weingut Scheiblhofer "Prädium" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cassis and vanilla. In the mouth the wine has a sweeter cassis note and heavy, thick blanket of tannins that coat the mouth and aggressively attack the tongue with notes of new oak that linger with cassis fruit in the finish. Overdone. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2009 Birgit & Helmuth Renner "Golser Altenberg" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine has a very nutty character on the nose, with scents of cassis and wood. In the mouth, flavors of oak mix with cassis and leathery tannins. Nice minerality and acidity, with good earthiness, which is, unfortunately, partially obscured by oak. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.
2009 Schloss Halbturn "Premium Reserve" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Light to medium purple in color, this wine smells of burnt match heads and cassis. In the mouth, bright cassis flavors mix with black cherry and muscular tannins that are slightly drying. Good acidity, and nice minerality. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2009 Hans & Christine Nittnaus "Golser Luckenwald" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in color, this wine smells of smoky cassis and black cherry, with a slightly salty quality. In the mouth, the wine has a nice savory cassis core, with thick aggressive tannins, but also a heavy dose of oak. Drying tannins and oak flavors linger in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2009 Weingut Steindorfer Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of kirsch and blueberries. In the mouth the wine is soft with velvety tannins and a core of blueberry fruit. Ripe in style, the tannins stiffen through the fruity finish. Overly simple, with less acid than I would like. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.
2009 Weingut Josef Umathum "Haideboden" Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of savory cassis and black olive with just a hint of green bell pepper. In the mouth, smooth flavors of cassis, cherry, and green bell pepper mix with dark earthiness and a hint of smokiness. Long finish, nice supple tannins, and excellent acidity. A blend of 55% Zweigelt, 23% Blaufrankisch, and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.
2009 Claus Preisinger Pannobile Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, the wine is juicy and bright with a nice sour black cherry and cassis flavor, mixed with a dusty earthiness. Restrained, powdery tannins wrap around the core of fruit. Excellent acidity. A blend of 70% Zweigelt and 30% Blaufrankisch. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $51. click to buy.
2009 Judith Beck Pannobile Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of smoky cassis, and a hint of spiciness. In the mouth the wine has a bright freshness and clarity of cassis and black cherry fruit, with a hint of woody herbal greenness that is a very nice touch of complexity. Nicely managed tannins are soft and fleecy around the edges of the mouth. A blend of 60% Zweigelt and 40% Blaufrankisch. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2009 Gernot Heinrich Pannobile Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich, sweet black cherry fruit. In the mouth, however, the wine has a deep earthy quality with sour-ish black cherry and cassis flavors, and touches of herbal notes. A dusty quality lingers in the finish with chalky tannins. A blend of 70% Zweigelt and 30% Blaufrankisch. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2009 Anita & Hans Nittnaus Pannobile Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of smoky cassis and blueberries. In the mouth, the blueberry and cassis quality continues, with a deep overwhelming wet chalkboard quality that turns this wine quite stony in quality. Nice mineral finish and excellent acidity round out a compelling package. A blend of 60% Zweigelt and 40% Blaufranksich. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2009 Brigitte & Gerhard Pittnauer Pannobile Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and a hint of woodsmoke, In the mouth, tangy black cherry and wet rocks merge nicely with a balance between fruit and minerality, Lightly leathery tannins sneak around the edges of the mouth. Nice acidity. A blend of 50% Zweigelt, 45% Blaufranksich, and 5% St. Laurent. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
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