Local heroes

If anyone entered a pub or a restaurant in Hungary a couple of decades ago and ordered a glass of Ezerjó, they most likely would have got one. This is because the grape could easily have been among the three most widespread varieties in Hungary in the 1970s. Indeed, hardly anyone had heard about Cserszegi Fűszeres at that time in Hungary. If we go back further in time, we encounter completely bizarre varieties, like Csókaszőlő, which practically reigned single-handedly as the country’s red variety. Where are such grapes now? And what happens when we let these forgotten age-old varieties meet modern technology? We’ve gathered together some ancient Hungarian grapes that we don’t come across every day.


A real Hungarian native


Allegedly, the women of Mór were once banned from drinking wine. The vintage was bad, the crop was miserly and the men were mean. Legend has it that at that time women came up with the cake called kvircedli, which could easily soak up a decilitre of wine when dipped into the wine. Thus, from then on, they didn’t drink the wine but ate it instead.

Even though a single word of this might not actually be true, it’s nevertheless great for forming a legend, and the wine was almost certainly Ezerjó (lit. a thousand good things) back then. The name itself is intertwined with Móra and there was a time when people grew solely this grape in the region. Even more, it was one of the most popular grapes in the whole country – at the end of the 1800s, it was the number one variety of Sopron, which is firmly considered a red wine region today. It’s a real Hungarian native that didn’t in fact earn its sexist ‘masculine’ attributive with the kvircedli story, but because, according to many, the wine made from it is tough, sharp and simple with rough acidity. This is even despite the fact that it shouldn’t be like that. But because of its sensitivity to rot, it’s often picked before it ripens completely, which is a pity because in capable hands it can really show itself well: one can make a reductive, fresh, fruity spritzer wine from it, just as much as you can make an aszú out of it. If you like it, it’s good for a thousand things. 





The best matchmaker


There’s a big rock on the Badacsony slopes and as the old wives’ tale goes – if a young couple sits on it with their backs to the Balaton and hold hands, they will be each others’ within a year – which is honestly not surprising if you go through all the effort. There’s an even more exciting legend that says that it’s simply enough for a young woman to sit on the rock, sigh and concentrate on her loved one. His heart will apparently start beating for her immediately. Hmm! Is it really possible that people’s love lives are even more complicated than those of the grapes? The stone is called Rózsakő (meaning Rose stone) because the poet Sándor Kisfaludy loved to sit on it with his wife and muse – Roza Szegedy. And when by the crossing of Kéknyelű and Budai Zöld a new variety was created, it was named Rózsakő (Rose stone) after it. Rózsakő counts as a youngster among the real old varieties – it was crossed at the end of the 1950s. It inherited serious acidity from both of its parental lines, which is made special by the honeyed floral minerality.




Noble grape – lots of work, tiny yields


The sex lives of grapes are more complicated than any Woody Allen film script. Most often the flowers pollinate themselves or swap gametes with the neighbouring vines. (Let’s forget about the bees, it’s actually the wind that helps them.) But in poor Kéknyelű’s case, it’s even more complicated! You could plant a whole hillside with Kéknyelű and yet not see a single bunch of it grown as it has only female flowers. In fact, it is necessary to plant a few vines of Budai Zöld or Ezerjó among the Kéknyelű vines to pollinate it. And even when you do, it still doesn’t grow too much and it’s not by accident that it used to be called a noble grape by peasants: it requires lots of work and produces miserly yields. An expensive luxury drink was made from it before the Second World War. If Károly Eötvös can be believed, Kéknyelű from Badacsony was even more highly regarded than Tokaji aszú by some who were ready to pay more for it than for aszú. After the war, the bourgeoisie lifestyle vanished, and there was no need for the tricky grape with its blue stems and minimal produce, and it almost completely disappeared.

Fortunately today, this nice, indigenous variety pops up in more and more places in Badacsony and in the Balaton-felvidék, where it both really belongs. It has a good capacity for retaining acidity and its wine is tough and mineral. Handled with great care, it gives extraordinary quality. 




A berry from gold – Bacca d’oro


Bakator is an ancient variety from Naples that arrived in Hungary as early as the 1500s. Its original name, Bacca d’oro, means golden berry. In Hungary it’s sometimes called Piros (Red) Bakator as it also has a green version. (However, what they call Fehér (White) Bakator is in fact Ezerjó, which itself has several different names.)

In Hungary, you will find it mainly in the regions of Balaton and Neszmély. Despite the fact it’s not actually that easy to stumble upon, as it’s certainly quite rare, not many vintners experiment with it. 





