Posted: 1st Novemeber 2019
I became acquainted with the Central European grape variety Blaufränkisch at the beginning of the nineties, when I was working on my first book on Austrian wine. It was Austria’s most prestigious black grape and naturally they were plugging it for all its worth. I went sucking and spitting from estate to estate in Mittelburgenland where some of the wines struck me as being like decent cru bourgeois claret, while others were rather dried out and hard. The problem, it seemed to me, was a certain fragility of fruit. The simplest were the best. If you put the wines into small oak, particularly new barriques, they suffered. The best way to proceed was to age the wine in large tuns, and not for too long, but in those days small oak was the emperor’s new clothes – Austrians couldn’t get enough of it.
There were exceptions, and they were principally on the Leitha Hills where Engelbert Prieler made exquisite, silky, Burgundian-style Blaufränkisch wines on his Goldberg site, and down on the western side of Lake Neusiedl, where Ernst Triebaumer, in particular, was justly famous for his Mariental wines. In most cases I had to say Blaufränkisch needed a friend: another grape variety that could give it the velvet texture and fruit that it otherwise lacked. The Zweigelt grape variety – invented by the politically suspect Friedrich Zweigelt – was just that: a crossing of Blaufränkisch with the fruity St Laurent, and providing you weren’t too greedy, it was capable of producing very attractive wines. There were other successful blends too, particularly in the Seewinkel on the other side of the lake, where Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and Younameit were combined with Blaufränkisch to provide what were often spectacular results.
“But Austrians persisted with oaking up their Blaufränkisch wines, often to horrendous effect. I have painful memories of some of these coming under my nose in the years I judged the country’s main wine competition: the Salon, and again during the ten years I was in charge of the Austrian jury at the World Wine Awards. With time I learned to take the back seat, as others liked the wines more than I did. I let them decide if any top medals were to be awarded for Blaufränkisch: wine is a matter of taste, and our tastes fortunately vary.”
Anton BAUER ,.seen here tasting one of his white wines has a huge following in the USA.His BLAUFRANKISCH Reserve (see below) sells out every year.
Since then there have been changes to the law. Austria has a DAC regulation for Mittelburgenland or ‘Blaufränkischland’ now which separates the simpler Blaufränkisch wines from the superior sort. That means provision is made for a more cheerful wine which suits my taste, and the people who really like serious Blaufränkisch can opt for the reserve wines. I have to admit, however, there are some very good reserve wines now that Austrians have toned down the oak a bit or got the hang of using it.
“Blaufränkisch was also one of the main black grapes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and there are a great many hectares of it planted in Hungary, Romania, Czechia, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia (not to mention Bulgaria, Spain and Australia) which often give different results to Austria; and we mustn’t forget Germany either, where hiding under the name of Lemberger, it is grown in southerly Württemberg, making wines that are considerably lighter than those of Austria or Hungary. Some of these have their merits too.”
On 29 October, Wines from Hungary put on a Tasting of Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos wines in London partly fronted by my friend Elizabeth Gabay MW. The accent was naturally on Hungary, but there were plenty of other wines besides and a lot of Hungarian ‘cuvées’ in which the mainstay was Kékfrankos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that I often preferred the ‘Bikaver’ blends in which Kékfrankos dominated. These are most famous from Eger (remember ‘Bulls’ Blood?), but they also come from Szekszárd the region that nurtured my family before they departed for Vienna, and which must necessarily find a special place in my heart.
In Eger then, the wines I liked were the 2016 Bikaver from St Andrea – Nagy-Eged-Hegy (Big Hill of Eger) which had weight and fruit due to the clever admixture of Merlot, Syrah, Kadarka (the otter) and Pinot Noir. From Toth Ferenc I favoured the quince-scented Bikaver Superior where the Kékfrankos was supplemented by Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The Osteros wines had a faint smell of horseradish to them, but I liked the 2015 pure Kékfrankos.
