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Is Villány the new home of Cabernet Franc?

Last month producers from Villány, Hungary, invited press and trade representatives to the second Franc & Franc conference. Their aim: to demonstrate that their region is the new home of Cabernet Franc.

Andrea Gere from the highly respected Gere winery (pictured next to Jozsef Bock), told conference guests that the mid-90s was a time of major development for Villány winemaking

“Ha Villány, akkor Cabernet Franc! Ha Cabernet Franc, akkor Villány!” – “If you think of Villány, think of Cabernet Franc! If you think of Cabernet Franc, think of Villány!”

This was the message of winemakers from the small, historic wine-producing region of Villány in southern Hungary on the occasion of their second Franc & Franc conference, to which db was invited by Wines of Hungary, the UK-based marketing agency for Hungarian wines.

Slowly but surely over the past 15-20 years, the winemakers of Villány have been building the case for what they see as the region’s special affinity with the variety. Having established their own official ‘Villany Franc’ designation in 2014, they have set themselves the task of making the quality and character of their varietal Cabernet Franc wines known to the wider world.

It is an ambitious project and as the Franc & Franc conference made plain, there are a number of significant challenges the region’s winemakers must first surmount. First, there is the lack of consumer familiarity, not just with Villány but Hungary as a whole. Then there is a weight of negative prejudice which has Hungarian wine pegged as ‘cheap Eastern European plonk’ or, simply, ‘Bull’s Blood’. On top of that there is a perception in the trade, perhaps slightly more justified, that some of the wine has just been too inconsistent.

According to one Franc & Franc conference attendee, who had worked in Hungary as both a winemaker and buyer, even as recently as two years ago few people from the UK would have taken much interest in the country’s wines. Too many, he said, lacked polish, showed a tendency towards excessive ripeness and alcohol (typically around 15%, sometimes more), oxidation and uncleanness (brettanomyces, etc).

Caroline Gilby MW offers attendees at the Franc & Franc conference a primer on Cabernet Franc

Evidently these criticism have not gone unheeded and now, collectively, Villány’s wine producers are eager to show the world that their wines are at a level of consistent overall quality to compete in the most competitive international markets – with Cabernet Franc their great red hope.

The new Old World

Hungary is a wine-producing country having to rediscover much of its viticultural heritage, and it is a country steeped in such history, Roman, Hungarian, Serbian and German winegrowers all having left their mark on the region.

Since its transition to a market economy following the collapse of communism in 1989-90, winemakers from Villány such as Attila Gere, Jozsef Bock, Zoltán Polgár, Ede Tiffán and Pál Debreczeni have come to seen as pioneers in re-establishing Hungarian wine culture.

They have been joined by other dynamic, committed wine producers, such Christian Sauska, Csaba Malatinszky, Erhard Heumann, Horst Hummel, and Tamás and Zsolt Gere, who have added to Villány’s high-quality winemaking output.

While Hungary accounts for just 2% of world Cabernet Franc plantings with 1,300ha of vines (330ha of which are in Villány), it is the joint-fourth biggest producer of the grape (66% comes from France; 13% from Italy; 7% from the US and 2% each from Hungary and Chile).

Perhaps the most significant statistic from Hungary’s point of view is that it leads in terms of growth, with 67% of new plantings of Cabernet Franc happening in Hungary – a figure undoubtedly influenced by the enthusiasm of winemakers in Villány.

Few people would question the supremacy of France, specifically the Loire, in producing varietal Cabernet Franc, however there has been a considerable buzz around the variety in other, emerging, regions.

Thanks in large part to the evangelism of Aussie winemaker Brian Croser, Chile and Argentina are often touted as the regions that show the greatest potential for producing varietal Cabernet Franc. As a consultant for Santa Rita in Chile, Croser has enjoyed success in cooler vineyard areas with milder conditions and poor soils conducive to producing very concentrated, aromatic styles.

