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Quality Focus on One Grape Variety

Carnuntum crowns the Zweigelt

22.07.2020

Speaking in terms of wine, Carnuntum – first and foremost – means Zweigelt. There is a good reason for this. And lately this rings even truer, because the winegrowers of Carnuntum are developing the variety more and more consistently toward the supreme discipline: monovarietal single vineyard wines. But this sort of thing does not happen overnight; it requires many years of focus, discipline and critical thinking.

Better together

 What sets Carnuntum apart from other Austrian winegrowing regions is that solidarity among growers is a matter of course. The cooperation between producers works just as effectively between individual estates as it does in the village network or at the regional level. The winegrowers of Carnuntum founded the association Rubin Carnuntum Estates in 1992. The objective at the time was to create a community brand with its distinctive style of Zweigelt, helping every estate to position itself better on the Austrian wine scene. Rubin Carnuntum established itself quickly and is now an indispensable presence on Austria’s wine racks. And the demands growers made on their own wines continued to develop. One wanted to know exactly where one could realise further potential for enhanced quality. In 2006, a working group dedicated to Zweigelt was created, to determine with scientific accuracy the vineyard sites, age of vines and methods of vinification that are conducive to producing the most exciting wines in Carnuntum.

Korken Rubin Carnuntum © Steve Haider
Carnuntum has methodically pursued the refinement of the grape variety Zweigelt for nearly 20 years. © Steve Haider

Parallel to this, Carnuntum carried out an intensive geologic survey of the vineyards. In cooperation with the Austrian Geological Institute, vineyard sites were examined for their soil types, water conductivity and heat storage capacity, as well as their mineral constituents.

All this research led to an even stronger focus on single vineyard wines, which in turn led to membership in the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter in 2018. Nine vineyard sites in Carnuntum were classified as Erste Lage (1ÖTW) by this growers’ association. Some of these top sites offer particularly good conditions for growing Zweigelt. This makes Carnuntum not just the only region that produces Erste Lage red wines, but also means that Zweigelt has found its way into the major leagues.

Autochthone Rebsorte Zweigelt © ÖWM / Oberleitner
The indigenous grape variety Zweigelt © AWMB / Oberleitner

The Austrian grape variety Zweigelt

Zweigelt is an indigenous Austrian red grape variety, a crossing of Blaufränkisch with Sankt Laurent. Created in 1922 by ampelographer Professor Fritz Zweigelt, the variety made its real breakthrough in the 1950s thanks to Lenz Moser, and was registered as a permitted grape variety for Qualitätswein – »Zweigeltrebe Blau« – in 1972. In 1978 the name was changed to Blauer Zweigelt; Rotburger is now occasionally used as an alternate name. Today, Zweigelt is the most widely planted red wine vine in Austria.

Sharing knowledge and experience

Carnuntum has 906 hectares under vines. One quarter of the area – some 235 hectares – is planted to Zweigelt. Pursuant to developments in the 1980s and 90s, about half of this production finds its way into cuvées – blended mostly with Blaufränkisch or international varieties. Approximately 120 hectares of Zweigelt are bottled as monovarietal wine.

The style of these wines has changed significantly in recent years. While powerful wines with a great deal of new oak were the darlings of the Austrian red wine scene twenty years ago, today one can observe a clear tendency towards more freshness, cool aromas and individuality of expression.

Terroir Carnuntum © Tom Lamm
The soils of Carnuntum provide Zweigelt with a good foundation. © Tom Lamm

How is the soil reflected in the wine?

Zweigelt is a grape variety that perfectly brings the message of the soil into the glass. Basically, it can be said: the more meagre the soil the leaner the wine, while soils richer in nutrients yield more opulent results.

