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Franc Over Sauvignon: Hungary’s Love Affair With The Cabernets

10 minutes read

How does a country come to prefer focusing on a lesser-known grape instead of the world’s most planted red variety, the superstar, Cabernet Sauvignon? Why Franc instead of Sauvignon? How is it that a grape that was barely planted—if at all—30 years ago is now the image of Hungarian red winemaking? Let’s review the evolution of Cabernet Franc in Hungary.

The Back Story

Hungary was part of the Eastern Bloc until 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, bringing the communist regime down with it. The real change actually started in 1991 when Hungary opened to the West. Until then, everything that came from the West—including the grape varieties and winemaking techniques—was either unknown, or demonized by the old regime.

 During the first few years of Capitalism, plenty of international investors arrived with new ideas. And Hungarian winemakers began using all these new “toys” they suddenly had access to, such as new French oak barrels, fashionable Western grape varieties, the latest winemaking gadgets, and more. During Communism a small number of hectares were planted with international varieties, but in the early 1990s the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay rush really began.

Hungary’s area under vine has changed dramatically during the last 40 years, but the biggest changes happened after the regimes changed in 1989. According to the Winemakers Pocketbook (Borászok Zsebkönyve, 1978), Hungary had about 150,000 hectares of land planted with wine grapes in 1974 and produced 5,150,000 hectoliters of wine. No international grapes were named—no Chardonnay, no Cabernet—on the list of most planted varieties. The most planted red grape was Kadarka with an impressive 29,634 hectares. Some varieties featured on this list are not even planted these days.

The latest current data from the Hungarian Wine Appellations Controlling Board (HNT) shows that in 2019 the area under vine in Hungary was 65,000 hectares with an annual production of 2,745,000 hectoliters. This means that in the last 45 years the amount of land planted with vineyards has shrunk to less than half. This is not a bad thing, however. In the 1970s and 1980s the country’s focus was on the mass production of cheap wine. There were too many vineyards planted, and they were in all the wrong places. After the pressure ceased for Hungary to produce a high volume to fulfill the Eastern Bloc’s market, the country could finally focus on quality production, better vineyard management, and better grape variety selections.

The list of the most planted varieties in 2019 (see chart) couldn’t be more different than the one from 1974. Kadarka, which was the most planted variety at the time with more than 29,000 hectares, in 2019 has only 324 hectares. New varieties made it to the top of the list and, in the red-grape section, most of them are international: Cabernet Sauvignon stands proud in second place with 2,500 hectares, followed by its best friend Merlot in third place with 1,900. Our hero, Cabernet Franc, is in fifth place with 1,300 hectares, just behind Zweigelt, with its 1,500 hectares. The overall most planted red variety of Hungary is the Austrian-Hungarian Kékfrankos variety, with 7,150 hectares. Regarding white grapes, Hungary still favors its local varieties over the international ones. 

The Regions

Of the three Bordeaux brother grapes—Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon—Hungary is most proud of its success with Cabernet Franc. But of the three, it is the least planted, with 1,300 hectares (compared to 1,900 of Merlot and 2,500 of Cabernet Sauvignon). Internationally speaking, the grape that a given region (or country) is best known for, is rarely the most planted, and Hungary is no exception. Even in Bordeaux—the hometown of the world’s most planted red varietal Cabernet Sauvignon—there is more Merlot planted than Cabernet Sauvignon. Likewise, the Piedmont region in northwest Italy is most known for its Nebbiolo-based wines, but both the Dolcetto and Barbera varieties have more acreage of land. 

Out of Hungary’s 22 wine regions, at least six produce premium Cabernet Franc, with Eger, Villány, and Szekszárd being most famous for it. The Tolna, Balatonboglar, and Kunság regions also produce good quality Cabernet Franc, but they have less market share (and less impressive Cabernet Francs). 

Most of Hungary’s red grape plantations are in the warmer southern regions of the country, which can experience a sub-mediterranean-like climate due to the influence of the Adriatic Sea. Northern Hungary’s colder climate makes it more suitable for white wine production, with the exception of the Eger region, where half of the production is red wine. 

Northern Hungary: Eger

In the Eger region, the most planted red variety is the cold-climate-loving Kékfrankos (1,260 hectares). The warmer-climate loving Cabernet Sauvignon (470 hectares) and Cabernet Franc (230 hectares) stand in 3rd and 5th position. Eger is known for producing blended wines, like the popular and traditional “Bikavér,” so it is not common to see a 100 percent Cabernet Franc from the region, although great examples do exist. Cabernet Franc here is mostly used as a blending partner in cuvées, giving floral and black fruit aromas to the final wine. Havas & Tímár Winery’s Franom is a pure Cabernet Franc which exemplifies the style of Cabernet Franc from Eger’s colder climate: crisp acidity, moderate tannins, floral aromatics, and a lighter body compared to a southern Hungarian version. I very much recommend tasting a northern-Hungarian Cabernet Franc and a southern-Hungarian version side by side. 

