As American as Blaufränkisch
For some, the signature red grape of Burgenland is obscure or "challenging." For me, it's the taste of my immigrant ancestors, and peppery perfection.
It’s not so unthinkable that you should find yourself in the town of Northampton in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley—it’s only forty-five minutes northwest of Philly, and a stone’s throw from the historic city of Bethlehem, frequented during the holidays for its tasteful decorations in homage to its namesake. If you do pass through Northampton, you should head across the Lehigh River to nearby Hellertown for one of my favorite sandwiches ever, the impeccably minced cheesesteak from the unassuming Crossroads Hotel. Along the way, you might come across the flat, sun-filled cemetery I once dubbed The Austro-Hungarian Empire, on account of the distinctively Central European surnames dotting the tombstones. One name in particular is repeated many times, with different variations on the spelling: Szerencsits. This was the maiden name of my great-grandmother, Julia, and it’s also a name that hails from Austria’s Burgenland state, on the border with Hungary.
A disproportionate number of Burgenlanders settled in the Lehigh Valley, beginning in the late 18th century, and then, like my great-grandmother, with greater urgency after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Dual Monarchy. The local factory jobs were a step up from the impoverished farms they had left behind, and they found a greater community with the other Austrian and German immigrants in the area, such as my great-grandfather, Eugene, who had relocated from Salzburg, on the opposite side of Austria. The subsequent generations were well-integrated by the time I was visiting for family holidays, but from my mother’s anecdotes, in which the neighbors all seem to have had the exact same names, I’ve come to imagine the original scene as a sort of German-speaking Wuthering Heights, just a lot less violent, and with really, really good desserts (dobosh tortes, palatschinken and schaumrollen to rival the best of Vienna’s cafes).
Burgenland was actually part of the Hungarian side of the Dual Monarchy before the end of the war, and photos of the region show little in common with the Von Trapp family fantasy of Austria that exists in much of the popular imagination. There, it’s not so much the hills that are alive, but rather the flat Pannonian Plain, still a hotbed for agricultural production–including wine. One would imagine that Burgenland was also the entry point for some of the most beloved and vibrantly-flavored recipes in modern-day Austrian cuisine, such as beef goulash and chicken paprikash. I like to think that my own Burgenlander heritage (combined probably with my childhood consumption of Indian food in Queens) accounts for some of my propensities for spices: earthy, inky poppyseeds, making grainy desserts that you either love or hate; carraway seeds, bringing impossibly complex flavors to even the humblest of foods; paprika, hot and sweet, brought to the region by the same Turks who were famously stopped at the gates of Vienna.
It’s the love of spice that obsesses me with the Burgenland now, but by way of blaufränkisch, the region’s signature red grape. Since I started studying wine, I’ve been fascinated by tasting notes that had nothing to do with fruit at all; I’ve wondered what kind of witchcraft a grape had to undergo in order to smell like a violet, or to taste like leather. With blaufränkisch, the signature tasting note is black pepper, which is one of the reasons the grape is often likened to syrah. It’s also why blaufränkisch is one of my favorite wines to pair with chicken, especially a roast chicken, ideally one that’s well-seasoned to produce a crackly skin with little shards of salt crystals and crushed peppercorns. What a world of difference it is from the by-the-book pairing suggestion of chicken with white wine (as if everyone should love a dry white wine served with a piece of dry white meat).
When it’s on, it’s on, but I’ve found that the black pepper taste in blaufränkisch is far from a sure thing. For one, Burgenland also feels the effect of rising temperatures, which tend to bring out fruitier, more voluptuous flavors. For the other, Burgenland has only been producing blaufränkisch at scale since the 1980s, so rather than adhering to a traditional standard, the wine has been adapted to global tastes and trends since the Robert Parker era. I recently tasted a low-intervention blaufränkisch that skewed very juicy, well-suited to a pour by the glass at a natural wine bar, but far from a match made in heaven with my bowl of chicken paprikash.
