Drinking Lemberger, But Not With Limburger

April 19, 2010 at 11:19 am

With 54 people participating, the near-unanimous standout at last week’s Tweet and Taste with Shady Lane Cellars of Traverse City, Michigan was its Lemberger aka Blaufränkisch aka Blue Franc.

Does the word Lemberger conjure images of stinky cheese to you? If so, you’re not alone. Lemberger, possibly a dirty word in wine, is a cool climate, late-ripening red grape whose name is almost never uttered. When it is mentioned, it’s mostly known as Blaufränkisch, but I don’t know how much of an improvement that is over Lemberger; Blaufränkisch reminds me of dusty wine bottles on the bottom shelf of a dilapidated old-man liquor store, and the label on the bottle is entirely in German with foreboding Medieval images. Most popular in Austria, Blaufränkisch also appears in many central and Eastern European wine-producing areas: In Croatia and Slovakia, it’s known as “Frankovka,” in Slovenia, as “Modra Frankinja,” and in Hungary as “Kékfrankos, (where it is part of a famous blend called “Egri Bikavér,” or “Bull’s Blood”). For those who have had Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch is part of the cross to make that grape. So, it’s not quite as obscure as you might think.

Thus, although we normally don’t drink anything that is blue, Blue Franc is, by far, the best name for the grape. Shady Lane resurrects Lemberger in the form of “Blue Franc,“ although the name “Blue Franc” (a literal translation of Blaufränkisch) was trademarked by Jed Steele, the California winemaker and uncle of Shady Lane winemaker, Adam Satchwell, for his brand of wines, Shooting Star. Because only Shady Lane and Shooting Star are permitted to use the name “Blue Franc,” don’t expect to find Blue Franc elsewhere. Even though Lemberger is virtually unknown in the United States, Satchwell took a risk and planted this grape upon the recommendation of his uncle, who was pleased with Lemberger grown in Washington, and thought it would fit well in Shady Lane’s vineyards and with its climate.

Shady Lane Blue Franc

Shady Lane’s Lemb . . . er, Blue Franc was the topic of lively conversation during Tweet and Taste, which also included tasting their excellent 2008 Dry Riesling and 2007 Pinot Noir. What I learned from this tasting is that a somewhat obscure cool climate red wine, like Blue Franc, can be just as enjoyable to drink — heck, even more enjoyable — than a highly structured, tannic, chocolaty cabernet sauvignon or “cab” blend. I agree with others in the tasting that the Blue Franc was the best; it had an upfront fruity taste, most notably of blueberry jam balanced with some acidity (that tasted like blueberry skins to me), restrained tannins (which gave the wine structure) and black pepper. It is a natural for summer barbeques, when you have a lot of red meat on the grill, but not the stomach to drink a heavy red like a Cab in warm weather.

Here are some other comments about the Blue Franc from wine bloggers who participated in the tasting:

    “Recently I was asked for a good red wine that’s not sweet, but not too big or harsh. This is it. This is probably the finest red wine of that style I can think of. Exceptionally drinkable, quite mellow, with some nice subtleties.” (The Wineauxs)
    “Showing clean, dark color, and a little shy on the nose, giving but a peek at the earthy black currant, blackberry and blueberry character found in the ample flavors. Medium-full bodied, with a solid structural backbone . . . [n]ot only one of the best, but also one of the most interesting reds we’ve had from Michigan to date, and one that we’ll be intrigued to watch develop with some time in the cellar.” (Gang of Pour)
    “I’m going to jump the gun, and say that I think that this wine was the real star of the night for me. The color is deep, deep, deep, purple. On the nose I get lots of black pepper, some smoke, and some herbal notes, as well as some nice blueberry. On the palate I get some more pepper, some cigar box cedar action, as well as more outstanding blueberry components. The finish is long and complex, with cola flavors that last into next week. This wine improves a lot with some air, so I definitely recommend letting it breathe a bit before diving in. There are also some nice tannins at play here that make me think that you could lay this one down in the cellar for a little while and it should just get stronger.” (Vinotology)

The full transcript of comments on this tasting can be found here.

Shady Lane is now distributing its wines in Chicago. If you cannot find Shady Lane wines at your local store, you can purchase them on its website. The next Tweet and Taste will be on May 17th. More information will be announced later.