Part of Hungary’s charm is its sheer diversity – it’s not easy to sum the nation up in a grape or two. Not all of Hungary’s local grapes are capable of high quality – for example, Irsai Olivér and Cserszegi Fűszeres are both best drunk young for their grapey, exotic aromatics. But Hungary grows several grapes that can offer real quality and excitement.
The second most important grape in Tokaj, often the seductive partner of steely Furmint in both sweet and dry blends owing to its more supple fruitiness and pretty aromatics. Its name translates as ‘linden leaf’, for the shape of its foliage, and it often expresses a gentle linden blossom aroma, with peaches and a touch of honey and spice. It’s genuinely local, with Furmint as one parent and the other recently identified as a little-known Russian grape called Tzimliansky belyi. While in the right hands it can make truly beautiful varietal wines with joyous drinkability, it’s only through old and deep-rooted vines that it can show its most exciting quality.
For anglophones, this grape often raises a giggle (it’s pronounced ‘you-fark’), but it actually produces really serious wines – so mineral-rich and intense that the wines were once sold in pharmacies. It’s named for the shape of its bunches (the name translates as ‘sheep’s tail’) and is relatively neutral in terms of flavour and aromatic character, which actually makes it a great translator of terroir. Juhfark is only really grown on the volcanic, basalt-derived soils of Somló, where it produces weighty wines with notes of green melon and rhubarb, a salty mineral core, vivid acidity, and great ageing potential.
Named for its blue-toned leaf stalks (kék means ‘blue’ in Hungarian), Kéknyelű was much revered in the 19th century, though it almost died out amid the communist drive for volume, then the modern-era thirst for international grapes. It’s local to the volcanic hills of Badacsony and is finicky to grow, late-ripening and low-yielding. It has female flowers only, so vineyards must give up space to a cross-pollinator (typically Budai Zöld).Young, it can be pleasant in a crunchy, understated style, but with a bit of age Kéknyelű shines, developing complexity and honeyed, smoky richness. Plantings have crept up to about 49ha, easing back from the brink of extinction.
For many Hungarians, Olaszrizling is wine and wine is Olaszrizling, though for such an iconic Central European grape, not much is known about its origins. In Hungary, it covers everything from the cheapest house wines destined for fröccs (Hungarian spritzer) to rich, honeyed sweet wines, but for many winemakers its dry wines are a matter of national pride. It grows all over Hungary (the third-biggest global grower at 3,547ha) but reaches its heights of sophistication on the northern shores of Lake Balaton, especially on the volcanic hills of Somló and Badacsony, and the red soils of Csopak. Winemakers love its ability to express its place – look out for single-vineyard bottlings to explore this facet. Apple, lemon and lime, and a touch of almond when young, transform into beeswax, honey and peach or even exotic fruit with maturity.
Try: Zsirai, Somló (£13.78 Jascots)
Kadarka was once the country’s most important red (there were still nearly 30,000ha in 1974), though it fell out of favour when volume counted, as it is prone to disease. Today, it covers just 282ha and many producers, especially in Szekszárd, are rediscovering its potential to make delicate, refined reds (think of it as a gently spicy, red-fruited pale red in the style of Pinot Noir). It is produced in its own right, but also adds a touch of spicy local character to Bikavér blends (it’s obligatory in the Szekszárdi version).
Hungary missed a trick by failing to claim Kékfrankos for its own – it grows far more than anyone else at 7,755ha – but the grape is better known as Austria’s red flagship Blaufränkisch. Its parents have been identified as the prolific Heunisch Weiss (Gouais Blanc) and the rare Zimmettraube Blau, and its origin as today’s Slovenia, an area that was once old Hungary. In communist times, Kékfrankos overtook Kadarka for its generous yields. Today’s growers have been re-learning its potential from better sites with modern winemaking. It’s moderate in colour, expressing black cherry fruit with racy acidity – at its best when treated more like Pinot Noir with a focus on elegance over sheer power. It has taken time, but today Kékfrankos has re-established itself as an exciting local grape that shows off the new face of Hungarian wine, both in signature blends like Bikavér or on its own.