There are a number of grape varieties which are almost completely identified with one country yet which have spread beyond false borders, especially those borders which have moved around in Central Europe, or in the Alpine regions. These varieties might go by a different name in other countries but they add another taste dimension for those attracted by the original variety. One such example is Blaufränkisch. As you will guess from the title, I have a few in mind and they all have something to do with the German-speaking parts of Europe.
Blaufränkisch is not just identified with Austria, but it is the best known of her red varieties abroad. Only the white Grüner Veltliner would trump Blaufränkisch in consumer recognition of Austrian wine in the English-speaking markets. This doesn’t completely reflect the grapes on the ground because Zweigelt has more than double the land planted to Blaufränkisch in Austria, around 6,500 ha, compared to around 3,000 hectares of Blaufränkisch planted today. By way of comparison there are just less than 15,000 ha of Grüner Veltliner.
In some ways the rise of Blaufränkisch has been for the wrong reasons. As Austria’s wine industry rebuilt itself on the back of quality, it was Blaufränkisch which some producers decided could be immersed in new French oak to emulate the so-called fine wines of France, and satisfy the international taste for chewy vanilla. There is a good argument that the variety prefers oak ageing to stainless steel because the grape’s tendency towards higher acidities seems enhanced by that more inert medium, but the most successful Blaufränkisch wines, in my view, are those which see a moderate degree of ageing in larger format old oak, which is of course the traditional way.
When I say “traditional”, Blaufränkisch has been known under this particular name since the mid-nineteenth century, although doubtless its origins in Austria go back much further. But what do we know about its origins? It was long thought to be a clone of Gamay, which might be why the variety is known as Gamé in Bulgaria, but modern ampelography, with DNA testing, suggests it originates from Lower Styria, that is the Slovenian part of Steiermark.
It soon wooed Austrian producers and although it spread into Austrian Styria, it really found its home in Burgenland. As a late ripening variety which frustratingly for farmers also buds early, it loves a warm climate and warm soils, and it found them both on the gentle initial slopes of the low limestone hills (which the Austrians call the Leithaberg Mountains) surrounding the Neusiedlersee, along with the temperature moderation which this large shallow lake provides. The variety probably crept northwards as the region was under the influence of Hungary. Soprón, south of the lake on the Hungarian side of the border is also home to Blaufränkisch, but let’s not jump ahead.
There is no doubt that the most exciting Blaufränkisch wines come from around the lake, and mostly from its northern and western shores. Limestone really does seem to add an edge to the variety’s personality. The limestone seems to help add freshness to a grape variety which can veer towards tannic, even without new oak, when over extracted. Those producers who use fewer synthetic inputs seem to make wines where the fruit and freshness remains unmasked. The DAC wines can be a blend with 85% Blaufränkisch, but are often varietal wines. If labelled “Reserve” they very probably saw new oak, but the fresh fruitiness of the supposedly lesser cuvées often appeals more. Juiciness combined with spice and freshness.
The area of Mittel-Burgenland is very important for Blaufränkisch, the required warmth here coming from the winds blowing across Hungary’s Pannonian plain. Yet the wines here can often be deeper, in body and weight, often without the freshness of the Leithaberg terroir. But on the slate and decomposed limestone soils of Carnuntum, especially around the Spitzerberg hill in the east, Blaufränkisch can produce a different kind of wine, perhaps exemplified by the various different cuvées made by Dorli Muhr (Muhr-Van der Niepoort), including the old vine top of the range, named after the hill itself, and capable of very long ageing. The climate here is cooler, but this is one region where oak and time create spicy wines with notable finesse…in the right hands.
As I’ve written fairly recently, it’s a short cycle ride to the Hungarian border from the villages on the western side of the Neusiedlersee, and Soprón isn’t all that much further (if you are super fit). This is the Hungarian wine region possibly most identified with the variety under its Hungarian name, Kékfrankos. Hungary actually has 8,000 ha planted to Kékfrankos, far more than Austria’s 3,000 ha. In the past it was made in a full-bodied style, one supposedly praised by Napoleon (though however good a military strategist and codifier of the law he may have been, it is well known that his wine appreciation faculties were more limited). I’ll be making a few recommendations at the end of the article, but it is Soprón Kékfrankos that I would suggest you look for as a first step outside Austria.