Matra is a cool region between Budapest and Tokay which I would have thought unsuitable for Kékfrankos, but the 2016 Kerekés Örszáz (500) limited to 500 bottles was impressive, but certainly pricy – indeed none of these Hungarian wines was exactly cheap. I also liked the smoky, earthy 2018 Kékfrankos from Kovács es Lanya.
And so to Szekszàrd, near to my family crucible of Bonyhad, which produces nice, friendly, juicy Kékfrankos. The Bordri winery has a good, big, strawberry-scented 2016 straight Kékfrankos in ‘Gurovica’. That strawberry character I also found in the 2018 Szivem Baranya-völgy Kékfrankos from Heiman & Fiai. Schieber makes a luscious Bikaver with additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Kardarka Siller and Kadarka.
Sopron or Ödenburg is on Lake Neusiedl and just a hop and a skip from Austria. It was awarded to Hungary in 1921, but much of the population was German-speaking, and they looked more towards Vienna than Budapest. I liked the supple 2017 Kékfrankos from Vincellér and the wines from Linzer Orosz in particular: their 2015 PS Kekfrankos was one of the best wines in the tasting. I needed no introduction to the Kékfrankos wines from Pfneiszl: I had discovered them in Austria in June.
Back on Lake Balaton, I admired the 2017 Szent Donat single-vineyard Kékfrankos and the 2017 Gilvessy Kékfrankos grown on basalt in Badacsony. In Balatonfüred, there were good things from Homola too.
“Hungary’s hottest wines come from Villány or ‘Wieland’ in the south. This was a village colonised by industrious Saxons in the eighteenth century. After the war they suffered a bit, but since 1989 the reputation of their wines has soared and their prices with it. I very much liked the 2016 Heumann Kékfrankos Reserve as well as the minty 2016 Kékfrankos from Vylyan and the Montenuovo Cuvée made with the addition of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zweigelt. The wine commemorates a dispossessed grandee who was the former owner of the vineyard.”
We crossed the border into Slovakia where Blaufränkisch is called ‘Frankovka’ as it is in Southern Moravia (now part of Czechia). I was reminded that much of Slovakia is ethnically Hungarian, as is some of Romanian Transylvania where there were good examples from the Nichbil Winery and Balla Géza. The big surprise came from two former Hungarian territories to the south: Istria and Slavonia, now parts of Croatia. From Istria (on the coast) where Blaufränkisch is called ‘Borgonja’ or ‘Burgundy’) came the leathery 2013 Clemente blend of Borgonja, Merlot, Cabernet and Teran while from northern Slavonia I liked the 2016 ‘Frankovka’ Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Ilocki Podrumi as well as the straight 2015 Frankovka Premium. In neighbouring Slovenia, my old friend Robert Gorjak at Dveri Pax presented a 2012 Frankovka Modra that was also excellent.
There was a single Spanish ‘Lemberger’ a 2013 Anicipo from F Schatz in Ronda! Not only Spain, but about as far south as you can get. It was a big monster which had spent twelve months in Slovenian oak, but it was by no means disagreeable.
Which brings us back to Austria: Austria had a small presence at the tasting with Weingut Nittnaus (there are two – these are not the Gols Nittnäuser, Hans and Anita) presenting a supple 2017 Edelgrund and the 2016 Blaufränkisch Reserve from Günter and Regina Triebaumer. Günter is the son of the late Paul Triebaumer, the brother of Ernst. I was very fond of Paul, an eccentric who used to make wine from a bewildering number of grape varieties in Rust on Lake Neusiedl.
“There was also a lovely Anton Bauer Blaufränkisch Reserve (no date and allegedly from Burgenland) from the loess soils of the Wagram west of Vienna, that was soft and elegant and was apparently worth nearly £40 at retail. These Austrians had a suavité lacking in many of the other wines in the room, but their position is by no means unassailable and the Magyars are massing at the frontier and daily growing in strength.”