Know This Grape

Inside Blaufränkisch’s Global Comeback

Plantings and quality of this native Austrian red grape are increasing—both in its home turf and New World regions

Blaufränkisch. Photo courtesy of Beneduce Vineyards.

Austria is well-known for its white wines, particularly its native Grüner Veltliner, but the country’s reds have rapidly gained ground recently, with red grape plantings doubling over the past two decades. While Zweigelt remains the most widely planted red variety in Austria, it’s the runner-up, Blaufränkisch, that is garnering acclaim both at home and abroad.

“If any red variety from Austria can match the popularity of our Grüner Veltliner, it will be Blaufränkisch,” says Austrian native Aldo Sohm, owner of his eponymous wine bar and wine director at Le Bernardin in New York City.

Buoyed by an increased understanding of the variety and subsequently higher quality, plantings of Blaufränkisch—which goes by aliases such as Lemberger in Germany, Kékfrankos in Hungary, and Frankovka in Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia—are increasing in pockets around the world. Vintners in the historic regions of Burgenland in Austria and Württemberg in Germany are refocusing on Blaufränkisch, while producers in cooler New World regions like the Adelaide Hills, New York State, and New Jersey are discovering how well the grape performs in their vineyards as well. 

Once a defining grape of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Blaufränkisch is making a comeback—and it’s going global.

New Energies in Classic Regions

The early-budding, late-ripening Blaufränkisch enjoyed a sterling reputation in the 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire, when varieties that represented good quality were collectively referred to as “Fränkisch.” But the grape fell out of favor in post-war Europe, when advances in technology and mechanization turned grape-growing into a race for volume rather than quality. The resulting Blaufränkisch wines were thin and lacked structure, flavor, and balance.

This changed in 1986 when the Ernst Triebaumer winery in Burgenland produced Ried Marienthal, a single-variety bottling of Blaufränkisch that is now considered legendary. Triebaumer established that Burgenland Blaufränkisch had the potential to stand up to international classics, but collectively, Austria’s reds still had a lot of catching up to do.

With the popularity of international varieties and new oak-aged styles, the Blaufränkisch wines of the late 1980s and 1990s were often tough, overpowered by tannins derived from the grape’s thick skins.

“I come from Eisenberg, in Burgenland, and often wanted to show my colleagues [while working as a sommelier] what my region can do with Blaufränkisch, but many examples were rustic,” recalls Uwe Schiefer, the proprietor of his eponymous winery in Burgenland, who produced his first vintage in 1994.

Photo courtesy of Weinbau Schiefer.

Schiefer is one of the masterminds responsible for Blaufränkisch’s revival on its home turf, together with winemaker Hans Nittnaus and Moric’s Roland Velich. Since the late 1990s, the three have showcased and defined the grape’s potential, as well as the diverse styles that it can produce depending on where it grows and how it’s vinified. 

“When I met with Burgenland winemakers a decade ago, Blaufränkisch was their favorite grape to make site-specific wines within that region,” says Mike Beneduce, Jr., vineyard manager and winemaker for Beneduce Vineyards in New Jersey, who has five acres of mature Blaufränkisch vines planted.

With more practice and understanding, the overall style of Austrian Blaufränkisch has become medium-bodied, silky, and vibrant, rather than tough and tannic, and plantings have grown from just over 2,600 hectares in 2000 to almost 7,500 hectares in 2019

“[Blaufränkisch] has the ability to give you a lot of elements that can be appreciated, from silky, elegant styles like Pinot Noir, to medium-bodied, spicy reds like Syrah, to bolder, more robust styles.” Hai Tran, Sommation

But Austria isn’t the only classic region that has directed renewed energies towards the variety. Though Blaufränkisch (locally called Lemberger) was first introduced to Germany’s Württemberg region in the 19th century under a plan to replace high-yielding grapes with noble ones, plantings have nearly quadrupled since the 1970s, from 500 hectares to 1,900 hectares. Today, Lemberger accounts for 16 percent of the total vineyard area in Württemberg.

Lemberger works so well in the relatively warmer Württemberg climate that it’s permitted to carry the Grosses Gewächs (GG) designation in this region alone. “It is a local red variety for high quality red wine,” says Jochen Beurer, winemaker of his eponymous winery, who loves his Lemberger grown in red marl soils. “It is not as difficult to grow as Pinot [Noir], however, you have to pick it at the right time because one day too late can turn it into a jammy wine.”

Potential in Cooler U.S. Vineyards

Though Blaufränkisch is typically associated with the warmer regions of Austria and Germany, compared to the wine world as a whole, these regions are still relatively cool to moderate, making the grape a good fit for U.S. regions where conditions have historically been more suitable for white grapes. Blaufränkisch is quite hardy, with the ability to withstand long, cold winters and cope with wind, drought, and even heat.

The first commercial bottling of Lemberger in the U.S. was produced by Kiona Vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington State in 1980, and at one point, the state was home to around 250 acres of Lemberger. “In the 1970s, the brain trust latched onto Lemberger as a good choice in Washington State,” says JJ Williams, the winery’s general manager. “It is resilient, yet it produces a tasty red wine that doesn’t require a lot of oak treatment and is fairly inexpensive to produce—it was supposed to be Washington’s Zinfandel!”