Kékfrankos is also widely planted in several other Hungarian regions, but unless you buy the wines of Annamária Réka on the border with Ukraine, the wine you are most likely to find filled with Kékfrankos is Egri Bikaver, aka Bull’s Blood. The books will tell you it’s made from Kadarka, but Kékfrankos has replaced most of the Kadarka in the post-communist era.
The story doesn’t end here, not by any means. When we head into Southern Moravia, within the borders of Czechia, we encounter a new name for Blaufränkisch, Frankovka (or Frankovka Modrá in Slovakia). Whilst Slovakia has around 1,700 ha of Frankovka Modrá and Slovenia about 700 ha of Modra Frankinja (as it is usually called), Frankovka is more important in Czech Moravia, where it is the second most widely planted red variety after Pinot Noir. For Slovakia and Slovenia see the recommendations below.
That Blaufränkisch adapts to different terroirs is pretty well exemplified in Czech Moravia, but if there is a regional style of Frankovka, it is perhaps a style based on lightness and elegance, and above all, bottles that are almost always refreshing. I’m sure this is in part because Moravia is a hotbed of natural, or shall we say low-intervention, winemaking.
Zainab Majerikova of Basket Press Wines is a big fan of Blaufränkisch in its refreshing Frankovka iteration. She places it between Syrah and Pinot Noir in terms of balance and its attributes, though with my wider interest in Alpine wines, perhaps I can see a little of Mondeuse in there, and a few connections to Switzerland via Cornalin and Humagne Rouge.
There’s one part of Moravia which has fairly unique soils, and here perhaps Frankovka particularly shines. Dolni Kounice has soils composed of granodiorite rocks. These are igneous/volcanic, but rather than deriving from lava flow, this is silica-rich magma straight from the bowels of the earth, from volcanoes which haven’t erupted. The wines here have an iron richness similar to Fer Servadou (from Aveyron in Central France, especially Marcillac). There’s definitely a raw meat character, and an earthiness, best experienced in the wines of Jiri Sebela’s Dva Duby.
Before we leave Moravia we need to introduce yet one more alias for this much travelled variety. In and around Boleradice, where the Koráb brothers have their winery, Frankovka was long ago known as Karmazin. Petr Koráb continues to use this name and justifies it on the grounds that it makes, yet again, a completely different style of “Blaufränkisch”. Without a doubt here we do have a lively Syrah lookalike, within the spicy spectrum with bright cherry fruit, yet with a bouquet as much floral as fruity.
The Central European vineyard regions listed above provide a whole host of places from which to explore the journey of Blaufränkisch. But the wine world changes very fast, so where in the future might we find worthwhile examples of the variety? Certainly Croatia, which already has nearly 900 ha of Frankovka, probably more as further plantings become identified. Serbia seems to be pushing a few wines our way too, and Frankovka is becoming a major red variety there.
Even more likely is that we will see some “Burgund Mare” on our shores, that being the name of the variety in Romania, which is an as yet more or less untapped source of great value wine. Less likely perhaps is that we will see much of the 130 ha planted in Italy’s Friuli, but there are also experimental plantings in Malaga (Spain) under the name Lemberger, that used in our final home for Blaufränkisch, Germany.
The world is growing to like Blaufränkisch and today there are a number of places you will see it planted outside of Europe. South Australia’s Adelaide Hills is a hotbed of natural wine experimentation. Hahndorf Hill has had the variety for twenty years or so, but other younger guns are showing interest, alongside other varieties from the same parts of the world (I’m sure some of you have tried Vinteloper’s wonderful Lagrein).
