Zweigelt in the Puget Sound AVA

Harvesting Zweigelt 2002 Maury Island Vineyards
Harvesting Zweigelt 2002 Maury Island Vineyards

It’s hard to believe that I have been growing the Zweigelt grape for 16 years and only once made a wine from it way back in 2001, but I think this grape needs a second, hard look for us growers in the Puget Sound AVA. Let me give you a little history and how I got my vines…

Zweigelt was developed in 1922, at the Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology at Klosterneuburg, Austria, by Fritz Zweigelt. It was a crossing of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger in this state). It is now the most widely grown red grape variety in Austria. Great examples of Zweigelt wine can usually be had at better wine shops and online stores if you are looking for good examples. I have had many great Zweigelts over the years so it’s pedigree is not in question. Zweigelt makes a dark, peppery, full bodied red wine that is similar to spicy Rhone grapes, but with more acid and less alcohol since it prefers a cooler climate.

I came into possession of Zweigelt after doing doing some research and some literature had mentioned that it would ripen before Pinot Noir. We were interested in anything that might be a heavier red than pinot and in our naivete tried to find anything that would blow the doors off of pinot in terms of structure and tannins, but in hindsight this was a fools errand since pinot really is one of the earliest ripening vinifera red grapes out there and why mess with something as good as pinot noir? Yet, we came up with a short list in 1999 of grapes we wanted to try. Zweigelt was on the list…

Lo and behold around that same time a research station in British Columbia, Canada was shutting down and the guys at the Mt. Vernon Research Station up in the Skagit Valley went up there on a moments notice and “rescued” hundreds of plants. They brought them back to the USA and took what they needed and basically handed out the rest of the vines to growers to run their own trials. From that I think we got about 20 different vines which we planted at Maury Island Vineyards and grew them for about 5 years before we gave up the vineyard. Before that vineyard shutdown, I took several cuttings of each vine that I wanted to keep experimenting with and planted them at my current vineyard and I still have those vines going now.

We only got two crops of all those grapes before I had to leave them but I was impressed enough with Garanoir, Zweigelt, Regent and St. Laurent to take them with me but I only made one once with the grapes from MIV before we had to leave. I liked the wines I made with Zweigelt, but not enough to plant a large plot of them. I stuck to pinot noir as my main grape only keeping zweigelt around for testing and novelty.

So the reason this is coming up now was in the spring of 2015  I had attended a PSWG meeting and Mike Lempriere (of Perennial Vintners)  had a zweigelt wine he had made recently. I was blown away at how good it was. Full bodied, spicy and rich! I had heard this from Mike before, but he was telling me that he was ripping out all of his Pinot Noir because it ripened two weeks later than zweigelt. It was less work to maintain and it gives 3 times the crop. So, when I tasted his zweigelt wine I was blown away. Is this really true? He had gotten cuttings from my original vines back on Maury Island around 2001. I mean I was so blown away by this wine I was tasting I have to prove it for myself.

Then another bit of information came to my attention. My friend Alan of Anderson Island Vineyards said in 2015 his St. Laurent ripened better and was darker and had a bigger crop than his pinots. I’m like how can this be? I have both right next to each other, albeit not in my best location (there is a fair amount of shading in that row), but the numbers shouldn’t be that far off. I wasn’t seeing the two week difference in ripening. I was skeptical.

So, I am going to make all the cuttings I can from my zweigelt this year and plant them in all the dead spaces I have in my pinot block (I have couple hundred dead vines from crown gall) and see what happens.

I know that Pinot Noir is the king of cool climate wines and it can make some ethereal wines that will blow your socks off, but what if you could sell a really good, dark, rich wine that ages well and takes to oak and sell it for 2/3rds of what you could sell your pinot and yet get double or triple the harvest and ripens earlier and has less rot problems… Why not!