Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wine 101 - Lemberger/Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos

Blaufränkisch, Limberger, Kékfrankos, Franconia, Blauer Limberger, Lemberger. Six distinct grapes? No, each is a synonym for the same grape - thought to be related to the Gamay - that produces dry, medium bodied, fruity, red wines. Called Lemberger in many parts of the U.S. (so that it is not associated with the Limberger cheese), this grape is known as Limberger in Germany, Blaufränkisch in Austria, and Kékfrankos in Hungary. Preferring a warmer environment, Lemberger thrives in Burgenland in Austria and around Sopron in Hungary. According to historians, the wine was very popular with both Napoleon Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck.

In the United States, this grape is vinified primarily in New York and Washington State. Large scale wine making is relatively a recent phenomenon in Washington. Initially European immigrants planted the first vines in the early 1880’s, but it wasn’t until irrigation projects were able to capture the runoff from the melting snowcaps of the Cascade Mountains did wine production expand. The first commercial-scale plantings began in the 1960’s. Since then, the Washington wine industry exploded, where there is currently close to 300 operating wineries, producing award-winning Cabernets and Merlots.

According to Dr. Jim Harbertson, Washington State University Extension Enologist, Lemberger first came to North America in British Columbia and plantings were established in Washington in 1941. The first commercial wines from Lemberger were produced in Washington in 1980. Today only about a dozen Washington wineries produce Lemberger, but the strong aroma of black cherry and just a hint of spiciness make this brilliantly colored wine one of the Northwest's best kept secrets. According to Micheal Cavett of FairWinds Winery, “Lemberger could become to Washington what Pinto Noir is to Oregon”.

FairWinds Winery is a small winery located in Port Townsend, Washington, which is owned and operated by a former Coast Guard couple, Micheal and Judy Cavett. While producing the more mainstream Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals, the winery is in the forefront in producing lesser known wines such as Aligote and Lemberger. FairWinds began making Lemberger wine because they did not want to limit themselves to the standard Cabernet/Chardonnay/Merlot combinations that most tasting rooms offer. They wanted people to be able to experience different wines and decided upon Lemberger as an alternative red. Mr. Cavett believes that Lemberger is an extremely versatile wine that goes with everything from Salmon to pasta to hearty red meat dishes. Even though the general public has been slow to warm to this wine, their Lemberger has been praised by wine connoisseurs, with their 2002 vintage winning a Gold medal at the Central Washington State Fair and double Gold in a judging held by Wine Press Northwest. Sadly, Mr. Cavett sees the name itself as a hindrance to wider acceptance. “I can't imagine anyone who is not familiar with the wine picking up a bottle at their store. Who in their right mind would buy a wine named Lemberger?”

Another Washington winery that has been successful with Lemberger is Olympic Cellars. The winery opened in 1979 as Neuharth Winery and was one of the first 15 commercial vineyards opened in Washington and the first on the Olympic Peninsula. With the passing of Mr. Neuharth in the early 1990’s, the winery changed names to Olympic Cellars and was purchased by Kathy Charlton in 1999. Ms. Charlton continued making the "Dungeness Red" - Lemberger and considers it their Heritage Brand and makes the legacy Rose Lemberger in their Working Girl series. Both wines have won the current and previous owners many awards since the varietals were first released in the early 80s. The Dungeness Red has is very special to the current owners because they won their first Gold Medal with the 2001 vintage and the current 2003 vintage took Gold at the Central Washington State Competition and Silver at the 2005 Dallas Morning News Wine Competition. Olympic Cellars purchases the Lemberger grapes from Champoux Vineyards, which is renowned in Washington for their Lemberger grapes. Olympic Cellars sells Lemberger not only because of its heritage in the winery’s history, but also because they like offering less well known wines to their customers. Lemberger is a great choice because its Beaujolais style is appealing to "white wine" drinkers; it has low tannins, a soft finish and great fruit on the nose and finish. They have even noticed that the cherry finish is noticed even by the novice wine taster. As with other wineries selling Lemberger, Olympic Cellars must first explain to first time visitors that the wine has nothing to do with the cheese, but after describing the grape and wine, most visitors leave with at least one bottle. Ms. Charlton recommends chilling the wine for about 10-15 minutes to enhance the flavor (especially in the summertime) and pairs the wine with most "everyday" meals such as pasta, food off the grill and even fish. The wine can also be served after dinner because Ms. Charlton also strongly recommends drinking the wine with chocolate. Lemberger is an important component of Olympic Cellars wine selection and the winery believes that it may become the next “grape of fashion".

