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Kékfrankos: A Much-Loved Grape of Many Names

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Kékfrankos is one of the must-taste wines of Central Europe. This Austro-Hungarian variety is grown widely across the Carpathian Basin and is thought to have originated in Lower Styria, now part of Slovenia. It has made Central and Eastern Europe its home since the Middle Ages.

Perhaps you might already know this grape by it’s better-known name, Blaufränkisch. Confusingly, it also has many others. Many of its myriad of names in the region are based on translations of ’Blue Frankish’. Yet, just where this name originates from is not entirely clear, although it probably derives from Franconia in Germany. There the grape is called (Blauer) Limberger or Lemberger, not to be confused with the smelly Belgian cheese, Limburger. In the Middle Ages, various high-quality varieties were named Fränkisch to mark their superiority over the inferior Heunisch varieties. Some say it got its name from the blue coats of Napoleon’s troops.

While a Hungarian urban legend states that it’s called Kékfrankos since occupying Napoleonic troops purchased wine in Sopron using their ‘blue francs’, then worth more than the local currency. Indeed, in Sopron, its surroundings, and just across the border in Austria and Croatia, you can now use the local currency Kékfrank in numerous outlets. In Bulgaria, the grape is known as Gamé, whilst a second Hungarian name dubs it Nagyburgundy (big Burgundy) since the variety was commonly mistaken for Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir.

Hungary boasts the largest acreage of Kékfrankos, but across the border in the Burgenland the Austrian producers blew their own trumpet loader and earlier and started producing quality wine from the variety ahead of their Hungarian neighbors who had been impeded by decades of Communism and its planned economy. Hence, Blaufränkisch is the name which is used internationally, much to the annoyance of the Hungarians, who see Kékfrankos as their own. The city of Sopron, in the west of Hungary, is known as the Capital of Kékfrankos, as some of the largest swathes of Kékfrankos vines in the world are found in the Sopron wine region.

Sopron, a.k.a. Capital of Kékfrankos

Kékfrankos is planted in most Hungarian wine regions—except for the white wine bastions Tokaj, Somló and Badacsony—and is often the protagonist in cheap and cheerful red jug wine and crisp rosé wines (an essential ingredient in the summer wine spritzers called fröccs). Indeed, 10 or 15 years ago, thin and weedy Soproni Kékfrankos was the drink of choice at many a local pub or bar.

However, quality-minded producers in the northern Sopron, Eger, and Mátra wine regions, and also  Szekszárd and Villány in the warmer south, are crafting increasingly elegant and balanced Kékfrankos wines with fresh acidity. They have evident tannins, which become more velvety, supple, and complex with age. When well made, the variety—with its crunchy red and black cherry fruit and spicy kick—is generally a crowd-pleaser and is considered one of the country’s best wine varieties. It’s also appreciated for its ability to express terroir. In Hungary, it may produce a light, fruity reductive wine with medium tannins, with more serious wines typically spending six months to a year in traditional large oak.

An early-budding and late-ripening variety that needs warm conditions to ripen fully, Kékfrankos thrives in Szekszárd and Villány. Szekszárd producers particularly prize it as one of the three key styles of their region, producing structured, playful wines with fresh acidity and elegance. It also plays the leading role in the region’s Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) blend. In Villány, unfortunately, it’s losing out to the Bordeaux varieties and is often used as a partner to Cabernet Sauvignon. In the cooler Sopron, Mátra, and Eger regions, where Kékfrankos is also widely planted, some producers are making concentrated yet silky wines, benefitting from the cooler climate. These wines are balanced and fruity, often with aromas of raspberry and violets. As in Szekszárd, it’s an integral element of Egri Bikavér here too.

Austrian Blaufränkisch is planted mostly in the Burgenland, just across the border from Hungary, producing fine, well-structured characterful wines with racy acidity. Styles range from fresh and fruity to deeply colored with dark fruit, pepperiness and a dense structure. As a rule of thumb, wines from the cooler Leithaberg (a DAC region in Burgenland) with its slate and limestone soils are nervy and elegant. Those nearer the Neusiedlersee/Lake Fertö are richer and more full-bodied. And Mittelburgenland, dubbed ‘Blaufränkischland’, produces structured, spicy wines.

Kékfrankos has also proved a good breeding grape. Austria’s most planted red variety, Zweigelt, is the fruit of its crossing with St Laurent. Blauburger, another successful crossing, is the result of a Kékfrankos-Portugieser marriage.

Whatever coat ‘Blue Frankish’ is wearing, its wines make a great match for spicy dishes, grilled meat or schnitzel. Its acidity cuts fatty food, and its peppery notes pair extraordinarily well with dishes made with Hungarian red gold–paprika.

Want to taste Kékfrankos from Hungary? Visit The Tasting Table Budapest. Order from our menu, or book one of our daily tastings: Wine, Cheese, & Charcuterie Tasting and Essentials of Hungarian Wine Tasting). 

Want to taste Hungarian wine straight from the source? Taste Hungary has daily small-group wine tours featuring the TokajVillányBalaton & Somló, and Eger regions. We also offer daily private tours to all regions.