Blaufränkisch is planted in most of Canada’s wine regions, from Okanagan to Nova Scotia, if in small amounts. In the USA it is equally gaining a little ground as an alternative variety. In California it has established itself in Lodi, whilst it is also seeing plantings up in Washington State. Here, under its German name, Lemberger, it has the longest history in North America (planted in Yakima Valley in the 1960s). It suffers however, as has been discussed online recently, with negative associations with the pungent cheese called Limburger. Or is it that Americans don’t like “burger” in their wine? On the US East Coast it has spread from Canada, via Niagara, with pockets in the Finger Lakes Region and, sometimes blended with Cabernet Franc, on Long Island.
In Germany the name given to Blaufränkisch is Lemberger, or occasionally Blauer Limburger (sic). In all of the places above where Blaufränkisch is grown it is seen as an important, quality, red grape. In Germany it has, to a great degree, been maligned and misunderstood. Except, just maybe, today, in one forgotten part of the country.
Lemberger can be found in a number of Germany’s regions, but maybe we should initially look at Baden, Franken and Rheinhessen. In Baden we see more Lemberger in the north, on the Badische Bergstrasse, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to my “Recent Wines July 2020 (Part 1)” article of last week, because we shall be moving just north of here in a moment. In Franken it doesn’t feature in a big way, but they do have it in the vineyards of the Bürgerspital zum Heiligen Geist, the hospital founded in the early 14th century to look after sick citizens of Würzburg.
In Rheinhessen, Lemburger crops up in the most unexpected place, Nierstein. The historic estate of Heyl zu Herrnsheim came under the St Antony holdings in the early years of this century, and the estate manager at the time, Felix Peters, was known for, in the words of Anne Krebiehl (The Wines of Germany, Infinite Ideas 2019) “his inspired idea to plant lower-lying, less steep, Rhine-facing central parcels of the Pettenthal vineyard to Blaufränkisch”. Remember we identified that this variety loves warm soils? That is just what we have here, and the result is a unique terroir wine, once more. How Blaufränkisch expresses terroir so well when made with patience and true understanding.
Despite all these worthwhile efforts, in Germany the land of Lemberger (and indeed Trollinger) is the vineyards of one of the country’s least known and least understood wine regions, Württemberg. We always cite the Ahr as Germany’s “red wine region”, and of course it is, rightly renowned for fine Spätburgunder. But Württemberg has always made more red wine than white. The difference between the two regions was the expectation that Württemberg should satisfy the country’s needs for a lot of red wine.
This wasn’t actually to the benefit of Lemberger. Trollinger (aka Schiava, from the Sudtirol) is far better suited to making light reds with high yields. The climate preferences of Lemberger/Blaufränkisch made it hard to grow and even harder to attain high crop levels. But it didn’t disappear, presumably because a few old timers believed in it. Again, I’m grateful to Anne Krebiehl for the figures on plantings in Württemberg. They rose from a dangerously low 350 ha in 1964 to just over 1,700 ha today. An obvious marked resurgence.
Climate change is perhaps the obvious reason for this renaissance. That has enabled serious producers to make what some in Germany call a full-bodied red wine. In truth, it is often far less full-bodied than much over-oaked Austrian Blaufränkisch, and this is actually its unique selling point for those of us seeking out “Blau” from outside of Austria. It can still give that classic peppery note, but it can equally be more floral than many versions. This means, not for the first time, that those winemakers using low intervention methods can fashion wines of great purity. They might not quite rival these producers’s Pinot Noir for out and out class, but they can compete in the glouglou arena.
For those readers beyond help when seeking geeky knowledge, I should just mention (again, information gleaned from AK’s wonderful book) that the Weinsberg Grape Breeding Centre, famous for creating Kerner in 1929 (by crossing Trollinger and Riesling) has seen fit to attempt various crossings using Lemberger. These have involved partners as diverse as Cabernet Sauvignon and Dornfelder, but in crossing Lemberger with Portugieser, the variety called Heroldrebe came into being. Now this is presumably named after August Herold, a famous Weinsberg scientist, and I have to say that there’s just something about that varietal crossing’s name which so makes me want to try some.