This is exactly why Zweigelt feels so comfortable with the wide variety of soils in Carnuntum. On meagre gravel soils, the Zweigelt will be firmer, more precise, not as juicy, but all the more mineral-driven on the palate. On loess and loam soils, Zweigelt develops a softer, warmer structure with juicy, dark berry fruit in combination with thrilling spice in the finish. The warm sandy soils, on the other hand, have a lush effect and freshness becomes less of a factor. Limestone in the subsoil is responsible for freshness, structure and elegance, while the clay content in the soil also imparts structure and acidity. This greatly enhances a wine’s aging potential.

Zweigelt and its challenges in the vineyard

The health of the grape lays the foundation for the wine. A great wine can never be vinified from inferior grape material. The well-known »Traubenwelke« (shrivelled berries) has still not been eradicated, but can be brought under control. It was recognised that, as the previous year was characterised by drought stress and higher yields, the grapes were inclined to shrivel. For this reason, measures such as topping the vine, cultivating the soil and planting greencover to increase the nutrient density in the ground – along with reductions in yield – become essential. The early ripening Zweigelt – thanks to the cross partner Sankt Laurent, with its thin skin and extremely densely-berried clusters – is susceptible to Boytritis. The steady wind in the region and the use of greencover to guard against overly rapid grape growth, however, work well against this fungal disease. Esca rarely afflicts Zweigelt in Carnuntum. The conversion of many winegrowers to a gentler style of pruning goes hand in hand with the winegrower’s current thoughts of sustainability.

How the Zweigelt vine develops…

Experience shows, in the meantime, that in the first fifteen years of a Zweigelt vine’s life, it will yield lightfooted and fruit-forward wines. Only later does more depth, complexity and flavour appear in the typical fruit profile. As soon as vines reach the age of twenty-five, the wines begin to become more silky and concentrated, with more structure. It is good that the region Carnuntum has been cultivated by a great number of family estates for many years now, and that the vineyards have been well cared for.

Rebstock Carnuntum © Photographie Helmreich
More and more Carnuntum wine estates are going organic. © Photographie Helmreich

Which vintages?

Since monovarietal Zweigelts have been bottled less frequently in the past, there are relatively few examples on hand that can effectively illustrate how the vintages develop. The oldest Zweigelts are currently around twenty years of age, and inspire participants at every tasting – not only the ‘great’ vintages, but also wines from years with cooler weather. According to the experience of the winegrowers, the following vintages are currently of great interest: 1999, 2000, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Vintages with cooler weather conditions up to June, followed by a dry August and September are generally to be preferred, winegrowers believe. They describe the most important representatives from the recent decade:

  • 2009: warm vintage, powerful wines
  • 2011: very high physiologic maturity, rich and nicely rounded wines
  • 2013: elegant, somewhat cooler; fresh, fruity wines
  • 2015: optimal weather, black wines with marked depth of fruit
  • 2017: very warm wines, rich in extract
  • 2019: fully ripe, beautiful fruit, very warm, good acidic structure

How much or how little yield is advisable with Zweigelt?

According to Carnuntum’s winegrowers, there is no patent formula. Each vineyard has to be assessed individually, especially in combination with the variables affecting the vintage years, which are becoming increasingly extreme. However, a few parameters can be drawn from many years of experience: with a yield of approximately 7,000–8,000 kilogrammes per hectare, lighter to medium-bodied wines will result, while with a reduction in yield to 4,000–6,000 kg per hectare, more powerful wines will be bottled. The irony of viticulture is that one must invest a great deal of time and effort in order to arrive at low yields. Yield reduction is achieved through intensive work with foliage canopy management, by thinning out whole clusters and those on side-shoots. Depending on the vineyard, different types of rootstock can contribute to balanced growth. Ideally, one will only harvest about 1–1.5 kg of grapes per vine – old vines are particularly helpful if one wishes to achieve appreciable concentration along with harmonious character. Especially in very dry summers, this reduction in yield is also advantageous in reducing the risk of shrivelled grapes.

Carnuntum Arbesthal © Photographie Helmreich
Carnuntum also has its romantic side... © Photographie Helmreich
Zweigelt Lese © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter

Climate change?