Earlier this year db reported on how Argentine winemakers are betting on Cabernet Franc, with Rogelio Rabino, the winemaker at Kaiken, suggesting it could grow to become one of the country’s most important grape varieties – second only to Malbec.

Its fresher, unoaked, perfumed/herbaceous character also gets fair representation in Friuli, northern Italy – indeed several examples were presented at the Franc & Franc conference, offering a contrast to the riper warmer-climate styles made in Villány – while varietal Cabernet Franc has attracted a significant number of converts in US states such as California, Virginia, Oregon and New York.

To wine enthusiasts in the UK, Hungary’s, and specifically Villány’s, affinity with the variety may not be so well known. However that is something the Franc & Franc conference sought to redress.

Put to the test

Franc & Franc gave Villány’s winemakers the opportunity to present their expressions of ‘Villány Franc’ – as it has been officially labelled under Villány PDO guidelines since 2014 – to the world and to receive feedback from a panel of experts. Among these were UK wine writers and consultants Elizabeth Gabay MW and Caroline Gilby MW, Croatian wine writer Saša Spriranec, Hungarian National Wine Export Committee chairman András Horkay, and Csányi Winery CEO László Romsics. The conference was officiated by Zoltán Gyorffy.

Early on in a discussion entitled ‘Positioning Villány Franc in the World Market’, Gabay noted a number of fundamental challenges which she felt it was necessary for Villány winemakers to address. First, she said, from a global wine market perspective, with the exception of Tokaji, Hungary is still an unknown. Second, while Cabernet Franc is a variety that sommeliers and aficionados love, it is one with which the majority of wine drinkers remain unfamiliar as a single variety.

However, Gabay went on, Villány could boast a number of important advantages which could open doors into new markets for Villány Franc.

“You have created a super-niche market and you can see other producers of Cabernet Franc coming up fast behind you,” she said. “But apart from Villány, nobody is marketing their wine as being Cabernet Franc, so you’ve actually got a really good head start. Villány Franc is already on a unique launch platform to market the wine as Cabernet Franc.”

As well as presenting a selection of super-premium Villány Franc wines, the conference included tastings of varietal Cabernet Francs from DOC Friuli Grave, along with examples from Slovenia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Turkey

A point she emphasised was that Villány winemakers had to realise that, outside Hungary, educators and communicators were still explaining what and where Hungary was.

Those people who did know this much were still of the mindset that Villány equals “big wines”.

“These are the 16% hit-you-in-the-face blockbuster wines,” she said. “It’s not a bad image, in that it’s indicating the ripeness, but it’s an out of date image – and how [can you] move forward?”

Gabay insisted that it was up to the winemakers to explain to the world why Cabernet Franc was so suited to Villány.

“It’s not enough for you as producers to have noticed that your Cabernet Franc in tank is actually showing quite nice wines, so let’s put it in a bottle on its own,” she said.

“That is not enough reason for the rest of the world to sit up and say, let’s look at this area. You actually have to get together as Villány Franc producers and say what it is that makes this region good for Cabernet Franc – you have to know in your head and you have to [communicate] a good story as to why this place is good – why it is better than Szekszárd, or Baloton, or Eger, which also make good Cabernet Franc. What is special about here?”

Terroir or winemaking style?

Answering this question had to take into account terroir and several – though not all – producers were keen to emphasise the importance of communicating Villány’s terroir message.

Villány is the sunniest region in Hungary, boasting 2,150 sunshine hours per year. The soil is primarily limestone covered with layers of clay and loess, rich in lime and calcium deposits. Many of the best vineyard sites, such as Kopár, Jammertal and Csillagvölgy are situated on the southern and eastern slopes of the Villány hills (highest point: Szársomlyó, 442m) and are especially valued for the optimum ripening of Bordeaux varieties, Portugeiser, Kékfrankos and Syrah.

To the west, the village of Siklós boasts some cooler sites (they do not have the insulating effect of the Villány hills) and dense limestone soils with shallower loess and clay topsoils, promoting fresher red wine styles.