A successful 18th century campaign


Every Hungarian married man has tasted it at least at once, since for some mysterious reason, it’s still a compulsory wedding gift. Supposedly even the Habsburgs drank Juhfark from Somló in order to produce a male heir, although it’s possible that the whole thing was made up by the 18th century PR people of the wine region. If that’s the case, they did a great job with that campaign.

The name Juhfark is intertwined with Somló as much as Ezerjó’s is with Mór or Kéknyelű’s  is with Badacsony. It got its strange name (lit. Sheep’s tail) from its curly-shaped clusters, which is also the reason why it was once also called Rókafark (Fox tail). Its origin has sunk into oblivion, but what’s for certain is that it was already grown in the Middle Ages. King Matthias allegedly really loved this wine which sprung up from a well in his palace instead of water. (Of course, it’s possible that the whole thing was made up by the wine region’s 15th century PR people.)

Whatever the case it’s a great variety and was possibly the first among the old Hungarian varieties to be resurrected when the reign of mass production was brought to a close towards the end of the 20th century. Similar to other participants on the list, it’s a good acid retainer, while its wine is tough but distinctive. On the other hand, it’s a late ripening variety and also good sugar accumulator that is prone to botrytis. A real speciality wine can be made out of it. And that’s not what the PR people say about it but what the winemakers say.




A resistant maiden


Among the ancient varieties there aren’t too many outright old ones. The main reason for this is that the tiny phylloxera louse devastated almost all the vines in Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the exception of those on sandy soils. Since then, Europeans predominantly cultivate grapes on American rootstocks which are resistant to phylloxera. Yet, luckily there are a few exceptions. These include Fekete Leányka (lit. Black Maiden) or Fetească Neagră in Romanian, which survived the havoc wrought by phylloxera and is exactly the same as it  was like centuries – or according to many – even thousands of years ago. Even today, it is grown on its own roots – mainly in Transylvania from where it originates, as does the Leányka grape and its noble clone of Királyleányka. While the latter two are well-known varieties in Hungary and produce white wine, Fekete Leányka gives red – a spicy, ripe and fruity red. In Romania, most of the newly planted grapes are of this variety and it is likely to have a big future in Hungary as well.





A grape with many birthplaces


Most people know very little about this ‘poor’ variety, and even what they think they know about it isn’t always right. It may originate in Italy but it’s also possible that it’s Austrian. And then there is its name that was originally Zierfandler, but today we call it Cirfandli and it’s not to be confused with Californian Zinfandel which gives a red wine. It’s fairly frequent that some people refer to Mór’s Ezerjó as Cirfandler or Red Cirfandler, or at times Cilifa, even though it’s not that. There’s only one thing for certain in this chaos, which is that we can stumble upon it around Pécs, in the Mecsekalja, where it has been grown for at least 200 years. Even though there is no connection between the two, it resembles Ezerjó in that it’s a colourful, sugar accumulating grape that retains acidity well, and in that both dry and sweet wine can be made from it. A spicy, aromatic, lengthy wine with dried fruit notes. Furthermore, in Austria it is even used to make sparkling wine.




The early painter


The biggest fault of poor Turán is that its name is often associated with the ‘Curse of Turan’ (a belief that Hungarians are stricken by pessimism and misfortune because of the curse), yet the greatest curse connected with it is that it’s not sufficiently acknowledged. József Csizmadia and László Bereznai did the crossing of three new varieties several decades ago, so that really great Bikavér base material could be born. These were the three siblings: Titán, Tizián and Turán, out of which the latter had the greatest success.

The wine it makes is extremely dark, and it’s mostly put into blends to improve the overall colour and that’s how it got its second name: the early painter. It is a favoured ingredient in Eger Bikavér, but it has to be handled with care as it’s really distinctive – and Bikavér is only Bikavér when none of the grapes’ varietal character sticks out. Indeed, Turán is very powerful and is characterised by its rosewater nose and lavender palate. Turán is a disputed grape, but by all means an exciting one that has been discovered by more and more people in its own right. 



What makes a variety Hungarian?

Or even what makes a grape a local variety? It can be because it’s native – that is it developed here, in the Carpathian Basin long ago, just like Ezerjó, for example. But we also consider as Hungarian the varieties that were created here by the crossing of foreign varieties, just like Csabagyöngye – the father of Irsai Olivér and the grandfather of Cserszegi Fűszeres. But a variety can also be regarded as local if it’s been grown in a certain place for a long time and it has hardly survived anywhere else. Everybody accepts Malbec as an Argentinean variety, even though it comes from Bordeaux. Cirfandli, which appears in our list wasn’t born here either, but it’s ours by today. Let alone, Olaszrizling. In short, there is no definition and often national consciousness holds a variety as its own.