Kékfrankos: convertible currency

When the whole wine world is buzzing with the fever of diversity and originality, then we can count our lucky stars that we are blessed with a red grape that makes a unique and elegant wine, with long ageing potential, and one which practically only grows in the Carpathian Basin. We might have been somewhat ironic about Kékfrankos being the “Great Red Hope”, that constantly-heralded but never arriving champion of just a few years back. Indeed, it would still be too early to put it on a pedestal, although it seems a lot more likely that this could happen when compared to earlier. In the last few years, Hungarian Kékfrankos wines have become worthy challengers of international varieties in every category.

Today, we can be better off with a Kékfrankos costing around 2,000 forints than a similarly priced Cabernet-based blend, and every year, there are two or three top Kékfrankos ranked among the best Hungarian reds. If the progress doesn’t come grinding to a halt then Kékfrankos could become to Hungarian wine what Tempranillo is to Rioja, Nebbiolo to Piedmont (Piamonte) and Sangiovese to Tuscany – essentially inimitable local colour that doesn’t occur anywhere else.

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The Austro-Hungarian Wine Monarchy

Kékfrankos could actually be a Hungarian variety, although it wasn’t registered as such and there is not much chance of name revision. The Blaufränkisch name was recorded by the International Commission for Ampelography in Colmar (Alsace) in 1875. Even though it was never in any doubt, ever since 2009 it’s been a genetically backed up fact that the Austrian Blaufränkisch is identical to the Hungarian Kékfrankos. On the other hand, it can be said that the latest scientific research tells us that the cradle of the variety was somewhere in the Dalmatia-Austria-Hungary triangle.

Today’s epicentre is undoubtedly Burgenland, which Austrians rightfully call “Blaufränkischland”. Burgenland (Őrvidék in Hungarian) was abandoned during the Turkish invasion and was later settled by Germans arriving from Bavaria. However, it belonged to Hungary administratively speaking until as late as 1921, and its capital, Sopron, remained Hungarian. This double identity brought along with it – among other things – the Weninger winery in Balf, which has played a significant role in the development of Hungarian Kékfrankos culture ever since its opening in 1997.

 

Why frankos?

The explanation of the name Kékfrankos is a simple as pie, yet its origin is hardly known. In Hungary, the general interpretation is that during the Napoleonic wars when Sopron was under French control, soldiers of the French garrison had two types of currency: the white Franc which was only valid in a limited circle, as opposed to the fully-convertible blue Franc. The Sopron poncichters quickly learnt to ask for the blue one in return for wine; that’s how Kékfrankos became a synonym for good wine. Incidentally, the word poncichters comes from the German expression Bohnen züchten meaning bean growers, as the grape growers often grew beans between the rows of vines. Besides being beneficial for the grapes, growing beans also provided a source of income in the poor vintages. The truth is that Kékfrankos is the literal translation of Blaufränkisch from which the blau requires no explanation and the fränkisch was used to differentiate the quality varieties from the inferior so-called Heunisch varieties since the time of Charlemagne.

As far as family connections are concerned, the view that Kékfrankos is identical to Gamay Noir (also known from Beaujolais) prevailed for a long time, which appeared to have been supported by the seemingly localised variation on its name of Gamé in Bulgaria. They are actually not identical but are in fact half-siblings. According to the results of recent genetic examinations, one of the ancestors of Kékfrankos is Gouais Blanc, known as Heunisch Weiss in German speaking countries. Despite the fact that this grape grows poor quality white grapes, it is the ancestor of abundant noble varieties, including the likes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Furmint and Riesling. The other ancestor is yet to be found, but one candidate is the red version of Sylvaner. Even though the variety is so closely associated with Austria today, the total area under vine in Hungary is actually larger than all the other countries growing Kékfrankos combined. Furthermore, we need it as much as we do sliced bread. Simply put, with white wine Furmint is our destiny, for red it’s Kékfrankos. These are the grapes that have a tradition here, which with their personalities can help give a face to Hungarian wine. To foreigners, Furmint is inextricably linked with Tokaj, while for Kékfrankos, strange as it might sound, Austria readily comes to mind. Hence, it is going to be easier for Kékfrankos to make waves swimming in the slipstream of Blaufränkisch. The Austrians are not only breaking the way, collecting and evaluate the experiences, but they are also bearing the marketing costs. Furthermore, they even gave us one of their most talented winemakers (Franz R. Weninger).

 

What is it: it wakes up early, goes to sleep late and grows large?

