The Blaufränkisch Grape Variety: What’s in a Name?
“My favorite Red, you ask? “Blaufränkisch.”
I’m speaking to a group of what I affectionately call “wine-nerds” here in the Finger Lakes. They’re visiting from out of town, and are curious to get my recommendations about where to go, what to eat, what to taste; but also, what (grape) does well here.
“Well, it’s an Austrian varietal, you see…” as I elaborate more. “Maybe you know it as Lemberger?”
I’m met with unresponsive, stone-cold faces; like I’m speaking another language. Well, I guess I am, in a way. I elaborate further: “In Austria it’s Blaufränkisch, but in Germany it’s Lemberger, in Hungary it’s Kékfrankos.”
In another conversation with a west-coast wine blogger: “I hear you talk about this all of the time….but I don’t even know how to pronounce it; I’m scared of ordering it anywhere and butchering the name.”
“Well,” I respond, “It’s ‘Blau’ like ‘OWWW’ like you stubbed your toe. ‘Frank’ as in your old friend, Frank. And ‘isch’ as in that ‘ish’ is some crazy ISH.”
Now she gets it.
I almost continue with its many other names, used in other countries, but I chose to stop at three countries because – like a bad stand-up comic in Nebraska at a dive bar on a Sunday night – I’m about to lose my audience, which is the last thing I want to do. And my audience thinks I’m speaking German right now. The irony, though, is that Lemberger quite literally is the German name.
Blaufränkisch in the Finger Lakes
For years, Riesling has been the flagship grape of the Finger Lakes. This isn’t new news, for most people in the wine world, or for Riesling fans. Outside of parts of Germany and France, the Finger Lakes is likely one of the better known Riesling regions. However, for a region to be taken seriously on a national and international scale, there needs to be a red wine counterpart, too. Herein lies the question: What’s the “Flagship” red wine/red grape in the Finger Lakes?
The consensus, now, is Cabernet Franc. Vitis vinifera. A “Dad” to Cabernet Sauvignon. An “OG” Bordeaux grape, a somewhat common wine that most people know. Some local Cabernet Franc is textbook Loire, or at least some parts of the Loire. Any Saumur Champigny fans out there?
Personally? I love it. Absolutely love it. Can’t get enough. Want to taste-them-all. However you want to say it, Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc is serious stuff. However, what if there is a red grape that grows better than Cabernet Franc and is more cold-hardy? And, what if it is quite versatile? And what if you think a lot of dry red wine drinkers would love it, but just haven’t tried it yet?
“You should see our Lemberger grow!!” Kathy Ruis exclaims, almost screaming at the top of her lungs. Kathy and her husband, Bob, are the owners of Sunrise Hill Vineyard. Sunrise Hill is in Interlaken, NY, north of Trumansburg, NY, close to the shores of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes. Kathy and Bob are growers/suppliers, not a winery.
“Our Lemberger just shoots straight up! It really is a thing of beauty. It takes so much less work than other grapes, really,” Kathy elaborates.
Then, I ask myself in my head, why are we shooting ourselves in the foot marketing Cab Franc as the next big thing in the Finger Lakes. Or, at least the “Flagship” Red.
“Well, we have a marketing problem, Kathy,” I start my mini-speech that I’ve rehearsed multiple times recently. “You see, most people can’t pronounce Blaufränkisch. And most people hear Lemberger and…” Kathy cuts me off.
“The CHEESE! People think of the smelly cheese, right?!”
“Yes, sadly, but you’re 100% correct. People think I’m talking about Limburger cheese, not Lemberger wine.”
Kathy’s excitement is dialed down a bit, as the name association of Limburger is now stuck in her head (Sorry, Kathy!!). I continue, a bit, “There just isn’t consistency…some people call it Lemberger (here), some call it Blaufränkisch, so immediately it’s already labeled differently, which hampers brand awareness, or should I call it, ‘Wine-Awareness?’”
“But it’s so delicious!!” Kathy’s excitement is back up now, as she’s talking about the Lemberger from Damiani Vineyards. Damiani sources Lemberger from Sunrise Hill, and it’s a delicious Lemberger!
I want to tell Kathy, “You’re preaching to the choir!” because Blaufränkisch is quite literally my favorite red wine. However, I digress, for now. I’ve probably told Kathy this already in previous conversations though, and forgot.