Among the red wine vines, Zweigelt is one of the early ripening varieties. This means that two decades ago, Zweigelt was harvested from early to mid-October. Today, the Zweigelt grapes are already ripe in mid-to-late September, about one hundred days after blossoming, which – due to the warm spring weather – also takes place earlier and earlier. As soon as the grape pips turn brown while the berries still remain firm, the time has come! In the past, the harvest date was determined based on sugar content, but the refractometer has mostly become obsolete thanks to climate change. The winegrowers rely on their sense of taste, or – if one wants to measure something – on the pH value, which provides information about the maturity of the acids. Ideally, the pH of the grapes at the time of harvest will be at least 3.2.

New forms of expression?

In all their endeavours with the variety, Carnuntum’s winegrowers aim to develop a new and complex but refined expression for Zweigelt. For Carnuntine Zweigelt, the term ‘pithy’ has been agreed upon as a common and desirable descriptor. This is to characterise the somewhat cooler style that distinguishes Carnuntum from Burgenland. Geographically speaking, Carnuntum is no longer within the sphere of influence of Lake Neusiedl and therefore enjoys a pure continental climate with hotter days and cooler nights. The Maria Ellender Forest and the Danube meadows that border the winegrowing region to the north ensure cooling, with pronounced temperature differences between day and night.

Development toward the accentuation of origins can be clearly perceived in the vinification of single vineyard Zweigelt. If one once only knew either fruity and light or heavily aromatic and oaky wines, today it is juicy and spicy Zweigelts with frequently firm structural acidity that set the tone. This is not only due to the earlier harvesting, but also to special care taken in the cellar: fermentation is often carried out in small batches and without the addition of cultured yeast, so that the fermentation temperatures remain cool from the start (ca. 28°C). Whole uncrushed berries are now more often used in processing the grapes, and sometimes whole clusters including the stems. In the matter of extraction, more and more winegrowers rely on a gentle approach by manually submerging the cap of skins. This supports both structure and length in the wine. Where the use of wood is concerned, growers in Carnuntum increasingly fall back on larger wooden casks that restrict the supply of oxygen and produce more tightly knit wines. After around one and a half to two years, the single vineyard Zweigelts are bottled and then develop their own personality and character, upon which one gladly sets the crown.

Rubin Carnuntum Wein © Bruno Arnold
Day in, day out: a terrific wine for food pairings. © Bruno Arnold

In matters of food and wine pairing, Zweigelt is a great all-rounder. In the classic area, it goes beautifully with Italian standbys such as pasta and pizza – everything with tomatoes. Powerful Zweigelt goes well with dark meat or roasted flavours.

Recommended drinking temperature is a maximum 18°C; even better cooled down to 15°C.

 

In 2018, nine vineyards in Carnuntum were classified Erste Lage (1ÖTW) by the Österreichische Traditionweingüter. Some of them have established themselves as marvellous terroirs for monovarietal Zweigelt:

Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter Riedenkarte 2019 © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter
Vineyard map of Carnuntum © Rubin Carnuntum Estates
ÖTW Erste Lage Aubühl © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lage Aubühl © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst

Ried Aubühl 1ÖTW ascends as a gentle ridge from Höflein in the west to the beginning of the Ellender Forest that lies above. The subsoil of the vineyards is composed of predominantly sandy, partly silty-clay Miocene sediments. In the southeastern and northwestern segments there is some topsoil of loess – rock dust that was blown in and redeposited by the wind during the sparsely vegetated glacial periods. Here, the soils are deep and rich in lime. Due to the cooling influences of the forest above, the wines retain their freshness and spice despite the hot soils and the warm Pannonian climate.