When experts tackled the question of explaining why Kékfrankos, which wasn’t regarded so highly earlier, could produce world-class wines, interesting contradictions came to light. One of the notable aspects was that contrary to other varieties to which it can be compared, Kékfrankos buds early, ripens late, and grows vigorously. Perhaps Sangiovese has similar characteristics.

All these factors combine to present quite a challenge to grape growers: it’s susceptible to frost, due to the early budding; it’s at risk from fungal infections arriving with the autumn rains; and abundant growth has never been synonymous with good quality. However if we look on the bright side, the long hang time helps build the richness of the aromas. Another anomaly can also be applied to Kadarka or Furmint. Just as in the case of fruit, where the vitamins lie in the skins, the majority of matter in a grape that brings flavour, structure and content to the wine is also to be found in the skins. The smaller the berries are, the more favourable the skin to juice proportion is. This means that from the point of view of quality, the small-berried, thick-skinned, low-yielding grape varieties are ideal. However, the majority of Kékfrankos grown today is nothing like this. Due to the poverty following phylloxera and because of the cooperative mass production after World War II, people concentrated on the prolifically growing versions for many decades. Firstly the Austrian winemakers from the end of the 80s, joined by their Hungarian counterparts in the 90s, sought to make more challenging wines from this raw material. On top of altering the training systems and exercising yield control, they took on the Bordeaux winemaking model as an example: they tried to extract as much colour and aroma from the skins as possible, and back up the structure with lengthy ageing on oak barrels. The initial success of Kékfrankos in Austria – and in Hungary – was thanks to these heavily-extracted and barrique wines. In Austria the first Blaufränkisch icon, for which they could charge as much for as for a Bordeaux blend, was Ernst Triebaumer’s 1986 Mariental.

 

Small is beautiful

As the influence of Bordeaux decreased in the world and that of Burgundy grew, winemakers discovered a different clone of Kékfrankos that was growing in some old Kékfrankos plantations that hadn’t been drawn into cooperative mass production: with smaller berries, smaller bunches and thicker skins. Philological research similarly strengthened this picture: viticultural sources dating from before the phylloxera epidemic also described the variety this way. The Burgundy-style direction – despite the fact that the expression nagyburgundi (lit. big Burgundy) is known in Hungary, similarly as Borgonja in Croatia – is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the first successful prototypes having being bottled in Austria at the beginning of the 2000s. Kékfrankos made in this vein gives a lighter coloured, lively, fruity, spicy wine with vibrant acidity that doesn’t try to break records, neither in terms of body or alcohol.

In 2009, in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, an Austrian red broke through the magical 95-point barrier. This wine was the 2006 Moric Blaufränkisch Neckenmarkter Alte Reben. Moric’s winemaker, Roland Velich, is an apostle of the old-vine, wild-yeast Burgundy school, who writes the name of the vinery with “c” instead of “tz”, out of respect to the wine region’s Hungarian traditions. Velich is possibly the most eloquent and influential propagator of the variety, who believes there is a huge potential in Kékfrankos. “There is no other variety in the world that can approach the elegance and complexity of Burgundy’s Pinot Noir as much as the Austrian Blaufränkisch. On top of that, there aren’t many other red grapes, if any at all, that so sensitively convey the character of the place of growth and soil,” he said.

Today, there are also Kékfrankos wines here in Hungary – primarily in Sopron – that require a Burgundy glass instead of a Bordeaux one, and tasting them take us closer to the spirit of Burgundy than the majority of Hungarian Pinot Noirs.

 

How do you recognise Kékfrankos?

Which one? The varietal character of Kékfrankos is hard to grasp, since one of its strengths is that it can have so many different appearances. It’s a real articulator of terroir. It would be hard to find common ground between a serious Merlot-like Sauska, a deep Cabernet-like Takler, a delicate Pinot-like Frigyes Bott, an exotic Syrah-like Weninger Spérn Steiner and a New World-like Konyári Jánoshegyi Kékfrankos.

Kékfrankos doesn’t just react sensitively to the time of the harvest and cellar technology but also to the unique qualities of regions, soils and microclimates. If winemakers let it happen, it truly mirrors the place of growth which is a real treasure in today’s terroir-centred wine world. Nevertheless, we can say as much as Kékfrankos in general creates wine with lively acids, medium body, intensively fruity (cherry, sour cherry), spicy (caraway seed, pepper), which is never heavy or too tannic. There’s also another ace held in its hand: it possesses longevity. According to sources, the 1986 Triebaumer Mariental is still in very good shape. Indeed, our own experience tells us that Hungarian Kékfrankos is similarly long-lived, when we look at the likes of Weninger Spern Steiner 2002, Ráspi Válogatás 2003 and St. Andrea Tóbérc.