The problem is this: people can’t pronounce Blaufränkisch easily. Lemberger isn’t easy to pronounce either, but it’s also confused with the (stinky) cheese. And, worst of all, it’s called and labeled both names across the Finger Lakes. If someone finds a Blaufränkisch they love, and don’t do their research, they might show up at another winery looking for another Blaufränkisch, yet be left with only finding Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and…you guessed it, Lemberger, not Blaufränkisch.
The Debate: Blaufränkisch vs. Lemberger
A few years ago, there was a big debate amongst various parties in the wine industry here in the Finger Lakes – about this very subject: What’s the Flagship red?
It’s a valid discussion. Wine regions need to adapt, and need to have something for everyone if they are going to be taken seriously on an international, not a local, scale.
Let’s say it got a bit heated. But, I’m all for a heated conversation when a conversation is about delicious WINE, of all things, so count me in. The final consensus was that yes, Cabernet Franc, needs to be the red. Pinot Noir came up, too. But it’s not easy to grow here at all. It takes coddling and constant attention. Cabernet Sauvignon? Certainly not. Not in this cool climate with long, harsh winters. You need vineyards close or closer to a lake shore, and you’ll probably need specific rootstock. And people are used to warmer climate Cabernet Sauvignon around the world – not cool climate Cabernet. Hybrids? Not sexy, it has to be Vinifera if people are going to take you seriously on an international scale. Cabernet Franc? Yeah, sure, grows pretty well and isn’t a huge pain, and of course it makes a great red wine.
But, what if there is a Red that grows better, grows easier, and in this cold climate, is also (more) cold-hardy?
Most people that like lighter to medium bodied Red wine: Your Pinot Noir, your Gamay, etc. LOVE Blaufränkisch also.
“It’s my favorite, too,” says Della Hovanec. Della is the tasting room manager at Barnstormer Winery on Seneca Lake, who happens to have a delicious Blaufränkisch. Della also teaches some wine seminars, and used to be a Finger Lakes Wine tour guide too. It’s her job to have a pulse on what people want, what they ask for, what they are looking for, etc.
We’re chatting a bit, and I have the same conversation with her: that people aren’t able to pronounce it easily, which can also be a deterrent.
“People weren’t able to pronounce Cabernet Sauvignon, either,” says Della. “But, they learned, over time.”
“Well, yes, true, but how many hundreds of years did it take to get there?” I reply back, thinking about the history of Vitis Vinifera and other Noble grapes. “Generally speaking…” I continue, “When people go to a regular middle-of-America restaurant, or let’s say your franchise steakhouse, and they want a nice steak and a good red wine. What do they order?” I ask Della.
“Cab. They order a Cab.” Della answers automatically in a split-second.
“And by that, there is our answer for what most of America wants. Cabernet Sauvignon is the understood ‘default’ in this case,” I reply back.
We end up agreeing with each other: That Blaufränkisch/Lemberger is (A) absolutely delicious and versatile, (B) grows extremely well here, (C) should be the Flagship Red of the Finger Lakes, but (D) most people can’t pronounce it (or at least can’t pronounce it yet).
So, What’s in a Name?
Most people that are familiar with wine, let’s say your average wine enthusiast, know Cabernet Franc. Call it CF, call it lil Cab, Daddy Cab, whatever you want, but most people know of it. Most people don’t know Blaufränkisch, or Lemberger, for that matter.
In 500 years, when we’re all buried like the vines here in snow, maybe the tide will have shifted. Maybe, just maybe Blaufränkisch will be the NEW “Cab,” at least in the Finger Lakes.
Wine is an essential aspect of life, especially my life. But, for your average wine drinker or your average middle-class family, does name familiarity help with choosing wine? I think so. I hope one day that 95% of wine-drinkers are comfortable enough to order the “Blaufränkisch” or the “Lemberger” just as easy as the “Cab,” aka the Cabernet Sauvignon, or the Cab dominant Red blend.
There are many outstanding, delicate, balanced, structured, beautiful Blaufränkisch (and) Lemberger options here in the Finger Lakes. Fortunately, we don’t have any named Kékfrankos – yet. Don’t even get me started on that. But in the meantime, let it be known that YES, we have Cabernet Franc too. It’s (also) delicious, and abundant, and everything Blaufränkisch is too. And you’re welcome, it’s easier to pronounce! For now, that is. Give us a few years and we’ll change that.