Many winemaking countries are famous for their local, autochthonous grape varieties. Italy, for example, boasts over 500, Portugal around 250 and Greece over 300. Besides these well-known wine countries, we must not forget regions near the birthplace of wine, such as Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and the Balkans. These regions are also rich in local grape varieties.
Grape crossings have a long history in Hungary, with a particularly successful period in the early and mid-20th century. The country also boasts numerous local grapes native to the Carpathian Basin. Given that it is a small wine-producing country, Hungary has to work hard to promote these varieties and wines on export markets.
The most common grape varieties in Hungary
Although making such comparisons is generally imperfect and is perhaps debatable, I’ll try to compare some local grape varieties with popular international grape varieties. Let’s begin with white varieties, as Hungary perhaps has more to offer here. For example, Furmint is an important variety and some experts believe it bears some similarity to Chenin Blanc. Hungary also boasts some “new”, very aromatic crossings, such as Irsai Olivér and its descendant, Cserszegi Fűszeres, both of which are somewhat similar to the Muscats. While Királyleányka, another local variety originally from Transylvania, is a delicately aromatic grape showing a range of stone and orchard fruits as well as fresh acidity and a light body. These latter aromatic white wines are not suitable for long ageing.
In terms of traditional black varieties, Kadarka has a long history in Hungary. Many consider this the Pinot Noir of the Carpathian Basin. It is pale in colour, with soft tannins and medium body, while on the nose and palate, it offers up red fruits and plenty of spice. On the other hand, Kékfrankos is the most widely planted black variety in Hungary. It is not a local grape, but Hungarian winemakers craft rosés and juicy, fruit-driven reds as well as more serious, complex red wines from it. The wines generally have medium body, lively, fresh acidity, moderate tannins and are packed full of cherry, sour cherry and sometimes earthiness, somewhat like Sangiovese. Moreover, both varieties have the potential to be aged in both oak and bottle.
Hopefully this short “introduction” helps you choose the right Hungarian wine to try.
Dr. Mihály Konkoly DipWSET
Inside Hungarian wine – an interview with Tamás Czinki,
Hungary’s first Master Sommelier
Tamás Czinki has been a resident of England since 2013, and he currently works as a Head Sommelier at the Michelin-star restaurant Northcote Hotel in Lancashire. However, he has plans to return to Hungary soon.
How would you characterize Hungarian wine culture, and what are some of its core values?
Wine is an integral part of Hungary’s national heritage. Each of the 22 wine regions has a unique local colour, which is able to develop and dynamically renew itself, keeping pace with the changing times, while also preserving age-old traditions and local values. Most producers are willing to change and learn, if necessary.
Hungary is a small player in the field of winemaking yet is able to produce unique wines. What are the reasons behind that?
We have excellent volcanic soils, such as in Somló, Tokaj, Badacsony, Eger, the Balaton Uplands or Mátra, able to produce wines that are highly regarded abroad. Another way for Hungary to stand out in international comparison is through the unique insights of its winemakers, who are aptly exploiting the possibilities offered by different barrels and grape varieties.
Considering today’s trends, which Hungarian grape varieties and styles do you think will stand the test of time?
There is a lot of exciting potential in Hungarian white wines. This is partly due to the fact that most of our native grape varieties are white. Since global interest in white wines has been steadily increasing in recent years, I believe these autochthonous varieties and terroir wines are looking forward to a promising future. Incidentally, global warming also favours these varieties. Among the many exciting grape varieties in Hungary, Furmint is especially versatile. It is one of the noblest grape varieties in the Tokaj wine region and plays a dominant role in Tokaj-Hegyalja. Its neutral character reflects the terroir, while being an important ingredient in dry and aszú wines. Olaszrizling is cultivated in almost all wine regions of Hungary, especially around Lake Balaton. Its structure and character both make it clearly stand out on the international market.
Moreover, Olaszrizling is a versatile addition to any cuisine, similarly to the Juhfark of Somló. But there is a growing worldwide demand for styles such as the light, fruity and rather spicy wines made from Kadarka grapes as well, and the restrained barrel use, moderate maturity and higher acidity of Kékfrankos wines also sell well in foreign markets.
From the aspect of gastronomy, which international dishes or cuisines are closest to Hungarian wines?
Since the wines made in Hungary are diverse and special, our reach goes well beyond the top tier of gastronomy. A Furmint or Somló wine goes perfectly with rustic dishes, offal or dishes prepared with sour cabbage. The Olaszrizling wines of the Balaton Uplands, with their sophisticated acidity, or a rich Hárslevelű are best served with different kinds of sausage. The fiery Juhfark has mineral and creamy undertones and is a perfect drink after heavier dishes, which are preferred by so many nations. I would recommend a Bikavér for pork and game dishes, a sweet Szamorodni for goose liver or other spicy dishes, and the fresher and lighter Balaton wines for the easy-on-the stomach dishes prevalent in Italian cuisine. It goes without saying that the wines of any given wine region go best with local dishes. I would invite anyone who goes to Hungary to keep an open mind and try new things.
Interview by Sándor Németi