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Blaufränkisch has a certain Meryl Streep je ne sais quoi to its stature; like the famous actress, it is commonly agreed to be graceful and of good taste, with a capacity for varied interpretations that can lead to blissful emotions.
When treated with the care it deserves, this variety yields wines of finely built structure, often complemented by noticeable acidity, one of its driving forces. It translates terroir vivaciously, and winemakers are rewarded for adopting a site-specific approach when tending to it.
Being a Blaufränkisch lover means not being scared of surprise; its personality can drastically change from one bottle to the next: sometimes bright and crunchy, sometimes flirting with darkness. It is an early-budder and a late-ripener, and pick date will have a great effect upon determining which kind of mood it will adopt when you bring it in.
It has (re)gained momentum and respect since the end of the 20th century, thanks to the Austrians, who did a fine job of elevating its name to one associated with high quality red wines worthy of ageing, and one that people now recognize. But while we often think of it at home in the Burgenland area of eastern Austria, we sometimes overlook its parallel lives in numerous Central European countries. The history of its geographic spread is a wonderful tale of botched borders, conflicts, political instability, and stubbornness.
Blaufränkisch’s origins have now been confirmed: the grape was born in Lower Styria (present day Eastern Slovenia, around Konjice) and the missing link of its parentage is a grape called Blauer Zimmettraube, which snuggled with the ubiquitous Weisser Heunisch (Gouais Blanc) to create a descendant. It spread from there and changed its name along the way, successfully fooling everybody about its identity, even being mistaken for Gamay for a long time in certain areas.
Blaufränkisch was planted profusely by the Habsburg during their reign over a good chunk of Europe, and this is the perfect time for a reminder that for centuries, Austria and Hungary were tight. Tight enough to build a gigantic empire together, dismantled only in the last century. So while the Austrians have been more aggressive with their marketing of the grape in the modern age, and have pushed Blaufränkisch into stardom, they don’t really own the rights to this prodigal child over Hungary, as it was relevant in both places.
In Hungary, where the grape is known as Kékfrankos (literal translation), to this day we still find almost three times more acreage than in Austria. The grape is planted in most wine regions, where its appreciation is mitigated between very high quality offerings and terrible, mass-made plonk. Choose wisely.
The regions of Eger, Szekszárd, and Villány stand strong in quality production. As does the city of Sopron, doubling as a wine region (1,100 ha of Kékfrankos planted) that voted against being ratified to Burgenland in 1920, illustrating very well the troubled relationships of the interwar period that followed the collapse of the Empire. These relationships would deteriorate further in the Iron Curtain era. Nowadays, border fluidity has been restored, but the two countries market their wines independently, which is not always in Hungary’s favour name-wise.
Travelling northwest from its birthplace, the grape switches names to Lemberger, which is how it is known to the people living in the ex-Kingdom of Württemberg. This German wine region is highly interesting because its production is mostly red (70%) which contrasts sharply with that of the rest of the country. A big portion of this is consumed right at home, which helps explain why the world has been slow to awaken to the Lemberger revolution. Some exquisite examples of just how versatile Lemberger can be are abundant in this often overlooked region. Wines of great finesse, with a tendency to be lighter-bodied than their Austro-Hungarian counterparts, based on wide differences in climate, soil and approach.
We can attest to the triumph of Blaufränkisch in two other countries that also used to be pretty tight: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The grape is known there as Frankovka and Frankovka modrá respectively, and is the most-planted red grape in Slovakia. Other countries worth mentioning for their production are Croatia, Romania, Serbia, and then, crossing oceans, the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, and so on.
This is, of course, just a glimpse into how rich and flavourful Blaufränkisch’s history really is.
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