Of course Blaufränkisch plays a part, albeit a less important role, in that really interesting Burgenland crossing, Roessler, but I think we are drifting too far down a hole now.
FURTHER DRINKING (a very random list)
Naturally one could fill a page, but try the following, chosen for their differences:
- Heidi Schröck (Rust, Burgenland) – compare Junge Löwen (85% Blaufränkisch w/ St-Laurent), or Rusterwald with Kulm (old vines, 14m in large oak, a wine to age).
- Joiseph (Jois, Burgenland) – BFF is a lighter style natural wine Blaufränkisch, 12.5% abv with crunchy fruit.
- Dorli Muhr (Carnuntum) – Serious Blaufränkisch “Spitzbergen” with a 20-day maceration, partially with stems, then into 1,000-litre oak. Structured, perfumed and very ageworthy.
- Gut Oggau (Oggau, Burgenland) – “Anastasius” is a Zweigelt/Blaufränkisch blend which is stunning, showing the variety as a 40% (approx) component, and also interesting because it is made in stainless steel.
- Rennersistas (Gols, Burgenland) produce a classic low intervention Blaufränkisch/Zweigelt blend, “Waiting for Tom”. Gorgeous in every way. The variety is a wonderful blending component.
There are, of course, many many more to try out there.
If Soprón is probably Kékfrankos Central in Hungary, then do try the first two. The third suggestion is oh so predictable, but I had to. The fourth is a very old favourite:
- Peter Wetzer Soprón – often longer lees ageing in old Hungarian oak. Clay, gravel, limestone and loess.
- Franz Weninger Soprón – Franz is based in Austria (Horitschon) where his son is now in charge. Compare the Austrian “Hochäcker” Blaufränkisch with the Soprón Kékfrankos
- Réka-Koncz (Barabás, Eastern Hungary) – Annamária Réka’s Kékfrankos is called “A Change of Heart”. It sees a two-week maceration with 20% whole bunches. Very mineral.
- Hegyi-Kaló (Eger) – remarkably haunting bouquet of tea and roses, sappy, peppery, a little different. Made by a lovely, intuitive, young couple. It’s Júlia below.
- Dva Duby (Dolni Kounice) – Frankovka off granodiorite. Iron, meat and blood-edged, with earthy bright red fruits. Quoting the importer, “Jiri Sebela’s wines have a lightness of being”. Shall I just add “unbearable” if sold out (ouch!).
- Tomas Cacik (Kobyli) – Tomas sadly died late 2018 but his wife continues his work. Old vines but lightness, once more showing Czech Frankovka is different.
- Ota Sevcik – tiny production off a couple of hectares, a bit bigger than the previous two Frankovkas but elegant and with great personality. His “Frankovka Claret”, made in a lighter clairet style, is not to be missed.
- Petr Korab – the guy who calls his Frankovka “Karmazin”. More black-fruited and spiced cherry but a floral bouquet.
- Vino Magula – late released (at 5/6-y-o) cuvées show restrained power, ageing gracefully and some say becoming like Pinot Noir as they do so.
- Strekov 1075 – almost the antithesis, carbonic maceration Frankovka, young vines, zero sulphur added. Drum roll (from Zsolt Sütó) please!
- Matic (Stajerska) – if you can find this it comes in a crown cap-sealed litre bottle and is a cherry/cinnamon fruity glugger, where the winemaker pays homage to the way Modrá Frankovka was made by his grandfather.
- There are a host of fine Lemberger recommendations in the Württemberg chapter of Anne Krebiehl’s “Wines of Germany”. I recently wrote about Roterfaden, a winery run by a young couple about 20-30 miles from Stuttgart, at Roßwag. Biodynamic Lemberger Landwein made with whole bunches and skin contact makes their reds really scented, fruity and zippy. A sommelier friend of theirs called their Lemberger “a solid earthiness with angel’s wings”.