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Kékfrankos key to unlocking Eger’s red potential

After years of trying to find the killer blend, it appears that the local grape Kékfrankos has emerged ahead of a field of international grapes to stamp its mark on St. Andrea’s premium Bikavér: Merengő.

György Lőrincz Junior and Senior.

St. Andrea’s Merengő Bikavér Superior, for a long time this leading Eger winery’s flagship red blend, was one of those wines that I never really understood all the fuss about. OK, it typically came out as a sophisticated, polished and complex blend, but it often lacked that “wow” factor that makes a wine great and one of a kind. Interestingly, I’ve normally found the individuality I missed in the premium blend oozing out of the next wine down – St. Andrea’s Hangács – also a Bikavér Superior but a good few thousand forints cheaper. Hangács somehow possessed more of a sense of place and it does indeed come from a single vineyard. I had also heard that this wine was the preferred tipple of those actually working at the cellar.

Nevertheless, my view of the “top blend” changed last year when I got to try the 2011 edition of Merengő, which blew me away with its combination of energy, elegance, complexity and unique character. Why did it suddenly taste so right? Was it the fact that the wine had the benefit of a good spell of bottle ageing to express itself? Well, maybe, but more importantly is that the local Kékfrankos grape was handed a starring role in this wine and shined, making up almost half (46%) of this blend that also includes an international grape brigade of Cabernet Franc (26%), Merlot (18%), Syrah (5%) and Pinot Noir (5%). This is about more than merely putting local talent ahead of foreign finesse, though, as the Kékfrankos brings this wine the kind of taught acidity and vibrant red fruit that helps bring out the best in the distinguished rest, while retaining local character along the way. No one grape is supposed to dominate a Bikavér blend, especially in the Superior category where at least five grapes must be used, but it does make this wine much more than merely being a fine imitation of essentially French wine (especially Bordeaux and Burgundy), which is what certain vintages of Merengő mimic very well.

Nagy Eged Hill, said to be the highest vineyard in Hungary.

The importance of Kékfrankos

I’m not the only one to pick up on the importance of Kékfrankos in making compelling, rather than just good, wine. György Lőrincz Jr. explained that he and his father, who is the main man at St. Andrea, clearly see the importance of Kékfrankos and we can expect it to play a prominent role in St. Andrea’s Bikavér going forward. The one thing Kékfrankos can lack is sheer concentration, but that has hardly been a problem in Austria’s Burgenland where vintners have put refinement and harmony first in their Blaufränkish (the same grape) and very much appealed to the palates of some of the leading critics. To give the Kékfrankos grape that bit more body, the Lőrinczs are adopting a method used by the pioneering Piemontese winemaker Roberto Voerzio, who cuts the stems just before his Nebbiolo grapes are picked, in order to build up the sugar and concentration. Many people in Hungary just don’t get Kékfrankos, which is no surprise given that it made such thin, tepid wines during communism and long after, as its strained vines were forced to pump out huge amounts of dilute juice. However, treat it well and reduce the yields, and the results can be nothing short of astonishing.

The 2010 vintage was poor and saw no Merengő made, but 2009 was a great vintage for reds and the resulting Merengő is a fine wine: Really earthy with black olive, mixed spices, pepper and blood orange notes, but with Kékfrankos playing more of a supporting role. It is quite southern Rhône-like, if we are to try and benchmark it against France. Merlot had the most presence in 2008 – 40% to Kékfrankos’ 33%, which tasted like something between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, showing lovely mature tertiary flavors of dried leaves, undergrowth, tobacco and leather. The 2007 has small red berries oozing out of the glass and is almost Pinot Noir-like, despite just having 8% of that Burgundian grape in the mix. The 2006 was a revelation as that zesty freshness previously present in 2011 returned and here the grape’s share was up to 50%. The 2006 is the only other Merengő to date in which Kékfrankos claimed the lion’s share. Going back further, the 2005, 2003 and 2002 were still all in a good state, but very Bordeaux-like.

Merengő has been trumped at the top of the St. Andrea tree by Nagy-Eged-hegy Egri Bikavér Superior, which comes from the heights of Nagy Eged Hill, said to be the highest vineyard in Hungary. It is a huge outcrop of limestone surrounded by the otherwise rhyolite tuff and brown forest soils that dominate the region. Limestone is known for elegant wines, which is absolutely the case with this offering, which is layered and silky. This blend of Kékfrankos, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah debuted in 2011 and if any criticism could be leveled at this limited release wine in its first vintage, then it would be that it could have done with a tad more concentration to justify its lofty, ultra-premium price tag. The 2012 is a more impressive specimen: Easy on the eye with an inviting purple-ruby color, striking a great balance between concentration and refinement, oozing pure fruit (especially blueberry), with smooth tannins, beautifully integrated oak and striking length. Kékfrankos contributes 30% to the 2012 and, as far as I know, is the biggest contributor.