The Problem of Zweigelt

16th September 2018

Tags: Austria, Grape varieties

This is a grape I’ve come to enjoy recently (having been particularly partial to blaufrankisch for a while).  It was developed after the First World War as a crossing between blaufrankisch and st. laurent and named after its creator, the viticulturist Fritz Zweigelt.  What I like about it is the fresh acidity and usually mid-weight (though the best versions can have quite a firm backbone); this combined with some attractive cherry fruit.  Dorli Muhr (an excellent red wine maker in Carnuntum) doesn’t use it but says that it has great potential in world markets.  But it hasn’t been widely sold in the past, and mainly used for blending with other grapes, especially to add some depth of colour (which it retains even at quite high yields).

This lack of real focus on the grape is partly because of its origin.  Fritz Zweigelt may have been an good scientist but he was also – in later life – a committed Nazi.  Lots of producers are therefore very hesitant about promoting it. It became a delicate subject. In the post-war period Austria was wanting to promote the image of having been an invaded country (something which helped their demand for reunification in the mid-1950s), rather than a willing partner of the Nazis – and emphasising their compatriots who had been; although he lived on, Zweigelt’s career effectively ended in 1945.  All of which focuses on the old conundrum of the relationship of someone’s work to their personal beliefs and behaviour.  Should we avoid Wagner’s music because of his virulent anti-Semitism?  (the Twilight of the Gods has on a couple of occasions offered me some of my most moving musical experiences).  Or do we stop reading Dickens because he treated his wife atrociously?  We can detest a person’s beliefs, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the quality or value of their work.  Or, is there a range of unacceptable behaviour which should allow for varying responses?  Something produced by a wife-abuser is not, ultimately as abhorrent as that of someone who helped enable (unwittingly or otherwise) the holocaust.  Yet can we really make a distinction based predominantly on the breadth of impact of something unacceptable against that which is abhorrent but with ‘limited’ damage?  That seems like very dangerous territory.

Even the more well-known blaufrankisch (the ‘blue Frankish variety’ – though it has no link to France) with which I started this piece is a fairly recent arrival on export markets.  It’s got a much older history however – yet until about 2000 it was seen as a rustic variety, with little by way of reputation.  Even now producers are only just exploring how to make it, how it might age and the type of styles it may be able to display. But not so controversial is its dense, spicy berry fruit, evident but not intrusive tannin and fine acidity. A real gem for those of us who prefer mid-weight wines.