Blaufrankisch, Rkatsiteli, Are You Kidding Me?

December 2009
by Deborah Grossman

As a kid trolling the Atlantic City boardwalk, I’d pause at the huckster’s spiel on vegetable slicers. In those pre-Martha days, I was mesmerized by the pitch for the bonus radish flower-maker, a nifty implement destined for back-of-drawer uselessness.

During a recent tour of Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles, glasses of Blaufrankisch were thrust in our hands. The abrupt turn from the Pinot Noir pantheon to an obscure, but deliciously smooth Austrian varietal wasn’t expected.

The following week in the Finger Lakes, I again encountered Blaufrankisch, labeled with its German-sounding name, Lemberger. Was I experiencing a “Sideways” moment? I’d journeyed to the Finger Lakes to sample Riesling. But at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, third-generation owner Fred Frank proffered Lemberger and a glass of Rkatsiteli, a spicy white vinifera.

These obscure varietals, formally tagged as “other” whites or reds in government statistics, retail shelves and wine competitions, aren’t disappearing during difficult economic times. Vintners offer these alternatives as marketing teasers. Unsaddled from volume production, winemakers are liberated to play with a few barrels of humble, fermenting grapes.

But why does Frank bother with Rkatsiteli when Riesling headlines the region? “Rkatsiteli is about refreshing taste and consumer interest in ‘new’ heritage wines,” Frank says.

His grandfather, independent-minded Dr. Konstantin Frank, experimented with grapes like Rkatsiteli, one of the oldest known varieties from the Republic of Georgia—and the most widely planted white grape in Eastern Europe. Sold in 30 states, profitable Rkatsiteli also brings home more gold medals than Frank’s 19 other labels.

Constellation Wines, the corporate parent to Wild Horse Winery’s self-proclaimed “free-spirited attitude,” supports its unbridled love affair with Blaufrankisch.

Variously called Blue Frankenstein or Blue Frank by customers, the estate wine outsells Pinot Noir in the tasting room, says general manager Shayne Kline.

“Blaufrankisch is nearly twice as profitable as most wines in the tasting room. This wine differentiates us; you can take home a bottle and out-geek the geekish,” Kline adds.

Was I being sold a bill of obscure goods, or were these vintners serious about quality? For a taste test, I brought both Wild Horse Pinot Noir and Blaufrankisch to a summer barbecue. The Blaufrankisch disappeared in a flash. My friend Parky, a Cabernet Sauvignon aficionado, enjoyed the smooth, deep flavors but grumbled about the limited availability.

Parky could travel 2,000 feet up Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain to buy Blaufrankisch at Ritchie Creek Winery. Owner Pete Minor explains why the Ritchie Creek portfolio includes a 50-case “other” red and boutique Cabernet Sauvignon. “I drank several Eastern European wines with a Hungarian friend, and I liked Blaufrankisch.”

Like fashion, wine sales follow consumer preferences and marketing triumphs. Ed, the helpful beverage steward at my local Safeway, points to a glaring Italian wine fashion statement—five shelves of Pinot Grigio. Nearby, three bottles of once-predominant Chenin Blanc gather dust.

“If wineries produce unusual varietals and market them well, they expect customers will come,” says industry veteran George Rose, PR manager at J Vineyards. Known for sparkling wines and Russian River Pinot Noir, J also successfully direct-sells not-yet-famous Pinotage, the South African cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

It’s easy to forget that American vintners didn’t always name the grape on the bottle. In 1933 Herman Wente risked labeling Wente Brothers’ white Livermore Valley wine as “Sauvignon Blanc” rather than Chablis—and launched an American tradition.

Wente Vineyards is now known for Riva Ranch Chardonnay and Crane Ridge Merlot. Yet at Wente Family Estates’ Murietta’s Well Winery, fifth-generation winegrower Karl Wente crafts several Los Tesoros de Joaquin small-lot wines with Touriga grapes, a Portuguese variety normally used in Port. The wines sell out.

Wente also produces Wente Vineyards Small Lot Counoise. “I want to educate Joe and Jane consumer about interesting wines. The estate Counoise has a distinct spicy flavor with notes of cherry, cumin and nutmeg,” he says.

Wente serves Counoise when he cooks Thanksgiving dinner. As for that crowd-generating boardwalk guy, I doubt he ever garnished any appetizer trays with radish flowers.

I’m thankful American vintners have moved beyond Red Burgundy to rouse wine excitement with lesser-known varietals.

But wait, there’s more.

On a recent trip to Spain, Wente enjoyed Graciano so much he planted an acre and a half.

And when I tell my friend Parky that Wild Horse also sells red Negrette, he’ll beg for Blaufrankisch—and more.

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