Blau is the new black

I have an affinity for the unknown and obscure. This fact holds true for nearly all things of interest to me; music, art, you name it. It doesn’t mean I shun anything popular; I just get excited when I discover something so fantastic, great, and new to me. The same holds true for wine and specific grapes varietals. Unlike the “Alexander the Grapes” of wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which can virtually be grown anywhere and make a decent local style, some grapes just get lost in translation when trying to conquer the world. Case in point: Blaufränkisch.

Blaufränkisch did not officially appear until 1862 when it was introduced at a viticulture exposition in Vienna, Austria, but its geneology traces it back hundreds of years before that into lower Styria and Dalmatia. Under the guise of multiple names, Blaufränkisch is grown all over Eastern Europe. Austria leads these countries in production and quality. In Austria, Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grapes behind Zwiegelt. During WWII, most of the Austrian vineyards were destroyed and all bottled wine was stolen by the German Nazis.

In 2009 I traveled to Austria to visit the many wine regions this beautiful country has to offer, except I went in January, and it wasn’t too beautiful. It was freezing and lonely out in the countryside. I visited great wineries and vineyards such as Netzl, Mienklieng, Hillinger, Steindorfer, Anton Bauer, Strauss, and Stienenger vast caves. Among of the fantastic Grüner Veltliners, Rieslings, and Zwiegelts, the Blaufränkisch took me by surprise. It wasn’t until we had dinner with the legendary Leo Hillinger at his winery on our first evening that I was blown away by such a powerful red, and it came out of the frozen grounds just on the other side of the wall from the exact room was drinking it in . This wine was rich, spicy, brooding, gripping, and eccentric much like the proprietor, Leo Hillinger himself. Leo is a type of man that just has a gravitational pull about him. All eyes and attention slowly turned to him when he walks into a room. With blonde hair, fit physique, and funny nose, he resembles Owen Wilson as a 24/7 gym rat. He had a confidence and obvious love for his wine. Normally I would be turned off by someone with this much bravado, and almost arrogance, but his wine held up and I was on my 40th hour with no sleep and 4th winery of the day. I may have been a little delirious and tired, but my palate was shockingly awake. It is no secret my favorite grape is Syrah, and for a Syrah lover, the Blaufränkisch is a fantastic substitute. It carries the same attitude and fruit flavors, with a little bit of a peppery punch. I tried many other Blaufränkisch bottles on the trip, even a vertical with a great four course dinner with Anton Bauer paired with a slow cooked braised beef cheek course. That was a meal to remember. I don’t think I remember trying a bad wine at all in Austria.

It wasn’t until this past weekend that I tried a bottle of similar power to the Hillinger, and it was made in my own backyard, well close to it. As Austria is considered a cool climate region and focuses on grapes that can grow well in the climate like Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Pinot Noir, so is the Finger Lakes regions of upstate New York.

My wife and I had family guests in from out of town and when they are here, we love to visit the wine trails in the Finger Lakes. We chose to visit Seneca Lake on this trip. I have been to nearly all the wineries in the area, but there is one that I had just never stopped at and not for any real reason good or bad, it just always was skipped, Red Tail Ridge Winery and Vineyard. It is a great looking estate with only 35 acres and a focus on small batch production. Their website says the focus on small batch is to ensure personal touch and quality over quantity, which is commendable. I was able to try their 2011 Red Tail Ridge Martini Family Vineyards Blaufränkisch from their obscure red varietal series (as labeled). Only 408 cases were produced. Upon my first sniff I was slightly intrigued with hints of pepper and stewed plums. It tasted even better and was very reminiscent of the Blaufränkisch I tried in its native lands of Austria. It had great tannic structure, acidity from the cool climate growing region, and loaded with herbaceous and blue and black fruit flavors. I was extremely surprised and happy that this wine exists. I of course bought a bottle and am eager to open. Too bad I can’t reproduce the beef cheek dish I had in Austria.

It is always great to try and experience the terrain a grape is grown in and under the vigor that a vine has to go through to create such great fruit. From harsh weather to wars as in Austria’s case, the history and traditions are still alive and bursting at the seams. It is apparent that some of the quality has been spilling out into the new world and even in my backyard, the Finger Lakes wine region of New York. 

Leo Hillinger and his Blaufrankisch