A London tasting of Blaufränkisch wines from central Europe
Blaufränkisch in Austria, Lemberger in Germany, kékfrankos in Hungary, frankovka in Slovakia and Croatia… the grape variety that has so many different names and which can be produced in so many different styles is still little known in the UK. Its many faces include youthful and sometimes brutally acidic wines at one end of the spectrum, and velvety, mature, full-bodied meditative ones at the other. Luckily for the curious, the organizers of this walk-around tasting, Wines of Hungary, had also included two masterclasses in the programme, plus a fascinating open-table tasting of rosés made from the grape variety.
The fact that Blaufränkisch is well known in Austria, Slovakia, or Hungary will not surprise anyone. But in this tasting I also came across a wine that was produced in southern Spain! The Malaga-based winemaker of German origin, Friedrich Schatz, has produced a biodynamic Lemberger (as Blaufränkisch is typically called in Germany) which, thanks to the Mediterranean influence, displays friendly, tamed acidity and ripe fruit. Some exhibitors came from Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and even Australia. Most of them have no representative in the UK as yet, and the main rationale for the tasting was to draw the attention of the market to these wines.
Since Blaufränkisch is the main component of the bikavér wines produced in Eger and Szekszárd in Hungary, what could have been more appropriate than a masterclass comparing different styles of Bikavér? We tasted six wines, of which I particularly liked the Bodri Bikavér Faluhely Selection (2016) from Szekszárd, the Superior Bikavér (2017) of Ferenc Tóth from Eger, and another Eger wine, the Nagy-Eged-Hegy Grand Superior of St Andrea.
Bikavér, or ‘bull’s blood’, is not unknown in the UK market. Its somewhat dodgy history goes back a few decades, when British off-licences were inundated with the cheap, poorly made plonk following a boom of industrial-scale wine production in communist Hungary. Its bad reputation must be overwritten and a new one established, the representatives of both Bikavér regions stated. An important step in this process is avoiding the use of the name ‘bull’s blood’ on the British market, this term carrying such negative connotations for the more mature generations.
Blaufränkisch is a late-ripening variety, has enormous acidity, and is prone to overproduction. All these explain why great care and attention are needed both in the vineyard and in the winery if one is to produce a high-quality wine. The powerful colour and tannins of the grape are some positive features, which also contribute to the ageing potential of the wines. At the Danube tasting there were several wines where I felt that the acidity has not been harmoniously integrated into the overall personality of the wines; the unruly, sometimes overwhelming acidity can easily oppress all other characteristics. At other times it was the overuse of oak that created an imbalance. All in all, my impression was that it is not easy to produce an outstanding wine from Blaufränkisch grapes. At the same time I was delighted to see the large number of well-made wines. When I asked Elizabeth Gabay MW, an expert of central European wines, about this somewhat uneven playing field, she explained that in past decades Blaufränkisch was commonly used as a workhorse variety, producing lots of rustic, unsophisticated, overly acidic wines. It is this past inheritance that needs to be superseded by contemporary winemakers – and many seem to have succeeded in this.
All the wines I tasted on the stand of the Bodri winery of Szekszárd, for example, had a lot of structure and concentration. One reason for this, as I found out, was that they always leave a few bunches to ripen right until the end of the harvest. These then arrive at the winery with very high sugar levels and lend body and density to the wine. Another common feature of these wines is a spicy flavour reminiscent of cloves and Christmas cakes, which, apparently, is due to the spicy character of the Hungarian oak barrels used at the winery.
I was equally impressed by the Garam wines of Frigyes Bott. These beautiful wines from 2018, as young as they may have been, already showed a lot of harmony and softness, in contrast to the sometimes rough tannins found elsewhere.
As a late-ripening, high-acidity grape, Blaufränkisch is an ideal candidate for the production of rosé wines. Elizabeth Gabay had put together an exciting flight of around twenty rosés, mainly from Hungary. Rosé has had a bit of a bad PR, though this may be changing today – nevertheless I believe that to produce a good rosé wine is one of the loveliest challenges for a winemaker. Creating a balance of ripe but very fresh fruit, lightness, and lively acidity is an art in itself. Blaufränkisch is particularly suited for this because even upon reaching full phenolic ripeness, the grape still contains an abundance of acidity. Fizzi Miska and Soproni Rosé by the Vincellér winery, Just Enjoy by Frigyes Bott, and Tagyon-hegy Rosé by the Martinus winery all have different personalities, but each of them is spot on.
It is difficult to tell how successful Blaufränkisch wines will be in the UK. While many of the wines at the Blue of the Danube tasting were very competitively priced, these tended to be the less convincing examples. Those that were really interesting and well made may, I fear, prove too expensive for the British market – too expensive, that is, for consumers who will have never heard of either the wine regions or the grape variety in question. As a niche wine for discerning drinkers, though, Blaufränkisch could certainly hold an attraction.