My quest for my ideal peppery blaufränkisch necessarily led me to Wallse, Kurt Gutenbrunner’s moody, upscale Austrian restaurant in New York’s West Village. Winner of Best Austrian Wine List at the 2023 Star Wine List Awards, the restaurant’s wine program has been exclusively Austrian since 2018, so the sommelier Ben Scheffler knows how to explain blaufränkisch in layman’s terms. He was quick to dispel my notion that one should expect any particular taste from blaufränkisch; instead, he said, the wine is “a bit of a chameleon.” The grape adapts well to different growing conditions, soil types, and winemaking styles, producing a range of wines that skew from the cheap and cheerful (think gamay) to the deep and serious (think nebbiolo and syrah). The relative newness of the large-scale winemaking industry means there’s plenty of energy and experimentation, and the winemakers are constantly developing and refining their own unique versions.
The sheer diversity of approaches was clear to me as I tasted through various blaufränkisch; indeed, I don’t think I have ever tried so many wines of the same varietal that tasted so different. The alcohol by volume could range from 12.5 percent to 14 percent, and the aromas suggested everything from cherry danish to wet tree bark to (unfortunately) dead flowers.
I was especially excited to try some 2017s from Wachter Wiesler in Sudburgenland. That’s partly because the 2017 vintage is known as a cooler one in Europe, but also because of the domain's plantings on the Eisenberg mountain, since the iron-rich soils are said to impart a distinct minerality on the wine. But not even the reputation could prepare me for Wachter Wiesler’s Eisenberg Deutsch Schutzen 2017 ($20). If there was any fruit to be found, it seemed to be stifled under layers of volcanic rock. Instead the wine was mossy on the nose, with an almost prickly minerality on the palate; in short, one of the most thrillingly standoffish bottles I have ever opened. I wondered if this is what wine would taste like if the vines were planted on Mount Doom (and loved it). Meanwhile the higher-priced Eisenberg Blaufränkisch Ried Eisenberg Reihburg ($78) accordingly tasted more like a luxury product, with the initial saltiness giving way to a coy perfume.
Moving north towards Mittelburgenland, Moric’s 2017 Blaufränkisch Reserve ($51) brought to mind a Cru Beaujolais, in that it was a bit riper and fruitier, unfailingly food-friendly, with still enough structure and seriousness to hold up to more discriminating drinkers–a wine that seemed impossible to dislike. But I was still hungry for my elusive black pepper taste.
The wines of Neusiedlersee, Burgenland’s northernmost subregion, are known to be fatter and weightier, with the choicier, terroir-driven sections located in cooler pockets at slightly higher elevation, further back from Lake Neusiedl. The blaufränkisch I tasted varied from fun and fruity (yes, cherry danish) in Rosi Schuster 2020 ($23) to the moody Ernst Triebaumer Rusterberg 2019, the latter punching well above its weight in terms of sophistication at just $22 per bottle. More challenging was the Prieler Leithaberg 2018 ($60), coming from one of the hottest years on record, although I’m excited for the day I have the means to spring for a bottle of Prieler’s storied Ried Marienthal 2017 ($114).
And then I opened the Paul Achs Altenberg 2019 ($75). It was dense and meaty on the nose, with the initial hesitancy I find so often in excellent wines—they don’t announce themselves too quickly at the outset, instead allowing their aromas to creep out over time. The palate was certainly weightier at 14 percent abv, but with curiously low burn, and the deep blackberry flavors were dark and cool. And then, on the finish: a black peppery snap. I had found it. I thought so much about Paul Achs’ Altenberg the next morning that I was tempted to throw the half-filled bottle into my lunch bag, and not just because it would have been phenomenal with my sandwich (smoked chicken with basil black olive pesto).
Great bottles of blaufränkisch might be the most poignant link to Burgenlander culture in the U.S. these days, as Austro-Hungarian heritage fades with each generation. My adjacent neighborhood of Yorkville was once a critical link to the old country for immigrants like my great-grandmother, who ordered her spices from longstanding shops such as Paprikas Weiss and Schaller & Weber. Now, many articles on the former Little Bohemia reference what has disappeared—Paprikas Weiss in 1995, Glaser’s Bake Shop in 2018. Schaller & Weber is still here, selling some of the city’s best Alpine cheeses and cured meats, as is the Budapest Cafe, where I sometimes drop in to buy a slab of poppyseed strudel. Otherwise, given the abundance of Thai restaurants, brunch spots, and chain pharmacies, the neighborhood has proved malleable to changing tastes and historical realities—not unlike blaufränkisch itself.