Wine School: Blaufränkisch From Austria: The Rewards of Exploration
Why bother with the fringe? Historic wines, like Burgundy and Bordeaux, are often too expensive for most people nowadays. So are many good wines made with the famous grapes of these regions (pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon), especially those that are carefully farmed and conscientiously produced.
It’s easy to find cheap pinot noirs, chardonnays and cabernets in any supermarket. These wines often achieve their low pricing by using grapes grown in the wrong places, where it is easy to farm cheaply and cynically. They are then produced like soft drinks, processed to meet predetermined flavor specifications.
Some people like these wines, which are often fruity and sometimes sweet, and always, like all wines, deliver a buzz. But if you love wine for its potential to express the characteristics of a place and a culture, these cheap commodities have nothing to offer.
Enter blaufränkisch, a grape that is little known outside its home territories of Austria, Hungary (where it’s known as kekfrankos) and Germany, where it’s often called lemberger. Here at Wine School, we live for wines like Austrian blaufränkisch, wines of beauty and place that, for myriad reasons, are not well known or highly valued, and therefore are relatively inexpensive.
For the last month we have focused on the three blaufränkisches I recommended, each $20 to $30 a bottle. They were: Moric Burgenland 2014; Anita & Hans Nittnaus Burgenland Kalk und Schiefer 2014; and Wachter-Wiesler Eisenberg Bela-Joska 2013.
I will preemptively say these wines are each superb in their own way. So why have they escaped widespread notice? Like many historic European wine regions, Austria has winemaking traditions that date back centuries, yet its modern wine industry is paradoxically young. In Austria’s case, wars, the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and scandal in the 1980s resulted in a wine industry that had to be virtually resurrected in the last 30 years.
This applies particularly to the Burgenland, in the east of Austria hard on the border of Hungary and south of Lake Neusiedl, a vast, shallow body of water that produces the humidity necessary for the formation of botrytis cinerea, the noble rot, which infuses the sweet wines produced east of the lake with wondrous lusciousness.
Unlike the regions west of Vienna, where white grapes rule, reds dominate the Burgenland: blaufränkisch as well as zweigelt, St. Laurent and international varieties like pinot noir and merlot. But blaufränkisch is the best and most distinctive grape for the region, capable of producing racy, exciting wines of finesse and grace, especially when grown on limestone and slate soils (the “Kalk und Schiefer” of the Nittnaus label).
It hasn’t been this way for long. When I first began tasting blaufränkisches, wines made in the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, many were stolid and blockish, aiming for the density, power and oakiness that were then in vogue. It was not the best face for blaufränkisch, and once producers like Moric began to demonstrate the innate beauty of blaufränkisch made with elegance in mind, the evolution was swift.
In drinking these wines I sensed a joyousness, particularly in the Nittnaus. Its aromas of fresh, spicy, purple fruits seemed so inviting. On the palate was a chalky mineral flavor, a touch of citrus and a sensation of spicy, bright warmth unrelated to alcoholic heat with a delicious bitterness that seemed to give the wine shape and hold it all together.
The Wachter-Wiesler, from Eisenberg in the southern part of Burgenland, was lighter and less structured. It was reticent at first but opened up with air, revealing a chorus of dark, earthy fruits with an undercurrent of citrus. It was refreshing and delicious, not complicated, and would have fit in well with the vins de soif, or thirst-quenchers, that we drank this summer.
Best of an excellent group, I thought, was the Moric. While the others exhibited a sort of friendly flamboyance, the Moric was precise, controlled and linear. Maybe it was not as engaging at first, but its freshness, subtlety, salinity and complexity made each sip a delicious adventure that kept calling for more.
I should point out that each of these wines is an entry-level bottle, satisfying in its own right but also offering just a taste of the possibilities. Each of these producers also offers more expressive — and expensive — blaufränkisches, made from older vines or single vineyards. These wines are deeper, more complex and can age and evolve.
Those who contributed comments seemed overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the wines. Will O’Hara of Chicago said he had never heard of blaufränkisch, but that a 2013 Moric was terrific with pork schnitzel and potato salad.
“This is the kind of wine one hopes to discover,” he said.
VSB had also never heard of the wine and found it congenial, especially with a light chill.
“Can we keep this our little secret?” he asked.
A couple of readers found the wines particularly transporting. Martina Zuccarello of New York drank the Moric and said, “This wine tastes like Austria and the mountains.”
Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., said he was initially skeptical of pairing the Nittnaus with a recipe for lamb schnitzel with mint-horseradish pesto. “Actually tasting it was a complete surprise and a somewhat emotional moment,” he said. “I felt transported into an Alpine hut staring at glowing embers while it snows outside.”
He said he was so inspired by the wines that he decided to roast a pheasant.
So why on earth aren’t these wines better known?
Partly it is history. Americans have had decades, if not centuries, to learn the names of French grapes. Blaufränkisch may need a little more time, and perhaps it needs the support of restaurants and sommeliers, who in the first decade of the 21st century helped transform the Austrian white grape grüner veltliner from a complete unknown into a wine list staple.
Americans have not historically associated Austria and Germany with red wines. But this may change, just as the changing climate has made it easier for both countries to produce fine reds.
Naysayers often charge that critics and sommeliers explore the wine fringes in an arrogant, self-aggrandizing desire to show off something new and different. Not at all. Exploration is not a rejection of what’s already known and loved. In the absence of a fortune to spend on benchmark wines, it is a means of pursuing pleasure and great value.
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