ÖTW Erste Lagen Bärnreiser © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lage Bärnreiser © Rubin Carnuntum Estates/ Robert Herbst

Ried Bärnreiser 1ÖTW in Höflein lies at the eastern terminus of the Danube gravel terrace on the Arbesthal Hillsides, without bordering directly on any woodland. It gets its name from the Middle High German word »Reisern«, which indicates that on this barren, gravelly and hot site the natural vegetation consisted only of brushwood and scrub (»Reisig«). On the upper slope one finds quartz gravel – fine pebbles, which in places also cover the finely grained Miocene (Pannonium) deposits of argillaceous silt and sand below. The soils are calcareous in the extreme; quite deep underneath the layers of gravel and grit, which imparts particular vitality and complexity to the wines.

ÖTW Erste Lagen Haidacker © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lage Haidacker © Rubin Carnuntum Estates/ Robert Herbst

Ried Haidacker 1ÖTW lies on a gently rising spur of the Danube-gravel chain of hills in Göttlesbrunn. The vineyard, which ascends easily toward the northeast, is made up of predominantly sandy and partly silty-argillaceous as well as gravelly sediments from the Miocene Epoch. In general, the soils are very calcareous and deep, which can be traced back to an expansive lake and river landscape with riparian forests some ten million years ago. In Ried Haidacker one can feel the warm Pannonian influences as well as the cool winds and nocturnal cooling thanks to the Danube River to the north and the substantial woodland of the Maria Ellender Forest on the plateau atop the hills. As a result, the wines are very delicate and nicely balanced.

ÖTW Erste Lagen Kirchweingarten © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lage Kirchweingarten © Rubin Carnuntum Estates/ Robert Herbst

Ried Kirchweingarten 1ÖTW is a gently falling south-facing slope directly below the church in the municipality of Höflein. The vineyard is covered with silty/argillaceous deposits from the Pannonium as well as with layers of loess in places. (Such deposits of clay are very rare in Carnuntum.) The soils are deep, containing a great deal of limestone. The wines of this vineyard are characterised by pithiness, fresh acidity and firm structure.

ÖTW Erste Lagen Rosenberg © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lagen Rosenberg © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst

Ried Rosenberg 1ÖTW in Göttlesbrunn is a south-facing site, sheltered against the wind, which is embraced by the mixed forests that provide a cooling influence. On the upper part of the slope one finds limestone-poor gravel deposits from the ancient riverbed of the Danube. In the lower parts of the slope, however, lie calcarous sediments of the ancient lakeand river landscape, built of clay, silt and sand.

ÖTW Erste Lagen Schüttenberg © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lage Schüttenberg © Rubin Carnuntum Estates/ Robert Herbst

Ried Schüttenberg 1ÖTW in Göttlesbrunn, at some 280 metres, is the highest elevation in the Arbesthal Hillsides and (»Schütt → Schotter« = gravel) markedly characterised by the terrace gravels in the original river bed of the primordial Danube, which now flows about 130 metres further down. The approximately fifty centimetre layer of gravel some two million years old lies atop sandy-loamy sediments of the Pannonium with deep and calcareous soils. The high proportion of gravel and stone combined with the cooling borders of the forest yields particularly firm wines with cool minerality.

ÖTW Erste Lagen Steinäcker © Rubin Carnuntum Weingüter/ Robert Herbst
ÖTW Erste Lage Steinäcker © Rubin Carnuntum Estates/ Robert Herbst

Ried Steinäcker 1ÖTW lies on a ridge, which was formed out of limestone-poor to limestone-free pebbly gravels from an ancient watercourse of the Danube, levelling off toward Höflein. The gravel lies upon argillaceous/sandy, subordinate gravel-bearing deposits of the Miocene Epoch and is overlaid by loess toward the northwest. Loess is rock dust carried away and redeposited once more by the wind during the sparsely vegetated cold periods of the Pleistocene. It has a mealy consistency and is always calcareous. This vineyard is the closest in proximity to the Danube and benefits from marked cooling during the night. The name comes from the Danube gravel that dominates here, which stores the warmth of the day, but also brings a gaunt and pithy structure to the wines.

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