Cross-border Kékfrankos Musings
Having been blown away a couple of years ago at a blind tasting of Hungarian Kékfrankos by a wine coming from well off the beaten track, from Vashegy (Iron Hill), the westernmost winemaking spot in Hungary, it was a pleasure to recently visit this hill that straddles the Austrian border.
This is where Pannonian heat coming from the Hungarian Plain meets the influence of the cool Styrian climate, providing balance for the grapes; the hill is called Eisenberg in German, and it’s also the easternmost winegrowing point in Austria.
As the names implies, iron is a key component in the soil. Furmint once thrived in this region, but it is Kékfrankos, or Blaufränkish as the Austrians call it, that is king now.
The Hungarian portion is nowadays officially part of the Sopron wine region, although it lies a long way from the region’s other producers. The Austrian part lies in the southern Burgenland and, as the Austrians were quick to point out, the entire Burgenland was part of Hungary until 1920.
The aforementioned wine that I had enjoyed so much was by Imre Garger, who continues to bring out classy Kékfrankos, such as his Válogatás 2015, with its potpourri and red fruit aromas, lovely grainy tannins, spicy and herby notes.
It has high alcohol (14%) for the grape, which rarely tips the scales at more than 13.5%, but it doesn’t stick out. It is a bargain at HUF 2,800 a bottle from the cellar (delivery to Budapest is free if six bottles or more are purchased).
Garger considers himself as a Hungarian-German (coming from a Bavarian German background whereby the settlers came to the area 900 years ago) and also a hobby winemaker; in sporting terms he is more than ready to turn pro, although he makes just 8,000-10,000 bottles a year.
All his wines, except for the rosé, are made via spontaneous fermentation. He makes his wine in the border-hugging Vaskereszt, a village of just 330 inhabitants, the majority of whom work over the border in Austria in various jobs, rather than turn out wine from what I feel is tremendous terroir.
However, I have heard from Somló’s Kreinbacher winery that it now has a Kékfrankos vineyard here. Owner József Kreinbacher himself comes from Vaskereszt.
As part of the 2019 edition of the Austrian Wine Summit, exploring the theme of “Vineyard Interfaces in the Heart of Europe”, it was exciting to taste a trio of Kékfrankos wines made from grapes grown in Hungary on Vashegy, yet vinified in Austria – the ultimate in cross-border Kékfrankos/Blaufränkisch cooperation.
Garger is involved in the production of two of the wines. One is a joint project with his Austrian cousin Rainer Garger, a Graz-born Vienna-based businessman who came up with the idea and finances the “Nador project”, whereby his cousin grows the grapes, with the esteemed Eisenberg vintners Reinhold Krutzler and Christoph Wachter of the Wachter Wiesler winery making the wine.
Incidentally, Krutzler’s own “Perwolff” 2012 Burgenland Blaufränkisch 2012 was perhaps the star of the show of Eisenberg Blufränkisch from Both Sides of the Border.
Perwolff used to have a few percent of Cabernet Sauvignon in it, presumably to beef up the body, but this wine misses nothing and strikes a lovely balance between youth and maturity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available in Hungary any more.
Eisenberg Hungary Kékfrankos Ried Wanzer “Nador” 2012 (EUR 29 from nadorwine.com), comes from vines that were just nine years old at the time the wine was made. Note that ried means vineyard and denotes a single-vineyard wine. This elegant and balanced wine flies in the face of the assumption that you can only make really fine wine from older vines.
Despite having a few years of ageing under its belt, this still retains a hint of youthful purple in its color and the freshness continues on the nose and palate with the fabulously pure red fruit, especially sour cherry, alongside a subtle earthiness.
Another wine made on the other side from Hungarian grapes is the Thom Wachter Kékfrankos 2017, which was fresh and juicy with raspberry joining the sour cherry. Wachter bought the grapes from Garger and earlier the two made a wine together. Schiefer & Domaines Kilger Ried Voller 2017 “Pala”, which refers to the slate soil (on the Hungarian side) from which it comes, was complex and vibrant with a nice floral touch.
Wines made in Sopron (which famously voted to stay part of Hungary in 1921, earning it the title “The Most Loyal Town”) were also featured in a Mittelburgenland tasting as part of the Austrian Wine Summit, including Franz Weninger’s Spern Steiner Kékfrankos 2015, an earthy expressive biodynamic wine that’s low in sulfur. Weninger has wineries on both sides of the border.
The Kékfrankos 2013 from Péter Wetzer, a tiny organic producer, was in great shape with lots of spiciness and complexity. Pfneisl’s “Mesés Vidék” 2007, from a winery run by two Austrian sisters, showed how well Kékfrankos can age, thanks to its vibrant acidity and initially rough tannins that become deliciously fine-grained with time. Kékfrankos typically gets classier with age, yet so little of the older stuff can be found.
It was also a Kékfrankos from Sopron that shone through at a blind tasting to select the best Kékfrankos to serve to visiting foreign dignitaries and heads of state in the Országház bora 2019.
Made by Etyeki Kúria, which now has around 40% of its vineyards in Sopron and works in cooperation with the Burgenland’s Weingut Esterházy, Kékfrankos 2015 (HUF 4,650 from Bortársaság) was aged for a year in 300 liter barrels, half of which were new. This delightfully vibrant wine also scored 88 points in the Decanter World Wine Awards 2018.
Tale of the Grape
Hungary actually has more Kékfrankos than Austria has Blaufränkish, which Austrianwine.com describes as a “traditional Austrian variety [that] is a cross between Blauer Zimmettraube and Weißer Heunisch”. It notes: “Blaufränkisch was previously widely-planted throughout the Habsburg Monarchy.” In Germany it is called Lemberger, which comes from the present-day town of Maissau in Niederösterreich (in present-day Austria), which was formerly called Limberg.
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