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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Blue Frankish – A Great Wine By Any Name

Many years ago, my wife and I traveled through the back roads of northwestern Hungary, just exploring new territory. Yet in each village and especially the regional city of Sopron, we tasted several full bodied – but silky smooth red wines. Many just melted in the mouth. These wines shared several characteristics – dark cherry flavors, soft tannins, some acidity, slightly spicy, as well as the same grape: Kékfrankos – which translates to “Blue Frankish”. And why not; this area borders the Austrian wine region of Burgenland where Blue Frankish, known as Blaufränkisch, has been grown for 1,000 years. The grape continues to be cultivated in many regions of Eastern Europe that were once part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire: Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. It even migrated south into Bulgaria. Yet, Blue Frankish is possibly most known in its German form, Lemberger after it was imported into that country, not from neighboring Austria, but from the Lemberg region in lower Styra, Slovenia.

When returning home, we found that the grape was basically ignored; both from wine retailers and the general public. This despairing situation resulting from two forces: a lack of brand identification (the confusion in multiple names) and, I believe, the inability of wine consumers two decades ago to sample wines beyond their comfort zones. Slowly over time we found an influx of nice Blaufränkisch from Austria and even more pleasing – the best source has been the rising domestic production of the grape. Whereas, overseas cultivation of the grape is concentrated in Central Europe, Blue Frankish is now cultivated throughout the United States; from the Pacific Northwest to the Rockies, through the Midwest into the New York and the mid-Atlantic.

Washington state wineries after been producing wines from Lemberger since 1980 (too bad none were available in our Virginia hometown back then). One of the largest growers is Chateau Champoux – located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Besides crafting their own Lemberger wines, their grapes are sourced to Olympic Cellars and FairWind Winery who have used these grapes to produce award winning wines for the past decade. In fact, many in that state think Lemberger will be to Washington what Pinot Noir has become to its southern neighbor, Oregon.

Moving east, our first sampling of domestically produced Blue Frankish came in Palisade, Colorado – at Carlson Vineyards. Carlson is one of Colorado’s oldest wineries and is most known for their Riesling. But their popular Tyrannosaurus Red is 100% Lemberger made from grapes grown in their estate vineyard as well as two other local vineyards. They have discovered that this is a hardy grape that can survive the brutal Rocky Mountain winters. During the winter of 2009-2010, temperatures fell to 15 degrees below zero and yet they were still able to harvest 1/2 their crop. About five years ago we visited the Grand Valley and Carlson Vineyards. It was a great surprise to see the Lemberger and although this wine was more a medium bodied wine – it had the same dark cherry flavor, light tannins, and silky texture that make it an easy drinking wine.

Another area where the grape is cultivated because of it cold hardiness is in the Midwest, where it was first planted in 2002 by Viking Vineyards & Winery. Their Lemberger grapes have survived temperatures of 5 to 10 below zero and with its early ripening behavior – flavors are more consistent. The proprietors decided to cultivate the grape because they enjoyed the wine’s characteristics as they describe it as “rather like a Pinot Noir with attitude (darker, more fruity and less tannic then Pinot)”. Another Ohio winemaker, Ken Tarsitano of Tarsitano Winery, is also attracted to the grape because of its Pinot Noir style. He feels that if a vineyard can grow Chardonnay then it can grow Lemberger and the grape fits into the winery’s organic spray program. And because of geography and personal tastes, the Tarsitano Winery Lemberger is similar in style to the Viking – medium bodied, dark fruit flavors and soft tannins – an easy drinking wine.

Closer to home, in the Finger Lakes, Fox Run Vineyards originally started growing Lemberger as a blending additive to enhance the color of other wines. They find in cooler years, adding 3% Lemberger brings the color of other varietal wines to their proper level. However about 10 years after our first venture to Hungary, President Scott Osborn and winemaker Peter Bell were invited to that Hungary as part of a USAID program. That trip provided the same opportunity to taste several versions of Hungarian Kékfrankos and Austrian Blaufränkisch – many which they thought “fantastic”. At that moment Bell notified Osborn that “I can make wines like this with our Lemberger “. Thus, beginning with the 1997 vintage, Fox Run Vineyards started crafting a single varietal Lemberger. And since that time they have experienced the same results as the other vineyards – a cold hearty grape with consistent annual yields. In addition Osborn says that “because of the larger loose clusters and thicker skin is very disease resistant”. The larger clusters also allow for the moisture to evaporate during humid and raining conditions. We have been fortunate to be able to taste Fox Run’s vinification of Lemberger and like the best – it is a full bodied flavorful wine but with soft tannins that enables easy drinking. The winery also produces a Cabernet FranceLemberger blend that they believe is more flavorful and balanced than either as a single varietal. This is one of our everyday table wines, not only because it is delicious; but also extremely affordable – priced under $15.

Over the years we have purchased some of these wines online, or lately, at local retailers; but this past Autumn we discovered a local source for Blue Frankish from 8 Chains North Winery. The winery produces the Otium Cellars Blaufränkisch – a wine crafted from grapes sourced from Gerhard Bauer, a native of Franconia, Germany. In his Purcelleville, Virginia vineyard, Bauer cultivates grapes native to his homeland. At the time of our visit to the 8 Chains North tasting room, the Blaufränkisch had just been bottled, so the wine was still in “shock” and a little too tart. However, a month later we opened the bottle we purchased and wow, what a transformation. The wine had mellowed into the familiar characteristics that we expect: a full flavored smooth wine. Nice to have a source next door in Loudoun County. And despite the unfamiliar brand name, consumer demand has been overwhelming and the winery is doubling their planting of the grape. Here’s hoping there’s still some available during our next visit.

As the number of domestic wineries producing Blue Frankish increase and as consumers continue their willingness to sample “obscure” grapes – the fortunes for Lemberger and Blaufränkisch wines look strong. Some grape varieties fade in and out of fashion; but with the full flavors and soft tannins delivered by Blue Frankish, we feel, by any name – it will be around for the long-term.

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