In Colorado, Cottonwood Cellars had been growing Lemberger for many years. The winery opened in 1994 and chose Lemberger initially because of its cold hardiness; it needed to survive annually with our 5600' altitude and cold climate. This is their 6th vintage and they have never lost a complete crop. Cottonwood Cellars also says that Lemberger vines are very happy in Colorado at the higher altitudes and where the days are warm, but not hot, and the nights are cool. “Happy vines produce great wines.” And Cottonwood has produced great Lemberger wines. Their version has a deep raspberry color and lovely fruit flavors and is recommended with most food, especially pork. Each vintage always sells out and the 2003 Cottonwood Cellars Lemberger was awarded a Bronze medal at the 2005 San Francisco International Wine Competition and their 1999 vintage received a Certificate of American Merit from the 2000 Jefferson Davis Invitational. Once again, name recognition seems to be the only hindrance.

In New York State, Lemberger is usually referred to as Blaufränkisch and is vinified in the Finger Lakes region and on Long Island. One Long Island winery, Channing Daughters Winery, has had considerable success growing and selling their Blaufränkisch. They sell out annually of this varietal which is noted for its dark berry fruit, spice, and meaty qualities, which matches with all sorts of game along with a variety of cheeses. In addition they blend Blaufränkisch with their Merlots and Cabernets to add color, spice and fruit. Channing Daughters does not enter contests or submit wines for awards, but the fact that their Blaufränkisch sells out annually validates the quality of this wine.

A little south in Landisville New Jersey, Bellview Winery began growing Lemberger because of its unique characteristics: cold hardiness with a relatively early ripening date. Ironically, before planting their Lemberger vines, the staff had never tasted wine made from Lemberger. They do not regret this decision since according to Lee Quarella, “the vines are growing beautifully and the fruit has been producing very nice wines for us”. What an understatement. Bellview’s Lemberger has been a consistent medal winner and their 2002 vintage was awarded a Gold medal and New Jersey’s award for Best Vinifera. Jack Tomasello from Tomasello Winery gives the greatest compliment; he decided to plant Lemberger vines after tasting this vintage and in his words “I was completely blown away by this wine! “ Mr. Quarella believes their 2004 vintage will be just as good; it possesses soft, smooth tannins, complemented by ripe red berry flavor. As with the other wineries, Bellview must get the first time taster past the standard comment, “Lemberger? You mean like the cheese? Ick.” In addition, Bellview is trying to break wine drinker’s habit of sticking to well known varietals like Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernets. “Luckily, it is a habit people enjoy breaking when they taste something like Lemberger.”

In Michigan, Domaine Berrien Cellars started growing Lemberger because they felt that the European climate in Germany/Austria where Lemberger is grown was similar to their climate in SW Michigan (the Lake Michigan Shore viticulture area). The winery was established in 2001 and bottles wine from grapes grown completely from their vineyards. One of these wines is a vintage Lemberger that is a medium-bodied oak-aged red wine. According to the wine’s tasting notes it is “rich, toasty overtones and slightly spicy flavors with a dry finish”. The winery encounters similar questions about the wine’s name, but also notes that many customers are surprised to learn that the red wine originated in Austria and Germany. Apparently Riesling is thought to be the only wine produced in these countries – there is a lot of work ahead in order to educate the American public. Much more educated, at times, are wine officials. For the past two years, the winery’s vintage Lemberger has won numerous medals. The 2002 vintage won Gold medals at the Great Lakes Wine Competition & the Indiana International Wine Competition as well as a Silver medal at the Michigan State Wine Competition. The 2003 Lemberger won Silver medals at the Tasters Guild International Wine Competition & the Great Lakes Wine Competition and a Bronze medal at the Indiana International Wine Competition. These facts demonstrate once again that American winemakers can produce quality wine from non-traditional grapes.

Lemberger or Blaufränkisch or Kékfrankos is a wine that we believe, once tried, will become a staple in any wine collection. Thankfully, in the United States, more wineries are choosing to cultivate this grape and this wine should become available to most consumers, regardless of their geographic location. And, when tasting this wine at a winery, please don’t mention the cheese. They’ve heard that comment enough.


Anonymous said...

Had the latest release of Dungeness Red from Olympic Cellars only 3 weeks ago. It's great! In visiting the Washington wineries last month, both Carol and I agree, Olympic Cellars' makes the best Lemberger.

Anonymous said...

The 2005 Kiona Lemberger from the Red Mountain area near Benton City, in eastern Washington is spectacular and an excellent buy at under $12 per bottle. We recently tasted the wine at a local restaurant in Richland, and visited the winery the next day to bring home half a case. A great wine at a wonderful price. Will definately try the other Washington Lembergers.


Alice said...

Also want to recommend the Kiona Lemberger. Also had a 2006 Zantho Blaufrankisch from Austria which was very good.

Anonymous said...

Oakwood Cellars 2005 Lemberger is now being liquidated as the winery is closing.. Would recommend anyone interested in Lemberger purchase while still in stock.. Bob.

Todd M. Godbout said...

We wish Eppie a happy and healthy retirement.