What’s in a Name?
“Blaufränkisch” goes by several alternate names: Kékfrankos, in Hungary, Frankovka in the Czech Republic, “Blue Franc” in America (particularly, by Steele Wines), and Lemberger in Germany. Jed Steele, in his description for his Shooting Star Blue Franc, states that “Blaufränkisch,” translated literally means “blue grape from France.” As someone who is semi-fluent in German, I can vouch for this translation, though I am unsure if this is as “ancient” a name, as he describes.
Apocryphal stories involving Charlemagne claim that he designated “better” wines as “Fränkisch,” and lower quality wines as “Heunisch,” after the Huns. Other apocryphal stories mention Napoleon’s army purchasing the wine with a blue franc note near Sopron, in (then) Austria-Hungary. Perhaps inspired by this story, Steele winery’s Blue Franc features a blue franc note as part of its label.
“Lemberger” translates from German as “from (or of) Lemberg.” Lemberg is now a part of Slovenia. Unfortunately, “Lemberger” is reminiscent of “Limberger,” a notoriously aromatic cheese that is an acquired taste, to put it politely. This similarity in names may be a contributing factor to the difficulties this wine has had in becoming more widely known in the United States.
Obviously Blaufränkisch tastes nothing like the cheese, but what does it taste like?
Key Sensory Characteristics
The second edition of Karen MacNeill’s Wine Bible describes Blaufränkisch as “spicy, herbal, and floral…with flavors of woodland berries and a sense of forestiness…[with] grip and bite” (MacNeill, 2015, p. 596). The Oxford Companion to Wine also mentions “firm acidity, good weight, deep color, useful tannin and spicy character” (Robinson, 2006, p. 82). Other flavors can include blueberries, red cherries, spices, licorice, and raspberries. Wine Searcher describes Austrian Blaufränkisch as “intensely colored, medium-bodied reds with brooding, black-fruit flavors and a hint of peppery spice,” and having a “fruit-forward profile with aromas of spiced black cherries.Yet these are descriptors for the usual red wines made from Blaufränkisch.
Dúzsi Tamás, in Hungary has begun making a Kékfrankos Rosé. Using fruit from the Siógärd-Lányvár vineyard, and fermented in cooled steel tanks, Dúzsi Tamás has created a Rosé that they claim has “elegant exotic fruity fragrances” and “taste notes of grapefruit, mango, and pomelo.” Cottonwood Cellars in Colorado makes a “White Lemberger” (which, from photos, appears to be more of a Rosé), with a “fruity bouquet joined by sweet pear and grapefruit,” and “[f]lavors of cherry, peaches, cranberry, citrus peel and earth.” There also appear to be at least a few wineries attempting a full Blaufränkisch Blanc de Noir, including Weingut Schloss Affaltrach in Württemberg, Germany. They describe their Lemberger Blanc de Noir as “fruity and fresh with an elegant sweetness” (“Fruchtig und Frisch mit einer eleganten Süße!”).
Major (and Minor) Growing Regions
There has been much conjecture over the origins of the Blaufränkisch varietal. Some believed it was genetically identical to Pinot Noir, or Gamay Noir. Recent genetic testing, however, shows that it shares genes with Blauer Portugieser, Grüner Silvaner and Weisser Heunisch, and has a common ancestor in Blaue Zimmetraube placing the origin of the varietal in Lower Styria. Blaufränkisch is currently grown predominantly in Austria and Hungary, but can also be found in Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Croatia, as well as the United States (California, New York and Washington, as well as Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Colorado). Hahndorf Hill Winery is even growing and producing Blaufränkisch in Australia, and has won several awards for it. Blaufränkisch seems to do very well in warmer climates.
