One third of Hungary’s grapevines are red varieties, and the most important by far is Kékfrankos. Hungary grows more of this characteristically Central European grape than any other country, with 7,543ha (Austria is next with 2,630ha, where it’s better known as Blaufränkisch). Arguably Hungary has missed a trick by failing to lay claim to Kékfrankos as its own up to now, though this is changing. Research has found that it’s a cross of the promiscuous Weisser Heunisch (Gouais Blanc) with Zimmettraube Blau, and most likely originated centuries ago in old Hungarian territory (Lower Styria in today’s Slovenia). Its parentage makes it a half-sibling of noble grapes such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Furmint and Gamay among others – which gives a clue to its exciting quality potential.
Its name (Kék means blue) refers to the waxy blue colour of its skins, and it grows under many guises; Blaufränkisch, Burgund Mare, Franconia, Frankovka, Lemberger and Modra Frankinja to name but a few. The story goes that better grape varieties were called ‘Frankisch’ to show their superiority over the less well-regarded ‘Heunisch’ varieties, hence the frankos/fränkisch part of its name. There are other folk tales associated with it, too, for instance linked to Napoleon’s soldiers paying in ‘blue’ franc banknotes for better wines in Sopron.
Whatever its history, it became a workhorse grape in Hungary after the devastation of phylloxera, and during the volume-driven communist era. It took over from Kadarka as it proved to be usefully vigorous, giving generous yields, as well as being more robust against diseases than the rather fragile, thin- skinned Kadarka, which had previously been the most planted red variety.
Along with the rise of private family wineries in the late 20th century, and the widespread switch towards quality, Hungary’s growers have been reassessing Kékfrankos to learn about its potential when grown on better sites, at lower yields and using modern winemaking.
The next generation of well-travelled and educated sons and daughters are a key part of this revival. Austrian Franz Weninger Jr, who makes wine in both Austria and in Sopron, Hungary, has been a pioneer of the new-wave Kékfrankos. ‘Alpine soil with the windy Pannonian climate makes for very special fruit,’ he says, ‘and Kékfrankos can show every aspect of terroir very directly.’ His single-vineyard Steiner from old vines on schist is an amazing example of its ethereal elegance in the right hands.
György Lőrincz Jr of St Andrea in Eger says: ‘We love to work with this grape because it can express terroir and give a local taste to our wines.’ This family winery is just two decades old and Lőrincz explains: ‘We realised with Kékfrankos there’s only one way – ripe fruit and low yields; in our conditions, just 1kg per vine. If you pick too early it can be sour and disappointing.’
Péter Vida (Vida Family Estate) in Szekszárd agrees: ‘Kékfrankos is simply our most important local grape variety here in the valleys of Szekszárd. We can always count on its reliability – it can make a perfect rosé, a juicy fresh Kékfrankos aged only in tank, or a top wine aged in barrels reflecting our terroir. It is good at retaining acidity in warm years, and due to its thick skin, it is not so sensitive to disease.’
Indeed, rosé based on Kékfrankos is also proving popular throughout Hungary, though it’s often deeper in colour than is typical for rosés in the UK (Hungarians like it mixed with sparkling water). But it is usually made dry and full of bright, berry fruit flavours with crunchy acidity.
When it comes to winemaking, a couple of decades ago, many winemakers tended to pursue concentration, extraction and the use of new barrels to show quality – in a similar way to how you would work with Bordeaux varieties. However, today winemakers recognise that Kékfrankos is a variety that is relatively light in colour, typically with racy acidity – which survives even hot growing regions such as southern Hungary. Tannins are not high, but can appear hard-edged if not ripe due to that acidity, so need careful handling.
Weninger says: ‘I believe the biggest gift of Kékfrankos is its acidity, but as tannin and acid fight, it’s really important to extract the grapes gently (like Pinot Noir). I figured out that in a warming world, this acid will give the wine great backbone now and in the future, but as with all high-acid grapes, like Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, big barrels and older oak make better wines.’
Kékfrankos around the regions
Grown in almost every corner of Hungary, Kékfrankos is a sponge for terroir, and this is why it is a perfect showcase for each region’s specific character. By area, its most important location is the Danube region (or Great Plain) where the deep sands are often phylloxera-free so vines can root deep, and the continental climate helps keep freshness, offering bright, fruit-driven, lighter-bodied reds and rosés. Next is Eger in the north, where the cooler climate and south-facing mountain foothills give an elegant Burgundian style to both varietal versions and blends. Neighbouring Mátra has long been under the shadow of more famous regions, but small family producers are leading its rehabilitation, making the most of their volcanic soils and south-facing mountain slopes to produce generously berry- fruited, vividly fresh wines.
