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.
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
Ried Goldberg 2003 An earthier style, with well-integrated
oak, a touch of blackberry, and a finish that goes on forever. Surprisingly
(Usually called Kékfrankos, and often hard to find
in the U.S.; there are several good blends available, so keep an
Noir Gold Kékfrankos 2003 Full-bodied, with a pronounced
ripe cherry aroma offset by a pleasing smokiness. Well worth seeking
Fox Run Vineyards Lemberger
2003 Classic berry and black pepper nose, with moderate
tannins and good acidity. A particularly food friendly example.
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
(Often called Lemberger here, or occasionally the anglicized “Blue
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.
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.
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.
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