The king of the Franks

The once obscure Blaufränkisch is a red wine whose time has come, says John Szabo MS.

Eisenberg DAC in southern Burgenland
Eisenberg DAC in southern Burgenland; Photo: John Szabo

In the middle of the tasting, Martin Nittnaus suddenly interjects: “People always say that Blaufränkisch is our Pinot Noir, or Sangiovese. But no, it’s not true. Blaufränkisch is Blaufränkisch.” He grows more animated as he speaks.   

Nittnaus, who works at the family winery on the shores of the Neusiedlersee in Burgenland, Austria, is a passionate advocate for central Europe’s most important red variety, eager to see it famous in its own category, rather than as an imperfect representation of something else. 

His passion is inherited; Martin’s parents Hans and Anita have been believers in Blaufränkisch since taking over the family estate in 1986. After an initial foray into international grapes for commercial reasons, the Nittnauses are now firmly behind Blaufränkisch, betting the majority of the family business on it. 

The bet, it appears, is paying off. Worldwide interest in Blaufränkisch is trending up, with the grape primed to take its place alongside the great regional specialties of Europe. And it’s Austrian Blaufränkisch that’s the reference point.

Blue renaissance

Until recently, the name Blaufränkisch (or its many synonyms) raised eyebrows among even seasoned drinkers. “Ten years ago, if I said ‘Blaufränkisch’, customers would respond, B-what? They hadn’t even heard of it,” recalls Isa Bal MS, formerly head sommelier at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, a three-star Michelin restaurant.

The grape, after all, had little going for it. Not only was the name obscure, but it was also made in obscure parts of Europe – countries such as Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, which were in any case more associated with white wines. The grape is also naturally high acid, disparaged in a world that was besotted by ripe, plush red wines. Efforts to muscle it into a more international style through enthusiastic extraction and lavish new oak ageing were mostly miserable failures. 

Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, says even a decade ago, Blaufränkisch had its fans. “But the broader public found it more difficult because of its higher acidity and its leaner, sometimes austere character,” he says. “We were still in the era of rich, blockbuster wines and Blaufränkisch did not meet these expectations.”

Today, what were once Blaufränkisch’s weaknesses have become strengths. “The past decade has seen huge growth in positive consumer reaction to new grapes,” says Brad Royale, wine director for Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts, one of the largest buyers in Western Canada. “With the continued rise of wine culture, especially among millennials who have no bias against new varieties, it has become easier to introduce more ‘peripheral’ grapes.” 

Not only is the unknown less scary than it was previously, it’s also more desirable. “It’s hot right now for drinkers to discover something new,” says Constance Chamberlain of Wine and Co., a New York-based communications and marketing agency that handles the Austrian wine account. “And Blaufränkisch is still a discovery.”

Aside from the cachet that comes with newness, Blaufränkisch naturally fits the contemporary wine zeitgeist. Among the variety’s key characteristics are its long and late ripening cycle, and its ability to hold acids and reach full flavour potential at low sugars, all very useful traits in this era of global warming. They also put Blaufränkish into the category of slimmer, fresher wine, part of a worldwide trend that has coalesced over the past few years, and swelled a segment that was barely a blip on the sales report a short time ago. “The fine wine world has changed dramatically and suddenly Blaufränkisch has become the darling of the purists, first in Austria, then increasingly worldwide – a niche, yes, but suddenly we started selling it,” says Klinger.

Importantly, Klinger is referring to the quality wine sector. Austrian red wine exports by value were up 13.5% (€4m or $4.63m) from 2014 to 2015 despite a small 2014 vintage, and accounted for 24% of total wine exports, up from just over 20% in 2014.

History in a grape

While its popularity may be new, the variety has been around for centuries. It almost certainly came into existence somewhere inside the borders of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, where it’s still prevalent today. Experts point to the area around Lemberg in lower Styria, now part of Slovenia (and the origin of the German synonym, Lemberger). The name Fränkisch (or Franconian), probably dates to the time of Charlemagne in the eighth century and was a general term used in German-speaking countries to designate high-quality grapes in general.

The name Blaufränkisch first appeared in 1862 at an exhibition in Vienna, and was officially adopted by the International Ampelographic Commission in 1875. It turned up in Germany as Lemberger in 1877, and then in Hungary in 1890 as Kékfrankos, a literal Hungarian translation. Other synonyms include Franconia (northern Italy), Frankovka (Croatia, Czech Republic, Serbia), Gamé (Bulgaria), Burgund Mare (Romania), Frankovka Modrá (Slovakia) and Modra Frankinja (Slovenia).