Sopron is the ancient capital of the Kékfrankos variety, lying in the far northwest close to Burgenland just across the Austrian border. Here on the Hungarian side it produces refined, blue-fruited, elegant and long-lived wines, the best selected from single vineyards on ancient schist. In the central west, there are a handful of impressive wines from volcanic outcrops around Lake Balaton, particularly Badacsony and the Tihany peninsula. In the central south, Szekszárd is noted for its warmer,
plusher examples with a hint of spice but always a backbone of good acidity, and the region is a hotspot for developing vineyard selections, as well as high- quality Bikavér blends. Villány in the far south is producing warmer, fuller-bodied versions often with a note of subtle oak complexity, but still underlined with balanced acidity.
Bikavér: What’s in a blend
Kékfrankos is most likely to appear on its own, but both Eger and Szekszárd also produce their own PDO Bikavér blends, which feature Kékfrankos at the core, providing freshness, fruit and spice in the blend. Each region has its own specific rules about blends, oak ageing and quality categories, but wines are always based on Kékfrankos – visit winesofhungary.hu and click on ‘Red wines’ for a full explanation.
Szekszárdi Bikavér is typically riper and more velvety, with spice notes from the obligatory addition of Kadarka, and it has its own unique bottle design. Egri Bikavér tends to be a little cooler, perhaps more elegant, but also firmer in structure. In both regions, there are different quality categories, with specified grape yields and minimum ageing. Szekszárd has classic Bikavér and a premium version, while in Eger wines go from Classicus to Superior and Grand Superior for the best single-vineyard wines.
Recipe for Success
As for Kékfrankos and its role in blends, understanding the Bikavér story is key (see box). Bikavér translates as ‘Bull’s Blood’ and is arguably the country’s most famous red wine, first documented in about 1846 in Szekszárd. Sadly, it gained a poor reputation in the 1980s as a rather basic, rustic red blend usually sold under its English name.
But more recently, Bikavér has evolved into something far more exciting. Indeed, the Nagy-Eged Grand Superior 2017 wine from St Andrea (see below), which won the top Best in Show accolade at the Decanter World Wine
Awards 2021, is a Bikavér. It has been the life’s work of the father-and-son team at this winery, both determined to show that Bikavér from a top cru location can truly be a Hungarian flagship.
Lőrincz explains that Kékfrankos has to be the main part of the blend: ‘We try to use as much as we can – it gives a local taste – but when combined with other international varieties, we have a more structured and multi-layered wine.’
Ripe for Discovery
For all this history and geography, the key point for consumers is what the wine tastes like and how best to enjoy it. Kékfrankos is best judged in the mould of acid-driven grapes such as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Producers have realised that its inviting, ethereal, clove-scented, bilberry and cherry fruit backed by vibrant acidity make it perfect for today’s drinkers. Many consumers no longer want dominant, muscular reds, and are increasingly seeking fresh, harmonious wines that go with food, rather than overpowering subtle flavours – something well-made Kékfrankos can offer.
As Klearhos Kanellakis, head sommelier at Ekstedt at the Yard in central London, explains: ‘I am very lucky to have travelled around Hungary tasting the Kékfrankos grape in Villány, Szekszárd, Eger and Sopron. My favourite version was the very Burgundian interpretation found in Siklós sub-region (produced by Heumann). I think it needs time to age and time in the carafe to open up, but when it’s ready, the wine gives such a complex character that it can pair with duck or pigeon dishes and match anything you can think of in a Michelin- starred restaurant. I would love to have some older vintages on my menu.’
In Hungary, it seems that red wine drinkers still want serious, big wines. As Vida says: ‘It is sad that people here will not pay a high price for a lighter Kékfrankos, but they are willing to pay more for Cabernet or Merlot.’ That sounds to me like an opportunity for enlightened drinkers outside Hungary to enjoy exploring the fantastic wines of this iconic Hungarian grape.
Spectrum of flavour: Gilby’s 20 Kékfrankos wines to seek out
£11.90 Best of Hungary
Mid-salmon pink in colour, this shows red cherry aromas, and on the palate there’s plenty of fruit along with good length and elegance.
£11 Hungarian Wine House, Novel Wines
Deep pink in colour, a fruit-focused nose with peach and red berry aromas. There’s just a touch of lively spritz, redcurrant, berry fruit and a fresh finish.
Kislaki, Rosé, Balatonboglár, Balaton 2020
£7.75 The Wine Society
A vivid, deep pink wine with aromas of poached strawberry. It’s bright and lively with crunchy pink rhubarb notes and spritz for super freshness.
St Andrea, Nagy-Eged Egri Bikavér Grand Superior, Eger, Upper Hungary 2017
£52 Best of Hungary
A glorious interpretation of Bikavér from the region’s highest hill, showing that it really can make great wine. Expressive, inviting bouquet, then ample intense wild blueberry and forest fruit, with clove spice and black cherry. It’s full and ripe, backed by lovely vibrancy and beautifully textured, fine- grained tannins.
Heumann, Reserve, Villány, Pannon 2017
£22 Wanderlust Wine
Youthful but promising. Inviting bramble notes, blueberry and fine oak. Very classy and elegant, with lovely concentration of bilberry and cherry, finely textured tannins and great length.