According to Williams, Kiona Vineyards has almost a cult following of the wine. Their plantings have increased from 2 acres in 1976 to 13 acres today, and they even sell some of it to other local producers. But as more recognizable red varieties like Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon—which could reliably ripen in Washington—the state’s Lemberger plantings declined to below 60 acres today.

Burgenland vineyards. Photo courtesy of Weinbau Schiefer.

More recently, East Coast vintners have newly embraced Blaufränkisch, particularly in New York and New Jersey, where wines may be labeled either Blaufränkisch or Lemberger, depending on producer preference. While tiny amounts can be found on Long Island (thanks to Channing Daughters Winery), it’s found a niche following in the Finger Lakes, where it was originally planted for its hardiness.

“When our neighbor started growing Lemberger, I watched the vineyards in the fall and was impressed with how nice the fruit held up,” says Chris Stamp, the winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards in the Finger Lakes. “It is very tough and disease-resistant, with the exception of powdery mildew.” Lakewood has been working with the grape since 2007, producing their first single-variety Lemberger in 2009, and Stamp believes the grape has great potential in the region because of its consistency and ability to produce quality wine even in tough vintages.

Nancy Irelan, the winemaker and partner at Red Tail Ridge Winery in the Finger Lakes, first worked with Blaufränkisch as part of a research vineyard she established for E. & J. Gallo back in the 1990s, assessing the viability of obscure European vinifera varieties. Blaufränkisch was one of those that did not succeed, producing “fat, flabby, uninteresting” wines in the hot climate. 

When we decided to make the move to the Finger Lakes, we wanted to choose the best reds for a shorter, cooler growing season,” says Irelan. “Looking at the heritage of Blaufränkisch, it seemed perfectly suited.” She has been working with the variety for over 14 years and considers it a key grape variety in the region.

Though the overall climate is warmer than the Finger Lakes, the small, emerging New Jersey wine industry has developed a niche affinity for Blaufränkisch as well; the Garden State Wine Growers Association estimates that about 20 acres of the variety are planted. Beneduce decided to work with the grape after examining historical data from his Pittstown, New Jersey site and noticing that it was “almost identical” to Burgenland. 

“It could be one of the grapes our whole industry rallies around,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of places that do Blaufränkisch well, but we have the resources, climate, and soils to really do it and set us apart as an emerging wine region.”

A More Adventurous Consumer Base

It’s no longer a question of whether Blaufränkisch can create quality wines, and indeed, the wine trade has gotten on board.

“To me, it is one of the most terroir-driven red varieties and I always get good feedback,” says Clara Dalzell, the general manager of Flatiron Wines & Spirits in New York City. The staff jokes that Dalzell’s love for the grape has turned the retailer into a “Blaufränkisch shop.”

“[Blaufränkisch] has the ability to give you a lot of elements that can be appreciated, from silky, elegant styles like Pinot Noir, to medium-bodied, spicy reds like Syrah, to bolder, more robust styles,” says Philadelphia-based sommelier Hai Tran of Instagram community Sommation. Moric’s Velich compares Blaufränkisch to a cross between northern Rhône Syrah, Nebbiolo from Piedmont, and red Burgundy.

Mike Beneduce, Jr. Photo courtesy of Beneduce Vineyards.

But consumer awareness remains a challenge, which isn’t helped by the grape’s multiple aliases and difficult pronunciation. “The hurdle that I have seen is brand identity,” says Irelan. “Folks were unfamiliar with the variety, or even attempting to pronounce the name of the variety.”

For emerging regions, some see lack of name recognition as less of a concern. “People don’t have any expectations when they walk into a New Jersey winery, so we have a blank slate,” says Beneduce. “Let’s grow the grapes that make the highest wine quality.”

As a whole, however, Blaufränkisch has been aided by changing consumer attitudes towards unfamiliar grapes. “Wine drinkers are getting more adventurous, looking for value in different pockets of the wine world,” says Tran. “Generally, folks are becoming much more open and explorative with their tastes,” adds Irelan.

Cole Wilson, the director of operations for Damiani Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes, has noticed a marked difference in the winery’s Lemberger sales. “Twenty years ago, it was a very hard sell, but now people buy it by the case,” he says.

The typical quality-to-price ratio also makes it easier to convince consumers to dip a toe in the Blaufränkisch pool. “In the $15 to $25 range, people are not afraid to experiment, and when they try [Blaufränkisch], they always give good feedback,” says Steven Sherman, the owner of William Cross Wine Merchants in San Francisco, who notes that high-end bottles over $100 are still difficult to move.

While it’s unlikely that Blaufränkisch will ever become as universal as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, it has established itself as more than just an obscurity. With its ability to produce high-quality, nuanced wines even in unfavorable conditions, expect more fine examples—from Austria to the United States—in the future.

Aleks Zecevic is a wine specialist for the Sotheby’s Wine auction house. Previously he worked at Wine Spectator, where he covered the wines of Austria, Germany, South Africa, and France’s Loire Valley. Having family in Austria, Aleks has visited the country and its vineyards many times, but especially as a journalist.

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