Kékfrankos Comes Alive as Class Begins to Show

Drinks

While it may sound clichéd to say that the Kékfrankos grape is coming alive, when it’s taken seriously and made well, the wines can certainly have such a lively vibrancy to them, that’s both airy and elegant. What is more, the grape is becoming a leader in the Hungarian wine movement, as opposed to the workhorse of a grape it was under the former system.

Accounting for 7,592 out of Hungary’s some 64,000 hectares of land under vine, Kékfrankos is a dependable grape in the vineyard, holding up very well in more challenging vintages when other grapes take a battering.  

Despite being Hungary’s most planted grape and well distributed around the country’s red wine regions, Kékfrankos had long played something of a backseat role to the more fancied international grapes. That is until Hungarian vintners realized that indigenous varieties are where it’s at, as well as learning from the Austrians, who have led the way with Blaufränkish, which is the Austrian name for Kékfrankos.  

Austrianwine.com describes Blaufränkish as a “traditional Austrian variety [that] is a cross between Blauer Zimmettraube and Weißer Heunisch”. It notes that: “Blaufränkisch was previously widely-planted throughout the Habsburg Monarchy.” In Germany it is known as Lemberger, the name taken from the town of Limberg (in present-day Austria, and now called Maissau in Niederösterreich).  

The grape itself makes medium- rather than full-bodied wines and the alcohol level rarely pushes past 13.5%, yet it lacks nothing in terms of depth and complexity when grown and vinified properly.  

International Demand

The grape is well placed to meet changed international demand for less alcoholic wines. It doesn’t have huge tannins; they can be rough and chunky when the wine is young, but soften into a delightfully fine-grained texture after a few years.

While many Hungarian vintners are jumping on the Furmint train in the dry white category by planting and vinifying it, the same can also be said for Kékfrankos, with ever more wineries adding it to their armory.  

Gyula Szabó of the Káli Kövek Winery made his first Kékfrankos in 2015, which hailed from Zánka. Káli Kövek actually buys in grapes from various growers and in 2017 Szabó had the opportunity to purchase grapes from two sites: one from Badacsony’s Szent György Hill (hegy) that was an “impulsive buy” according to Szabó, while the other, from Dörgicse, was the outcome of the winery’s search for Kekfrankos. Szabó almost blended the two together but in the end decided to bottle them separately – which is a smart move as these wines nicely reflect the grape’s ability to be an articulator of terroir.

The plainly-titled Káli Kövek Kékfrankos 2017 (the one from Szent György-hegy) was harvested in the middle of September, spontaneously fermented and then aged in used barrique and five-hectoliter barrels for a year. It has a pretty purple color of medium intensity, potpourri and silk aromas, then light and very exciting red fruit on the elegant palate. It is also great value at HUF 2,850 from Bortársaság.  

The second offering, Dörgicsei Kékfrankos 2017, was picked from old vines at the end of September, and spontaneously fermented in vats, then aged in three- and five-hectoliter barrels for a year. Dörgicsei 2017 is more intense, with dried red fruit, concentrated red fruit and herbs on the nose and palate; it’s complex, yet has a nice lightness of touch, and is well worth the HUF 3,850 from Bortársaság.

Incidentally, at the Drop Shop wine bar, I also recently tasted the first Zöldveltelini (Austria’s Grüner Veltliner) that I know of from Káli Kövek and, like the pair of Kékfrankos, it was also varietally pure.

Polished Predecessors  

For several years now, Szent Donát from Csopak has delighted us with Magma, which comes from grapes from the special mesoclimate and volcanic soils of the Tihany peninsula that juts out into Lake Balaton and provides prime conditions for making red wine. The Szent Donát Magma 2017 (HUF 4,150 from artizanshop.hu) lives up to its polished predecessors, yet with a welcome bit more body and substance. From 2017, St. Donát is also soon to release a fruity and floral Kékfrankos called Parcella 2017 from the vineyard directly below the winery, which has marl soils.

St. Donát’s Magma 2017 came in ninth in the Wine Lover’s Top Ten Kékfrankos blind tasting, which coincided with the grand tasting of Kékfrankos, held at Hotel Gellért on April 12.

The winning wine, Riczu Tamás Borászata’s Villányi Kékfrankos 2016, captured the deep southern region’s warmer character with black fruit with a bit of earthiness and oaky on the finish.  
Also from Villány, Bock’s Kékfrankos 2017, came third. It was made by József Bock’s son Valér and pleasantly reflects his fresh and fruit-forward approach, in contrast to his father’s more oaky, tannic style.

One of my favorites in the top ten is from Vas-hegy, way out west close to the Austrian border and part of the Sopron wine region: Imre Garger’s Kékfrankos Válogatás 2015, with its lovely grainy tannins, spicy and herby notes. It has very high alcohol (14%) for the grape, but it doesn’t stick out.

One Grape and its Offshoots

Blaufränkish is the number one variety in the Mittelburgenland, where it makes many of Austria’s finest reds, and the grape is Austria’s second most planted red overall, after Zweigelt, which it parented together with the St. Laurent grape. That crossing was created by Dr. Fritz Zweigelt in 1922 at the Teaching and Research Center for Viticulture and Horticulture (LFZ) in Klosterneuburg, close to Vienna. He was seeking to make a wine that was ready for market quicker than Kékfrankos, whose tannins take time to soften. Incidentally, Zweigelt turned out much more successful than his other crossing involving Blaufränkish, Blauburger, whose other parent is Portugieser. Blauburger does pop up as a component in some Bikavér blends, which of course have a Kéfrankos core. In Hungary, Kékfrankos is also very important for making rosé, with its natural high acidity and zesty red fruitiness making it ideal for producing the pink stuff.

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