Heimann & Fiai, Szívem, Szekszárd, Pannon 2019
£33.39 (2018) Vida Wines & Spirits
In one of the best valleys in Szekszárd, 50-year-old vines have produced this deep ruby wine with aromas of dark chocolate and black cherry. Good fruit weight, fine-grained texture, notes of kirsch, damson and cocoa nibs, all defined by typical Kékfrankos acidity. A serious style with a long future, or decant it to drink now. Organic.
Weninger, Balf, Sopron, Upper Pannon 2018
£20.50-£21 Buon Vino, Good Wine Shop
Austrian Franz Weninger makes wine on both sides of the border, showing beyond doubt what a great lens for place Kékfrankos is. His Balf version has vibrant Morello cherry fruit and hints of bay leaf, plus lovely purity, fine tannins and real elegance. Biodynamic.
Vylyan, Villány, Pannon 2018
Inviting on the nose with kirsch, vanilla and chocolate, a hint of spice. It’s a riper, warmer style from the south with lots of mid-palate fruit, well-handled tannins and a typical fresh cherry core.
Benedek, Mátra, Upper Hungary 2018
£11.99 Novel Wines
A rich, inviting and whistle-clean nose with notes of bilberries and a hint of spice. Crushed fruits of the forest, lovely balance of ripeness with vivid freshness, supported by a touch of tannin grip.
Martinus, Tagyon-Hegy, Balaton 2018
A mid-ruby wine from a tiny volcanic vineyard. Gentle aromas of damson, a touch of cocoa. Ripe but still-fresh fruit, notes of plum and red cherry. Fine acidity and supple tannins complete this elegant, understated wine. Organic.
St Donat, Magma, Balatonfüred- Csopak, Balaton 2018
£18-£18.99 Hungarian Wine House, Novel Wines
Delicious medium-bodied wine, named for the volcanic bedrock of the Tihany peninsula. Aromas of fresh cherry, red berry and violets are followed on the palate by juicy berry fruit, fine tannins and plenty of freshness.
Vesztergombi, Kétvölgy, Szekszárd, Pannon 2018
£19 Best of Hungary
A garnet ruby wine with aromas of spiced strawberry and red plum. To taste, there’s good intensity of ripe strawberry and cinnamon, quite Pinot Noir-like with sleek, supple tannins then good freshness and length.
Vida Péter, Bikavér, Szekszárd, Pannon 2017
£24.90 Home Tipple
Bright, red-fruited aromas on the nose. Attractive spiced strawberry palate, with juicy fruit supported by a touch of tannin grip and very good length.
Bolyki, Egri Bikavér, Eger, Upper Hungary 2016
£14.90-£18.99 9 Elms Wines, Best of Hungary, Borders Wines, Brigitte Bordeaux, Hedley Wright, Hungarian Wine House, Novel Wines, The Drink Shop, The Secret Bottle Shop, Yorkshire Vintners
A plummy, juicy and gently spicy wine that has just a hint of smokiness. This is an honest, straightforward, juicy Bikavér, a great entry-point to what it’s all about.
Bukolyi Marcell, Kisfiam Egri Bikavér, Eger, Upper Hungary 2018
£15.90 Best of Hungary
Dark ruby wine with generous notes of freshly crushed blackberry and sweet spice. To taste, there is juicy, ripe raspberry fruit and supple friendly tannins – this is a modern, fruit-focused Bikavér from the only certified organic producer in the region.
Centurio, Mátra, Upper Hungary 2020
£22 Vagabond Wines
Pretty, pink-toned bright pale red in colour – this is pretty to drink too. There’s a bouquet of raspberry and vanilla with a touch of cloves, lots of raspberry juiciness, gentle tannins and a really refreshing finish.
Etyeki Kúria, Kúria Red, Etyek-Buda, Upper Pannon 2018
£16.30 Malux Hungarian Wine
A smooth, polished and easy-to-love red with a base of cherry-fruited Kékfrankos, supported by plush Merlot and scented Pinot Noir adding extra dimensions. Supple and appealing.
Kovács Nimród, Blues Monopole, Eger, Upper Hungary 2016
£15.67-£18.99 Cheers, Kwoff, ND John, T Wright, Vin Neuf
A medium-bodied wine with notes of plum, dried cherry, a touch of sweet spice and vanilla. It’s a nicely drinkable style with cool fruit and a fresh backbone. Organic.
Tüske, Menek, Szekszárd, Pannon 2018
£20.99 The Whalley Wine Shop
A hearty, red-fruited wine packed with sleek, mellow tannins and a touch of spicy warmth, followed by a nice fresh finish.
Frittmann, Kunság, Danube 2019
£10.99 Malux Hungarian Wine
A clean, light red with berry and summer cordial aromas. It’s light, herby and fresh with redcurrant fruit and light tannins. Could be served chilled.