Source: New York Times June 13th, 2007
Author: Eric Asimov
A GRAPE and a wine that go by the name zweigelt have immediate obstacles to overcome on the path toward popularity. First and foremost is the fact that the American wine-drinking public is attracted to melodious wine terminology drawn from the romance languages. Chardonnay and merlot and Chianti and Rioja flow beautifully from the tongue, with connotations of captivating pleasures. Germanic words like zweigelt, blaufränkisch and, yes, rotwein, do not.
That has been true for years, but you know what? It’s time to get over it. The pure pleasures available by being open to some of the less familiar Germanic wines are now too great to allow a little matter like language to stand in the way.
Today we’re talking specifically about Austria. If Austria is known at all for its wines, it’s for whites. Its dry, minerally rieslings are more full-bodied than Germany’s, while its peppery grüner veltliners have actually achieved a modest vogue of their own. Yet as delicious as Austrian whites can be, the real excitement these days is in the discovery of its reds, most notably zweigelt (pronounced TSVYE-gelt) but also blaufränkisch.
The two grapes are linked by geography and by heritage, so the wine panel tasted them together, 12 bottles of each, along with one that was largely a blend of the two, for a total of 25 bottles.
For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Fred Dexheimer, a former sommelier who is now a manager at T. Edward Wines, an importer and distributor, and Aldo Sohm, wine director at Le Bernardin, who is not only Austrian himself but was selected best sommelier in the country this year by the American Sommelier Association.
Zweigelt and blaufränkisch are among the most widely planted red grapes in Austria. Blaufränkisch is the older, and it theoretically has the potential to make wines of greater depth and ageability than zweigelt, but it is also more difficult to grow and make into wine.
In Germany and in the United States, blaufränkisch is known as lemberger, and in fact our tasting coordinator slipped one American lemberger into the otherwise all-Austrian sample. We found some blaufränkisches that we liked very much, but we also found a stolidity in some of the wines that contrasted greatly with the lighter, more agile zweigelts.
Zweigelt is a relatively new grape, developed in 1922 when an Austrian scientist, Fritz Zweigelt, crossed blaufränkisch with St. Laurent. The grape was originally called rotburger, but mercifully, for English speakers at least, the name was changed to honor its creator.
A few of our bottles came from areas associated mostly with white wines, like Kamptal, Kremstal and Donauland, but most were from the red wine territory of Burgenland, in eastern Austria, south of Vienna and along the border with Hungary.
It is no exaggeration to say that we were greatly excited by the zweigelts. They had a freshness and grace that marked them as wines that would go beautifully with a wide range of foods. What’s more, they had an exotic spice and floral character, predominantly aromas of cinnamon and violets, that made them distinctive and unusual.
Fred compared the zweigelts to Côtes-du-Rhônes. They reminded me of lighter Bierzos or spicy Beaujolais.
What helped make the zweigelts so good was the consistency of style among the producers. Unlike the blaufränkisches, which for the moment seem to have some identity issues, only one zweigelt among those we tried strayed from the lithe, nimble model. That bottle, the 2003 Weninger Raga, seemed dominated by flavors of new oak and visions of power. Aldo called it the Arnold Schwarzenegger of zweigelts, and not coincidentally it was the most expensive zweigelt in the tasting, at $28. The other zweigelts ranged from $12 to $22.
Zweigelts took the four top spots in our list of favorites. Our No. 1 wine, the 2005 Leo Hillinger, epitomized what we liked about them. It was lively and refreshing, with cherry, mineral and spice flavors, energizing rather than fatiguing.
Similarly, our No. 2 wine, the 2005 Steininger Novemberlese, was also bright and vibrant, with aromas and flavors of cinnamon, sour cherry and flowers. At $16, the Steininger was also our best value.
The top blaufränkisch in the tasting was our No. 5 wine, the 2005 Gfänger from Paul Lehrner. Though just a $12 bottle, it was spicy, earthy and quite delicious.