The role of mid-season-ripening varietals, like Cabernet Franc, has increased in the last few years as winemakers re-discover their terroir and adapt to climate change. Winemakers all over Hungary repeatedly say “We can’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s simply not warm enough.” However, it remains the most planted variety of the three Bordeaux grapes. “If you are lucky, it ripens three years times out of ten,” winemaker Peter Stumpf once told me about Cabernet Sauvignon. “We’ve come to realize that Eger’s climate is too warm for Pinot Noir, and not warm enough for Cabernet Sauvignon. Grapes like Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Merlot feel much better here and produce better wines than the popular Pinot and Cab Sauv.” 

The fact that Cabernet Franc ripens ten days earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon makes it better suited for Hungary’s colder, continental climate. The obvious question now would be: if it doesn’t fit the climate, then why do all of these plantations of Cabernet Sauvignon still exist? Easy answer: the market demands it, and it sells.

Southern Hungary: Szekszárd and Villány

In southern Hungary, two regions stand out for producing excellent red wines, including premium Cabernet Francs: Szekszárd and Villány. Regarding style, the Szekszárd region usually produces red wines that are lighter and not as concentrated as Villany’s, due to its simpler loess-based soil and its slightly colder climate. Villány is Hungary’s southernmost wine producing region, hence the warmest, and it has a limestone-based soil that gives wines great strength and depth.

Szekszárd

Like Eger, Szekszárd Cabernet Franc is usually used in Bordeaux-style blends, next to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Out of the three Bordeaux grapes, Merlot is both the most planted (385 hectares, compared to 254 of Cabernet Franc and 251 of Cabernet Sauvignon), and the one mostly used in premium wines. Most of the top wines of the area are either blends based on Merlot or pure varietal wines, like Vida Winery’s top wine “La Vida” or Sebestyén Winery’s Gradus Cuvée. Pure Cabernet Franc wines also exist from the Szekszárd region, including Sebestyén’s Porkoláb-völgy or Eszterbauer Winery’s Mesterünk. Szekszárd is also the only red winemaking region in Hungary where Cabernet Sauvignon is the least planted of the three Bordeaux grapes. 

Villány 

Villány is the best-known region in Hungary for producing Cabernet Franc wines. It has even created its own quality category for wines made of 100 percent Cabernet Franc, Villanyi Franc. Its warm Mediterranean climate combined with it’s limestone-based soils are the perfect combination to produce outstanding red wines with great depth and concentration. Villány was the region that started the Cabernet Franc fever in Hungary. What makes Cabernet Franc from Hungary unique? The easiest way to understand it is to taste a Villányi Franc. 

There is a reason that around the world Cabernet Franc is not as widely planted as Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc has a reputation of producing thin wines with red and black fruits aromas, and a strong bell-peppery taste. Overall, simple bistro-like wines. Also, when planted in the warm climates that suit Cabernet Sauvignon better, Franc produces dull wines without much nerve, which are simply not as engaging as the Cabernet Sauvignons of the same area. For a long time Cabernet Franc was misunderstood, and was planted in climates that were either too cold or too warm for it.

Hungary—and especially the Villány region—showed a new face of Cabernet Franc: a concentrated, rich, intense, black-fruit driven wine, without the strong bell-pepper aromas that turned many people off. Hungary began making premium Cabernet Francs which felt more like polished Cabernet Sauvignons—gentler and full of floral perfume. Sort of like a Cabernet Sauvignon with a bow-tie.

Villány’s Break

There was a breaking point for Cabernet Franc in Villány, a moment when winemakers and consumers discovered the greatness of this variety. It was a before-and-after moment. 

The great late Michael Broadbent—who was a Master of Wine and one of the greatest wine personalities of the 20th century—visited Villány region in 2000, during the latter part of his career. At the time, the region was producing the style of wine that was trending at the moment: big Bordeaux blends. Broadbent visited several wineries and tasted wines straight from the barrels. After his visit, he published an influential article in Decanter with the declaration: “Cabernet Franc has found its natural home in Villány.” This statement—coming from the person who wrote the first book about wine tasting, back in the 1960s, and who mentored some of the most influential people in wine—changed red-wine making in Hungary. After Broadbent’s revelation, Hungarian winemakers from all around the country began believing in the potential of this grape to produce premium wines. Villány remains the best-suited region for the variety, and the pride and joy of the Hungarian red wine scene.  

Villányi Franc

In 2014, the Villány wine region created a category for premium 100 percent Cabernet Franc wines, called Villányi Franc. There are two quality levels within this style: Premium and Super Premium. 

A Premium Villányi Franc must come from low-yielding vineyards that produce a maximum of 6,000 liters of wine per hectare and must spend at least one year in oak barrels before release. 

A Super Premium must come from even smaller yielding vineyards, producing only 3,500 liters of wine per hectare, and must spend an extra year in the bottle after the mandatory one year of oak ageing.

In 2021, Villány will be the host of the first-ever international Cabernet Franc competition, called Franc du monde. It will be a good opportunity to see how Hungarian Cabernet Francs fit into context with those of the rest of the world. One thing is for sure: we love it!


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