Though Blaufränkisch is grown in several places, I will focus on Austria and Hungary, as they are the two main regions in which it is grown, and Washington State, here in the U.S. In Austria, the primary growing region is in Burgenland. Burgenland is home to an unusual body of water, the Neusiedlersee – a marshy lake over 20 miles long, yet, at most, only about 6 feet deep. The land surrounding it is very flat, and it is somewhat counter-intuitive that this would be prime Austrian wine country. Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson comment on this in the World Atlas of Wine, noting that the mist surrounding the lake in the region’s warm autumns is extremely conducive to botrytis. Blaufränkisch is the most popular red varietal in the region, and especially in Mittelburgenland (just south of the Neusiedlersee). Südburgenland, a bit further south is another popular growing area for Blaufränkisch, producing lighter wines than Mittelburgenland, with minerality and spice, due to the high amounts of iron in the soil. In 2015, approximately 6,504 acres of Blaufränkisch were grown in Burgenland.
In neighboring Hungary, Kékfrankos is also extremely popular. In 2010, Hungarian Kékfrankos was planted in over 8,000 hectares of land, accounting for nearly half of the world’s total planted acreage of the varietal. It fares extremely well in the south, and can be found in Szekszárd, Eger, Mátra, and Sopron, on the Austrian border. It is also used as an ingredient in Hungary’s popular Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”) blend. Other notable growing regions in Hungary include Kunság, the largest planted area. Kunság Kékfrankos produces wines with Light body, moderate fruit intensity and spiciness and Villány, which produces a heavy Kékfrankos, deep in color and ripe fruit.
If Blaufränkisch is doing well in the south, it also does very well in the cooler climates of the North. Lemberger was first planted in the state of Washington in the 1960s and 1970s. The first commercial vineyards were planted by Kiona Vineyards & Winery in 1976. Although it has never comprised a larger percentage of planted vineyards in Washington, the amount of acreage devoted to Lemberger has continued to decline. Jed Steele’s Blue Franc continues to source fruit from Washington, and other wineries still produce Blaufränkisch wines, including Kiona and Thurston Wolfe.
Though these wines have their followers, the varietal never completely “launched,” the way growers had hoped. In an interview with Great Northwest Wine, winemaker Wade Wolfe (owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery, in Prosser, Washington) thinks that the reasons may have to do with the name “Lemberger,” which may be too reminiscent of an infamous cheese with a similar name. “I would say it was unfortunate that it was introduced under the name Lemberger rather than Blaufränkisch. It would have been a far more successful variety – at least in terms of marketing – if they’d done that.” Wolfe also believes that the increasing popularity of Syrah may have been a contributing factor for the failure to launch, as it became a preferred varietal for blending.
Blaufränkisch in Action
For me, it isn’t enough to research and read about a wine. I want to taste the wine; to experience it firsthand. I selected four bottles – three reds, and one Rosé. The reds were from Germany and Austria, and the Rosé from Hungary. So how is Blaufränkisch in the real world?
The first wine I tried was the 2015 Schnaitmann Lemberger Steinwege, described as “teeming with wild berry flavors, zippy acidity and chalky minerals.” Unfortunately, none of this was the case with the bottle I procured from a local establishment. Upon opening the bottle, I was immediately assaulted with the aroma of rotten produce, indicative of ethyl mercaptan. This bottle was rank, and “off.” As it was the last bottle available, I exchanged it for the 2014 Blaufränkisch Burgenland, from Moric. I will describe this one, below. Just because my bottle was bad, doesn’t mean yours will be. By all means, do not let me discourage you on this one.
The 2015 Prieler Blaufränkisch Johanneshöhe, also from Burgenland, Austria, was a welcome relief after the first bottle. The color was dark plum, and light around the edges. On the nose were chocolate covered espresso, hints of raspberry, pencil shavings, and graphite. Flavors included chocolate, with hints of wild blueberry marionberry, and other dark brambly berries; a hint of black pepper at the end. It is a smooth wine with low acid, soft tannins, and nicely balanced. This is Prieler’s lower-end Blaufränkisch, and it has made me eager to try more, and some of their more expensive ones. Their website states that this wine contains fruit from nine vineyards, “nearly all of which have iron and fossil-rich cambisol soil.”