In comparing wines made from the two grapes, it’s immediately apparent that blaufränkisch makes bigger and deeper wines, but they are not as graceful. The best blaufränkisches have a fullness that can be very satisfying, but some that we tasted seemed clumsy, as if the producers were unsure how to get the most out of this grape. Others sacrificed their distinctiveness in favor of a generic international style. We found that blaufränkisch can be turned into rich, polished, powerful and expensive wines, but neither the 2003 Weninger Durrau ($85) nor the 2003 Paul Achs Altenberg ($80) were among our favorites.
The only other straight Austrian blaufränkisch to make our top 10 list was the 2004 Heinrich, which had deep, long-lasting spice and berry flavors.
The other blaufränkisches included the American lemberger, a 2002 from Kiona Vineyards in Washington State, which was a good example of how oak flavors can be used harmoniously, and the 2004 Beck Heideboden, a blend of 40 percent blaufränkisch and 30 percent zweigelt, with pinot noir and merlot making up the remainder. This was a modern international-style wine with the power to stand up to a steak but nonetheless retaining a floral identity.
Clearly the blaufränkisches are works in progress. The Lehrner has been a personal favorite of mine, and I was pleased to see my opinion affirmed by our tasting. I think as producers fine-tune their approach with this grape we’ll see the wines get better and better.
As for zweigelt, these wines are ripe for discovery right now. Their lightness makes them fine reds for summer drinking, while their spicy, floral flavors should sustain them in colder weather. Their price is right year round.
As for the name, well, take a tip from somebody whose own name could be Exhibit A in an alphabetical list of hard-to-pronounce words: zweigelt’s not so bad.
Tasting Report: Easy on the Palate, if Not on the Tongue
Leo Hillinger Burgenland Zweigelt 2005 $18 ***
Lively, vibrant and balanced, with spicy cherry, mineral and floral aromas
and flavors. (Importer: Prescott Wines, New York)
Steininger Kamptal $16 ***
Zweigelt Novemberlese 2005
Bright and fresh, with aromas of cinnamon, sour cherries, earth and flowers. (Prescott Wines, New York)
Walter Buchegger $14 ** 1/2
Kremstal Zweigelt 2004
Lively and fresh, with cinnamon, black cherry and violet aromas.
(Valley View Wine Sales, Glen Ellen, Calif.)
Iby Burgenland Zweigelt Classic 2005 $12 ** 1/2
Fresh and appealing, with a concentrated, exotic sour cherry flavor.
(Morandell Imports, Gardena, Calif.)
Paul Lehrner Mittelburgenland $12 ** 1/2
Blaufränkisch Gfänger 2005
Depth and presence, with earthy, spicy fruit and a herbal touch.
(Terry Theise Estate Selection/Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, N.Y.)
Anton Bauer Donauland Zweigelt 2005 $16 ** 1/2
Juicy and appealing, with floral and cherry flavors. (Prescott Wines, New York)
Beck Burgenland Blaufränkisch $30 ** 1/2
and Zweigelt Heideboden 2004
Spicy and full-bodied, with fruit and floral flavors. (Vin DiVino, Chicago)
Heinrich Burgenland $14 ** 1/2
Balanced and harmonious, with deep, spicy berry flavors. (Vin DiVino, Chicago)
Kiona Columbia Valley Lemberger 2002 $14 ** 1/2
Concentrated, rich and appealingly funky, with spicy berry flavors.
Umathum Burgenland Zweigelt 2005 $16 **
Floral and earthy, with simple, pleasing fruit. (Vin DiVino, Chicago)
WHAT THE STARS MEAN:
Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the panel’s reaction to wines, which were tasted with names and vintages concealed. The panelists this week are Eric Asimov; Florence Fabricant; Fred Dexheimer, a manager at T. Edward Wines, an importer and distributor; and Aldo Sohm, wine director at Le Bernardin. The tasted wines represent a selection generally available in good retail shops, restaurants and over the Internet. Prices are those paid in liquor shops in the New York region.