The Emergence of Magyar Franc Goes Well Beyond Villány

Drinks

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The seventh edition of the Franc & Franc Nemzetközi konferencia és kóstolónap (International Conference and Tasting Day) took place in Villány over the Thanksgiving weekend, attracting wine people from far and wide to analyze, assess and enjoy wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape.

The Villány region has successfully created the Villányi Franc brand, which is now gaining traction internationally. It has its origins in the observations of the legendary Michael Broadbent, long-time fine wine auctioneer for Christie’s, who passed away in March 2020 at the age of 93.

On visiting Villány in 2000, Broadbent proclaimed that Cabernet Franc had found its natural home. That may be so, but it is not only in this southern Hungarian region that the French grape thrives. The truth is that the Cabernet Franc grape is being used to make outstanding single-varietal red wine in many of Hungary’s regions. These structured, medium- to fairly full-bodied wines make for ideal winter imbibing, and the grape is also a contributor to many blends, including Bikavér.

The 2022 edition of Winelovers 100 legjobb Magyar Bor (100 best Hungarian wines) saw lots of Cabernet Franc make the listing, along with blends featuring it. Indeed, while the Top 20 was almost totally dominated by sweet wine, the top-placed red, and the only one to break into the top 10 in ninth place, was Eszterbauer Borászat’s Szekszárd Grand 2017. This is a blend of 25% of each Kékfrankos, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Incidentally, it is notable how the more concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon has been much more coveted internationally, becoming the world’s most-planted grape for winemaking. Nevertheless, Cabernet Franc’s subtlety is now its strength, and it is experiencing a rise in popularity across the winemaking world as palates seek something smoother and softer. Hungarian Cabernet Franc is well poised to meet this demand, and Villányi Franc has already established a good reputation.

After Szekszárd Grand, the next highest-placed red wine (at number 23) in the Winelovers 100 was Zsolt Maul’s Lator 2018 from Villány, whose name is a play on Bordeaux first growth Chateau Latour. It is made from Cabernet Franc and is full-bodied and incredibly layered. It has sufficient structure to handle the high (15%) alcohol, leading to a very long and smooth finish without any real burning sensation. It also won a gold medal at the Challenge International du Vin 2021 and costs HUF 9,500 from www.maul.hu.

Owner-winemaker Zsolt Maul was immensely proud of the intense, full-bodied style when I ran into him on his wine terrace in the center of the town of Villány. And why shouldn’t he be, given the success of such a wine?

Big Guns, Big Wine

In what has often been something of an uncomfortable standoff with Villány winemakers, many wine critics have blasted the big guns of Villány for being too overpowering, tannic, high in alcohol and overly oaky. However, in Maul’s Lator, everything is nicely balanced and beautifully integrated. It doesn’t matter that the alcohol is on the high side, and it is, indeed, reflective of its warm place of growth.

Villány’s vintners have, I feel, listened to the feedback and toned things down a touch in recent years, including tempering the tannins to enhance the elegance. And having said all of that, many of the American wine tourists I’ve guided down in Villány can’t get enough of the big wines for which Villány has become famous and then, perhaps, infamous.

Master of Wine Peter McCombie told the Budapest Business Journal that the two worlds of big, robust Cab Francs (on which Villány’s reputation was built but which is getting tiring for some) and a new, fresher, lighter style could peacefully co-exist. He also said that a touch of leafiness or herbaceousness, suggesting less ripeness rather than a lack of ripeness, makes for a good Cabernet Franc.

From Szekszárd, Vesztergombi Pince’s Alpha 2017, 24th in the Winelovers 100, features Cabernet Franc in a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. At number 26 came another Villány Franc (Jammertal’s Cassiopeia Cabernet Franc 2012), with a Villány Merlot (Günzer Tamás’ Grandior Merlot 2019) claiming 28th position. After that, the next red wine (#39) was another Cab Franc, this time from the Tolna wine region close to Szekszárd: Simigh Családi Pincészet’s 2017.

Limited Edition

The next highest placed red, at #42, was from the northwest of Hungary: Pannonhalmi Főapátság’s Infusio 2019. This vintage had more Cabernet Franc (40%) than usual, with Merlot contributing 60%. The limited-edition wine always sells out quickly, and the 2020, which has the same ratio between the grapes, has just been released in time for Christmas at HUF 11,500 from Bortársaság.

From Szekszárd, Takler Borbirtok’s expressive and varietally pure Szenta-Hegy Cabernet Franc 2018 took 52nd place (HUF 6,450 from idrinks.hu), behind Vylyan’s Villányi Franc 45th place.

Interestingly, Cabernet Franc thrives on both sides of Lake Balaton. From the Balatonboglár region on the southern shore, the 2018 vintage marked the second single varietal bottling from the Sínai hegy vineyard. The wine has excellent concentration but delicious fruitiness, freshness and spiciness, too, with 15 months of oak aging in 500-liter barrels. This came in at number 70 in the Winelovers 100 and is terrific value at HUF 4,450 from garamvariszolobirtok.hu.

Back in its native France, it is only really in the Loire where Cabernet Franc is given a starring role in the single varietal wines of Chinon and Bourgueil, among others. For Cabernet Franc made in the leaner, leafier Loire style, check out Mörk Pincészet, on the northern side of the lake in Balatonakali. Its 2019 vintage costs HUF 2,500 from borpont.com.

And what about Cabernet Sauvignon, whose parents have been identified as Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc? For a long time, Cabernet Sauvignon often struggled to reach optimal ripeness in Hungary, being green in cooler vintages but excellent in others, while question marks remained over the quality of the clones. Rising temperatures have seen much riper wines that can stand alone, without the support of Franc, and Szekszárd, for example, is now swimming with super juicy specimens.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of December 2, 2022.

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