If the Prieler was an excellent ambassador for Burgenland Blaufränkisch, the Moric, sadly, was not – at first. The 2014 Moric Blaufränkisch Burgenland was an inky dark ruby in color, with boysenberry, leather, raisin, and a hint of violet on the nose. It is a full-bodied wine, and low acid. The wine tasted of black cherry and cranberry initially. After decanting, the wine also presented sour cherry, and after a long while, sour watermelon. The Moric also had soft tannins and low acid, but seemed much “heavier” than the Prieler (which was almost like Pinot Noir in its “lightness”). Ultimately, the Moric felt “unfinished,” and disjointed. There were interesting flavors and aromas, but they never integrated into a cohesive whole. Considering Moric’s reputation as a premiere Blaufränkisch producer in Austria, I was disappointed. I did, however, decide to give it a second chance, and after the bottle had been opened for 24 hours, I poured another round. What a difference a day makes! While the Prieler is still my favorite between the two, the Moric came together after letting it breathe for a while. Coffee, cranberry, and cracked pepper on the nose, with a hint of violet. The cranberry also came to the front in tasting, the acid remained low with soft tannins and a peppery finish.
Finally, the Rosé. The Dúzsi Tamás Kékfrankos Rosé was an incredibly pleasant surprise, and was completely different from the reds. The wine is clear and bright, with a deep salmon color. Aromas of honey and stone fruit – apricot, with a hint of peach, and flavors of citrus, grapefruit, mango, and apricot. The wine is well integrated and balanced with medium acid, and a slight spritz. The pepperiness of the reds is not as overt, but hidden (in a good way) beneath the other flavor notes. This is a unique Rosé that I would highly recommend. Dúzsi Tamás claims that it is a customer favorite, and I believe it. It is fermented in cool steel tanks, and bottled in early spring. The Rosé has 13% alcohol, with no indication of hotness. It does sneak up on one, however, with the alcohol hidden by the outstanding flavors and drinkability of the wine. This is a wine that would pair perfectly with a summer barbecue.
The Great Unknown
Though Blaufränkisch is popular in other countries, it has yet to make serious inroads into the United States. It seems to be a wine whose reputation is spread by word of mouth. Early attempts to gain a foothold in the American wine market were hampered by the name “Lemberger,” and its false-association with the rather aromatic cheese, Limberger. “Blaufränkisch,” and “Kékfrankos” take some effort to say in English (abundant mispronunciations of “Pinot Noir” not withstanding). German and Eastern European languages sound harsh compared to French words such as “Pinot Noir,” or “Sauvignon.” It is also difficult to gauge how the 1985 Glycol scandal in the Austrian wine industry may have affected any efforts to import Blaufränkisch to a potential American audience. Hungarian wines are just not on the radar for most American wine consumers, which is a shame, because the Dúzsi Tamás Rosé mentioned above, is stellar.
There do, however, appear to be regular efforts to bring the varietal to the attention of Americans. Between 2010 and 2017, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov has published five articles about Blaufränkisch: Blaufränkisch Reveals Itself (January 15, 2010), A Complex Red with an Austrian Accent (September 13, 2011), Blaufränkisch, an Austrian Red Just Waiting to Be Discovered (October 15, 2015), Your Next Lesson: Blaufränkisch from Austria (August 31, 2017), and Blaufränkisch from Austria: The Rewards of Exploration (September 28, 2017). Wine Folly’s May 2017 article 11 Red Summer Wines You’ve Never Heard Of makes mention of Blaufränkisch, and Circo Vino’s September 2017 newsletter contained a piece titled Blaufränkisch Is Your Dinner’s #BFFF. Whether any of this will lead to a Blaufränkisch boom in the U.S. remains to be seen. In the meantime, I will stock up on the Prieler and the Dúzsi Tamás, continue to look for other exceptional bottles, and occasionally offer them to friends to see if they want to join the secret club.