Regardless of origins, the international surge in interest in Blaufränkisch has been driven largely by Austria, where it’s the second most planted red after Zweigelt. It’s mostly found in the Burgenland and Carnuntum regions, where it accounts for 95% of the total 2,800ha of Blaufränkisch. The area is also home to a cadre of Blaufränkisch specialists who have been instrumental in reshaping the variety’s image.

In what is now the Eisenberg DAC in southern Burgenland, native Uwe Schiefer was among the first to realise the potential of Blaufränkisch. Born to a family in hospitality, Schiefer worked in the early nineties as a waiter-sommelier at Steirereck, one of Vienna’s top restaurants. On trips back home, he would occasionally bring back some local Blaufränkisch to share with his sommelier friends. Intrigued by the quality, they encouraged Schiefer to bottle his own wine. He began with a single barrel in 1994, and by 1997 was ready to leave Vienna behind. Schiefer cast aside his plans of taking over the family restaurant business, and started making wine full time. 

Over the years he has continually refined his winemaking, bringing a sommelier’s sensibility and desire for purity to bear on his approach. He highlights vineyard work to achieve slow ripening, as well as harvesting earlier, lowering extraction, and reducing oxidation by ageing in large, old casks with thicker staves. He has also increased whole bunch/stem inclusion from warmer sites to add freshness, and ferments in open-top vessels to blow off alcohol, all in the search for finesse.

From his base in the Mittelburgenland, Roland Velich is another key figure in the Blaufränkisch revolution. Velich left the comfort of his family winery and the excitement of life as a croupier in a Vienna casino in 2001 to start Weingut Moric, focused exclusively on Blaufränkisch. “I wanted to show that Burgenland has a fantastic centuries-old wine culture, and bring back the region and variety to the minds and palates of the people,” says Velich with the same effortless charm that characterises his wines. And they are archetypal examples of the variety, redolent of violets, crunchy red and black fruit, and gentle herbal-spice notes on a sinewy frame.

Fearing that the Burgenland had lost its identity, Velich proposed an all-out countercultural revolt against the prevailing winemaking philosophy of the time. While the majority of producers were still chasing the international style, treating Blaufränkisch like Cabernet or Merlot, Velich took a radically different tack: “I wanted to see behind the grape, to see how it could be using a different approach, like in Burgundy.”

For Velich, that means spontaneous fermentations, no additives, gentle extraction, and only large, old wood. Today such minimalism is commonplace, but it was considered radical then. The philosophy naturally extended to vineyards, and Velich sought out old vines in various villages so he could explore Blaufränkisch’s potential range. “I wanted to prove that the variety could transport place like other great varieties do and put soils on display.”

The capacity to reflect origins, the geology and soils and yearly weather of a singular place, is the ultimate measure of greatness for any variety. And Blaufränkisch is particularly gifted in this respect, given the opportunity. Fortunately, the inconspicuous hands of Velich and Schiefer and Austria’s other Blaufränkisch masters – including Achs, Heinrich, Muhr-Van der Niepoort, Nittnaus, Pittnauer, Prieler, Triebaumer, Wachter-Wiesler and Wenzel among others – have reopened the door to Burgenland’s myriad terroirs.

In the 1990s, it was thought that Blaufränkisch could only excel in heavy, loamy soils. And it’s true that these rich soils are best suited for the riper, rounder versions that were sought after at the time. But as new sites have been explored or rediscovered, a range of nuanced expressions have come into focus. 

Gernot Heinrich, who produces wine from schist, limestone and sedimentary soils in and around the Leithaberg DAC, is among the leaders in exposing the importance of geology and just how critical soils are for Blaufränkisch. He attributes, for example, the more austere tannic structure and smoky character of Blaufränkisch grown on schist to lower water-holding capacity, relative to the more supple texture and floral character that come from moisture-retentive limestone.

Schiefer agrees. “Wines from the blue schists of Szapary [a vineyard on the Eisenberg Hill] are always tighter, harder, more compact, with lower pH and higher acid,” he says, “also more reductive [peppery, smoky] than limestone.” The high iron content of Szapary’s schists are also responsible for the intense spice and harder edge, he claims, while his Königsberg bottling, from a neighbouring limestone hill, shows a much softer, rounder expression. “It’s always riper at the same period,” he says. 

These are just the broad strokes. The nuances run deeper, and there’s still much more to discover. 

But even now a quick poll of sommeliers around the world shows that Blaufränkisch is already prized for its versatility at the table and especially the relative value it offers in the world of fine, vineyard-reflective wine. It’s clear that Blaufränkisch is not Pinot Noir, or Sangiovese, or Cabernet Franc or Syrah. It’s Blaufränkisch, with its own distinctive character – a category it its own right and gaining international traction.

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