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Blaufränkisch: Winter Winner

by Jim Clarke
December 2005

When people talk about a “winter wine,” they often mean a hearty, full-bodied red that warms you up inside. But when winegrowers talk about “winter winegrapes,” they sometimes mean a vine that’s able to survive at cold temperatures. Blaufränkisch has become a go-to grape for many vineyards which have to take on winter weather the likes of which more Mediterranean grapes never see.

In the U.S., that gave it a push in the country’s second and third largest wine-producing states, Washington and New York. Both states enjoy adequate heat to mature winegrapes, but can have harsh winters. Both states lost some vines from freezes during the 2003-4 winter. For example, New York even passed a law recently that would allow winegrowers some latitude in sourcing their grapes in years when they are hit particularly hard.

Blaufränkisch was first planted in Washington in 1941; it is generally known there as Lemberger. However, it wasn’t until the mid-70s that two wineries, Kiona Vineyard and Yakima River Winery, began taking a real interest in the grape. Nowadays there are about 174 acres planted in the state, and about 14 wineries bottling varietal Lembergers and/or using it in blends.

At Cornell University in New York, Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling has suggested that Blaufränkisch has the makings of a signature grape for the state, even though plantings in the Finger Lakes number only in the teens at the moment. The grape’s combination of versatility and hardiness makes it suitable for both the upstate wine regions as well as on Long Island, where Channing Daughters has already had some success with it.

Blaufränkisch is generally referred to as a “German” grape, but, while its true origins have yet to be determined, it would probably be more accurate to call it “Middle European,” as it is actually more popular in the Burgenland region of Austria and parts of Hungary (where it is known as Kékfrankos, and contributes to the notorious “Bull’s Blood” blend, in addition to being made as a single varietal wine). German plantings are almost exclusive to Württemberg, and the wines are rarely exported. It is Austria that has done the most to demonstrate the grape’s potential abroad.

And just in time. Winegrowers have developed more and more tricks to protect their cash-cow varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from catching winter colds, so Blaufränkisch’s days of usefulness might have been numbered. Fortunately, similar changes in technology and mindset also helped reveal the extent of Blaufränkisch’s potential.

To some extent Blaufränkisch shares some traits with Gamay, with which it has sometimes been confused. Both make a light, quaffable, and undistinguished red when treated indifferently, but can make complex, ageable wines when handled with more care (Consider, for example, the contrast between Beaujolais Nouveau and cru Beaujolais from Morgon or Moulin-Á-Vent). A Blaufrankisch wine is typically medium-bodied, with a strong, food-friendly acidic spine and sometimes rustic tannins. The nose tends toward cherries and berries, with strong supporting aromas of smoke, spice and black pepper than can turn toward a pronounced gaminess on occasion. In Austria the trend of late has been to wrap it all up with some new French Oak, smoothing out the wine’s mouthfeel, and, in the best examples, rounding out those spicy characteristics into a pipe tobacco and chocolate mélange.

Blaufränkisch works well at the table, especially with game; think duck, venison, or lamb. It also complements simple fare like hamburgers, and the less tannic renditions go well with barbecue. Pastas are not out of the question, either; the acidity is there to cut rich, creamy sauces or balance with tomato sauces.

Recommended Wines:

Austria:

Feiler-Artinger Blaufränkisch Umriss 2003 Fairly full and rich, with dark fruit, some bitter chocolate and black pepper, and gentle tannins.

Johann Heinrich Blaufränkisch Goldberg 2003 Blackberries, pipe tobacco, and milk chocolate, with a full-body and a long finish. Enjoyable now, but will also age well.

Prieler Blaufränkisch Ried Goldberg 2003 An earthier style, with well-integrated oak, a touch of blackberry, and a finish that goes on forever. Surprisingly elegant.

Hungary: (Usually called Kékfrankos, and often hard to find in the U.S.; there are several good blends available, so keep an eye out.)

Monarchia Takler Noir Gold Kékfrankos 2003 Full-bodied, with a pronounced ripe cherry aroma offset by a pleasing smokiness. Well worth seeking out.

New York:

Fox Run Vineyards Lemberger 2003 Classic berry and black pepper nose, with moderate tannins and good acidity. A particularly food friendly example.

Channing Daughters Blaufrankisch 2003 The previous vintage was one of the gamiest Blaufränkisches I’ve ever come across, but the 2003 has toned that down and instead comes through with a spice and cherry nose and a medium body. There’s still a meaty core, and the acidity keeps the flavors lively and give the wine good length.

Washington: (Often called Lemberger here, or occasionally the anglicized “Blue Franc.”)

Kiona Vineyards Lemberger 2002 Columbia Valley, Sports blueberry, blackberry, and black pepper aromas, with mild tannins and a smooth mouthfeel. A laidback wine, but still complex and rich.

Thurston Wolfe Blue Franc 2003 Some gamey touches to this one, with a charge of pepperiness over blueberry and dark cherry notes. Medium-bodied, and a good value despite a limited production.

Shooting Star Blue Franc 2003 Jed Steele’s second label, and his only Washington state red (Washington State seems to be his go-to location for unusual varietals; he also makes an Aligoté there). Eschewing the oak that his Austrian colleagues are currently so keen on, the fruit shines through here unaided, with rich, berry pie aromas touched by baking spices. It’s medium-bodied, with gentle tannins, a summer wine from a winter-hardy grape.