Posted: 2nd December 2019
As he leaves us for pastures new, Willi Klinger, the director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, has sent us all a parting present in the form of an impressive clothbound book (English language version) covering the history and geography of Austrian wine. It is a work of many hands. One of the essays that has excited the most attention is by Daniel Deckers, the author of a history of German wine (abridged and translated by me). It is about the late Dr Friedrich Zweigelt.
Everyone who knows Austrian wine will be aware of the ‘Zweigelt’ cultivar. It is a crossing between Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and with 6,400 hectares it is the most widely planted black grape in the country. It can crop at ridiculously high levels, but providing you are not greedy it is capable of making a lovely, full-bodied, deep-coloured wine. It is one of three grape varieties created by the Zweigelt, the others being the insipid Blauburger and the increasingly rare green grape Goldburger.
So who was he? Of Bohemian German descent, Zweigelt was born in Styria in 1888 and brought up near Graz. He read Botany at the local university and was engaged by the wine and fruit-growing school in Klosterneuburg in 1912, where he rapidly gained a reputation for his skill in crossing grape varieties. It is tempting to think that the idea of perfecting a species made him inclined towards Nazism, which also sought to create a master race through selective breeding?
Whatever the answer, he was a ‘May Violet’ joining the Party in May 1933 when it was still illegal in Austria. This put him in a prime position to reap the rewards in March 1938 when German armies reclaimed the country of Hitler’s birth. Zweigelt used his column in the specialist revue Das Weinland to praise Hitler and all that he would do for Austria. He didn’t mention Austria’s 200,000 odd Jews, who were bound to disagree.
He met with little resistance from Austrian winemakers in the praise he scattered before the invaders. Most Austrian growers were smallholders and it was hardly a parish smitten with philosemitism. An exception was Austria’s biggest wine merchant, and a distant relative of mine, Sándor Wolf, who also possessed a vineyard near Eisenstadt. He was forced to relinquish his collection of antiquities which had formed the rump of Burgenland’s Provincial Museum, and where my Godfather Alphons Barb worked as his curator. Robbed and chastened by a period in Gestapo detention, he made his way to Palestine, where he died in 1946.
Zweigelt expected to be made Principal of the Klosterneuburg Wine School, but in this he was temporarily thwarted and for the time being he merely stood in for a head who was indisposed. He concentrated on purging the institution of its non-Nazi staff, observant Catholics or members of the hated Christian Social Party, sneaking to the authorities that they were indolent or drunken. In Nazi eyes, however, Zweigelt was not entirely free from sin: he had shown himself to be friendly towards Jews, and Das Weinland, the periodical where he had published learned and political papers in the past, was owned by one. At the time of his trial he received valuable support from a half-Jew (or ‘first-grade mongrel’) called Heinrich Weil.
I had heard that Zweigelt had banished all Jews from his school, but in all fairness, Deckers reveals Zweigelt to have been only a mild Nazi who cannot really be said to have perpetrated any major crimes. In May 1943 he finally achieved his aim of becoming Principal but that was shortly after the Battle of Stalingrad announced the beginning of the end. The School profited from the closing of the great monastery of Klosterneuburg and the eviction of its monks, as forty hectares of its vines came their way. He was enthusiastic about German victories, and saw great potential in the return of Nether Styria from Jugoslavia as the 1919 border had been erected in the middle of its best vineyards. His only child was killed fighting in the German army and he ended the war on the run in Langenlois, lodging in the house of one of his wife’s relatives.
In October 1945, Zweigelt was arrested and charged with high treason. He was released on bail on Christmas Eve that same year. The prosecution of Nazis in Austria was somewhat reluctantly pursued, but Zweigelt was in the Soviet Zone, so he might have expected a little more zeal. As it was he was declared only slightly incriminated and discharged in June 1946. Despite being a passionate National Socialist, he had not used this to his advantage and the sterling services he had performed for Austrian viticulture were taken into account. As time went on, his work on creating viable grape varieties eclipsed his errors of political judgement and probably rightly so. Zweigelt lost his position as Principal of the wine school in Klosterneuburg and worked as a consultant in his native Styria planting Zweigelt vineyards for the Liechtenstein family. He died in 1964.
For the time being, Zweigelt’s greatest creation still went by the name of ‘Rotburger’, which was probably all for the good. Austria is a small place and most people in the business would have heard he had had a run in with the courts. At the instigation of Lenz Moser III, it was officially renamed ‘Zweigelt’ in 1975, but some people still clung to the original name. This was certainly still the case in the early nineties when I started work on Austrian wine. The fact that Friedrich Zweigelt had been a Nazi was an open secret. As Deckers points out, Zweigelt was not the only celebrated grape inventor who was a member of the Nazi Party. There was Dr Georg Scheu as well, the man responsible for the excellent Scheurebe, which Austrians piously refuse to call anything other than ‘Sämling 88’. Ironically it was originally named ‘Dr Wagner-Rebe’ as a tribute to Gauleiter Josef Wagner. After the war it was reattributed to Scheu because there was a little less of the smell of sulphur about him.