In Villány generally, where the Cabernet Franc accounts for around 15-20% of vine plantings, the warmth and generous sun hours, along with the region’s predominantly lime-rich loess and clay soils, contribute to Villány Franc’s reputation for power, ripeness and longevity.

One producer at the conference, Horst Hummel, said it was crucial that parameters such as these, which made the production of high-quality Cabernet Franc possible, to be communicated to the world.

“There is a particular terroir situation in Villány that enables us to produce high-quality Cabernet Franc,” he said.

Franc & Franc conference organiser Zoltán Gyorffy

“We only speak about the experience of 15 years of Cabernet Franc in Villány, and all wineries have been investing a lot in the wineries, in technology and so on, which has been very important to have a secure situation.

“But now maybe we have to make the step to concentrate towards the terroir. That means the expression of the soil and the particular climate situation in Villány.

“We have to ask the right questions and that means that the concentration should be on if we want to find a real terroir style and not only a style of wine technology.”

Oak ageing

This could well have been a reference to Villány Franc producers’ unabashed use of oak for ageing their wines. Villány wines come in three distinct quality categories: ‘classicus’, ‘premium’ and ‘super-premium’, with maximum yields set at 90hl/ha, 60hl/ha and 35hl/ha, respectively.

Since 2014 Villány Franc wines have been part of the ‘premium’ and ‘super-premium’ categories which, in addition to the above yield restrictions, require wines to be matured for at least a year in barrel, for premium, and for a year in barrel followed by a year in bottle, for super-premium.

In practice, many producers age their super-premium wines for 18 months to two years in new or first-use barriques, with the result that oak is very much part of the wine’s character. While this contributes to the structure and ageability of the wines, it also runs the risk of diluting Villány Franc’s terroir message – and running counter to wine consumer trends.

“If you look at global trends in winemaking there is definitely a move away from too much obvious oak,” Gilby told the conference, who questioned the prescriptions of the 2014 PDO rules.

“It also makes financial sense if you use less oak for a shorter time. And if you’ve got really nice fruit, why hide it with too much oak? Laying down a prescription that something has to have a year in oak, for instance, would be the wrong way to go and I don’t think it’s necessary, but it needs to be down to the winemaker.”

Gabay also questioned the necessity of rigid appellation system rules. “I have to admit I am not a great fan of any appellation system,” she said.

“I think it entrenches winemaking ideas and winemaking is evolving so fast that really to classify a wine by saying it’s only going to be great if it has a long time in oak, it doesn’t take into account the vintage, it doesn’t take into account the particular style of wine you want to make – so I am not a great believer in specifying oak.”

Elizabeth Gabay MW (left) and Caroline Gilby MW offer advice on how Villány wine producers can make the most of their special affinity with Cabernet Franc

The quality is there…

Ultimately, what became apparent from the Franc & Franc conference was that the producers of Villány had made great strides in recent years, and their achievements in such a, from a wine history perspective, short time are to be applauded. In Villány Franc, they have an excellent opportunity to show the wine world the high quality of which they are capable.

“I’ve been coming to Hungary since just after the regime change,” Gilby concluded, “so I know where you started from, and it has just been such an enormous revolution in winemaking to where things are today.

“Having said that, it’s still quite a young industry in its current form, so there’s still lots of scope for learning.

“I think having a look at what other people in the region that share some cultural history, share some climatic similarities, are doing, looking and learning and seeing what other people do with this grape variety is a good opportunity for producers.

“And I think it’s really important that producers in Hungary, and Villány in particular, do stay open-minded. It’s really important that you don’t just sit back on your laurels of being ‘Hungary’s top red wine maker’. You’ve got to keep progressing, because the rest of the world is.”

There are several questions that the producers collectively still need to answer: is there one style of Villány Franc or are there several? Should oak use be so prescriptive? Which markets offer the greatest potential? Should the ultimate marketing message be one of terroir or winemaking style?

