A Touch of Blue

by Caroline Gilby MW

Central Europe’s most important red grape grows under many guises. Kékfrankos, Blaufränkisch, Frankovka, Franconia, Lemberger, Modra Frankinja, Burgund Mare to name a few. Many of its names include the word “blue” in translation (Blau, Kék and Modra) for its blue-toned skins, while the story goes that back in the Middle Ages better grape varieties were called “Frankisch” to show their superiority over the less well-regarded “Heunisch” varieties, nothing to do with any French connection.

Today, the variety’s prime name is deemed to be Blaufränkisch, in line with the belief that it comes from Austria where the name first appeared in 1862. Globally plantings have gone up from 12,879ha in 2000 to 16,141ha in 2010 and a rank of 48th most important wine grape by 2010. Austria has done a great marketing job in claiming Blaufränkisch as the country’s flagship red but I can’t help feeling that Hungary has missed a trick as it is the world’s biggest grower of the grape with just over 7,200 ha, while Austria has less than half the area, just 3,228ha in 2010.

Recent research has turned all this established wisdom on its head. It has been known for some time that there is a parent-offspring relationship between Blaufränkisch and the promiscuous Gouais Blanc but the other parent was a missing link. A single ancient vine in Friuli near the Slovenian border called Sbulzìna was matched to an unidentified vine in a collection in Germany’s Rheinhessen. DNA research established they were both an almost extinct variety called Blaue Zimmettraube. Further DNA profiling has now revealed this to be the missing parent, and as it is a variety with female flowers only, it must be the maternal parent.

The assumption is that Blaufränkisch arose as a natural cross, so researchers looked at historical records to establish where both parents would have been present. Both possibly existed together in the 18th century and are definitely mentioned in early 19th century writings as grown in Lower Styria. At that time, there was little planting of red grape varieties in what is modern Austria, so the conclusion is that Blaufränkisch was born in Lower Styria in today’s Slovenia (Old Hungary, pre 1920., WW1).

Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos is relatively resistant to winter cold but it is also late ripening and needs long sunny autumns. This means it suits continental climates like Hungary, where it flourished during the communist era. Then quantity was the main goal of viticulture so it was usefully vigorous and high yielding. With the new era and search for quality, growers have been relearning its potential when grown on better sites, at lower yields and with modern winemaking. There was an early phase where many winemakers pursued concentration, extraction and barrel use to show quality. However, this is a variety that is relatively light in colour, often with racy acidity – which luckily it tends to hold onto even in hot growing regions like southern Hungary. Tannins are not high but can appear hard-edged if not ripe due to that acidity, so need careful handling. The secret of the best Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos for me is where producers treat it more like Pinot Noir than a Bordeaux variety with focus on gentle extraction and acidity to provide structure and balance rather than tannins. It has taken time but today Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos has re-established itself as a high quality and exciting red grape variety and one that shows off the new face of Hungarian wine.