If the producers are able to answer these question and present a united front, the winemaking revolution that has happened in here in the past 15-20 years is sure to bear fruit, and the wine world will finally know the name of Villány.

 Villány Franc – major milestones
 1994: The Villány-Siklós Wine Route becomes the first major wine tourism  initiative in Hungary
 2006: Hungary’s first complete protected designation of origin (PDO) system  is established in Villány
 Important vineyards:
 Ahancsos, Bocor, Csillagvölgy, Gombás, Jammertal, Kopár, Mandolás,  Ördögárok, Pillangó, Remete
Cultivated area (ha):Sunshine hours (h/year):Precipitation (mm/year)Mean annual temperatureElevations above sea level: 2,4972,15070011℃140-350m
Grape varieties (47 wine grapes in total):
Red grapes (2,010 ha/80.5%) Cabernet SauvignonPortugeiserCabernet FrancMerlotBlaufränkischOther reds 437,12 ha (21,75%)
379,05 ha (18,18%)328,52 ha (16,35%)295,87 ha (14,70%)256,9 ha (12,75%)312,05 ha (15,6%)
White grapes (487 ha/19.5%) WelchsrieslingChardonnayRieslingHárslevelűGrüner VeltlinerOther whites 203ha (41,7%)76ha (15,6%)34ha (7,1%)29ha (6%)28ha (5.8%)116ha (23,8%)
Villány Franc wines presented at Franc & Franc 2016
Szemes Pincészet Villányi Franc 2013
Origin: Kopár dűlő; Alcohol: 14%; Yield: 0.8-1kg/vine; Ageing: 20-22 months in second-fill barrels
Lelovits Tamás Pincészet Cabernet Franc 2012
Origin: Bocor; Alcohol: 13.5%; Yield: 0.9kg/vine; Ageing: 14 months in first and second-fill 300l and 500l barrels
Csányi Pincészet Villányi Franc 2012
Origin: Hársos, Nagy-domb, Cser, Cseralja; Alcohol: 13.3%; Yield: 1kg/vine; Ageing: 50% for 18 months in second-fill 500l barrels; 50% for 18 months in 300l new Hungarian oak  barrels
Ruppert Borház Villányi Franc 2012
Origin: Diósviszló szőlőhegy; Alcohol: 15.5%; Yield: not disclosed; Ageing: Two years in 225l barrels
Sauska Pincészet Cabernet Franc 2012
Origin: Makár (Siklós), Kopár, Ördögárok; Alcohol: 14.5%; Yield: not disclosed; Ageing: 19 months in new and second-fill barrels
Vylyan Pincészet Mandolás 2012
Origin: Mandolás dűlő; Alcohol: 14.3%; Yield: not disclosed; Ageing: 16 months in 30% new, 40% 1-2-year-old and 30% older 225l Hungarian oak barrels
Gere Tamás És Zsolt Pincészet Villányi Franc 2011
Origin: Várerdo dűlő; Alcohol: 13.5%; Yield: 1kg/vine; Ageing: 18 months in Hungarian and French barrels
Jekl Pincészet Cabernet Franc 2011
Origin: Fekete hegy; Alcohol: 15%; Yield: 1kg/vine; Ageing: not disclosed
Bock Pince Cabernet Franc 2011
Origin: Fekete hegy; Alcohol: 15%; Yield: 0.8-1kg/vine; Ageing: 24 months in new barriques
Heumann Pincészet Cabernet Franc 2011
Origin: Göntér (Siklós), Nagyhegy (Diósvisló), Hegytető;(Marfa); Alcohol: 15.5%; Yield: 1kg/vine; Ageing: 22 months in new and used 225l barriques
Malatinszky Kúria Organikus Szolobirtok Cabernet Franc 2008
Origin: Kövesföld dűlő (Siklós-Máriagyud); Alcohol: 15%; Yield: not disclosed; Ageing: 18 months in barriques

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