Hungarian wines have remained somewhat inconspicuous on the international wine market over the past couple of centuries. Of course, the golden-hued, sweet aszú wines of Tokaj, once adored by popes, kings, and czars alike, are famous the world over. Yet with 22 regions and upwards of 63,000 hectares of vineyards, Hungary is a formidable wine producer. This country has one of the highest wine consumptions per capita in the world with the majority of Hungarian wines consumed by the locals. Perhaps as sweet wines fell from popularity, the wine world didn’t bother to dig deeper to see what other wines Hungary has to offer. However, I am curious to uncover what wines Hungarians have been keeping for themselves. First up, we’re discovering Kadarka, a red Hungarian variety grown throughout the country.
About Hungarian Wines
Before we dive into the variety, let’s briefly explore the history of wine in Hungary. As with many viticultural lands throughout Europe, winemaking in Hungary dates back to the Romans. Actually, it’s possible that the Celts, Hungary’s previous occupants, planted the first vines. But the Romans were definitely the first to do so in western Hungary. Furthermore, medieval Hungarian kings relied on the Benedictine monks to manage their viticulture and winemaking.
German, Italian, and French settlers brought their winemaking skills to Hungary from the 12th-13th centuries until all winemaking ceased with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks. Winemakers migrated to unoccupied territories in the north where Hungarian wine was reborn. This is when Tokaj production began and soon captured the attention of Europe’s elite.
In 1867, Hungarian winemaking blossomed with the formation of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The country became Europe’s second largest wine producer behind France less than a decade later. However, tragedy stuck when phylloxera hit at the end of the century, decimating two thirds of Hungarian vineyards.
Next came four decades of communist rule in the second half of the 20th century. Winemaking emphasized quantity over quality and these wines were easily consumed throughout the Eastern Bloc. From the 1990’s, a capitalist revival revamped the Hungarian wine industry after the fall of communism. Locals showed a renewed interest in Hungarian varieties and small, family-run wineries sprung up throughout Hungary at an astonishing rate.
The Variety: Kadarka
Kadarka is truly a rare variety with only 700 hectares planted in the world. The Balkans introduced Kadarka to Hungary when they fled Serbia in the late 16th century. According to Jancis Robinson, it’s also possible this grape is from Bulgaria, where it’s planted under the name Gamza and is thought to be indigenous.
Though cultivated throughout Hungary, Kadarka’s most significant plantings are located in the Great Hungarian Plain. This variety is a key grape in Hungary’s famed Bikavér (bull’s blood) blend, a traditional red wine from Szekszárd and Eger. As legend goes, the Turk’s thought the Hungarians were drinking bull’s blood when they consumed this red wine following their victory.
This is not an easy variety to grow. Kadarka is a late ripening variety with thin skins, meaning it’s very susceptible to noble rot. Yields of this grape require proper restriction in order to produce quality, concentrated fruit. As a result of these challenges and the variety’s finicky nature, many plantings of Kadarka disappeared from Hungary throughout the 20th century. While the exact origin of the variety is unconfirmed, it decidedly originated in the Balkan-Pannonian area.
Kadarka in the Glass
Parallels are often drawn between Kadarka and Pinot Noir. In such, both produce light to medium bodied red wines with red fruit and spicy flavors. From a classic Kadarka, expect vibrant red fruit flavors like sour cherry, raspberry, and cranberry. In warmer vintages, the wines may lean more towards black fruit flavors. Kadarka typically offers smooth tannins, racy acidity, subtle spice notes, and occasionally florals, too.
Regions with this Variety
Older Kadarka vines grow in the Great Plains where sandy soils left vines unscathed by phylloxera. You’ll find this variety planted in the Pannon Region in the sunny Pécs area with loess soils, in the continental climate of Szekszárd, and in the warm, dry, sunny Tolna area. Kadarka also grows in the Duna wine region in the extremely hot area of Hajós-Baja and in Kúnsag with dry and hot summers. Loess and sand soils, plus others, are common throughout these regions.
Additionally, single varietal Kadarka wines are becoming increasingly popular in Eger and Villány. This variety has also taken hold in neighboring countries of Slovakia, Serbia, and Romania.
The Winery: Balla Géza Winery
Balla Géza is a Romanian winery which has taken special interest in Kadarka and produces high quality wines made from this variety.
This winery is situated 20km of Arad in western Romania and encompasses the famous Minis vineyard. The vineyards lie in the microclimate of the Mures River on granite, dorite, and mudstone soils. This region is an extension of Villány-Szekszárd near the western foothills of the Transylvanian Mountains.
Balla Géza claims 120 hectares of vineyards planted to predominantly red grapes with just 20% of white variety plantings. They implement low Guyot training systems in the vineyards and work with the philosophy of adding nothing to nor subtracting anything from the wine. Additionally, red wines are generally matured in barrel for 1.5-2 years, followed by 6-8 months minimum bottle aging before release. Dr. Balla Géza, an accomplished horticulturist with a Ph.D in viticulture, is the head winemaker and CEO of the company.
The Wine: Balla Géza, Kadarka Sziklabor, Száraz Vörösbor, 2016
Cultivated in the Ménes region of Romania just across the border from Hungary, this single-vineyard Kadarka is called a “must try for those that love Burgundy.”
- Stunning deep ruby hue in the glass
- Pronounced aromas of dark black and crunchy red fruits: black cherry, blackberry, cranberry, sour cherry
- Beautifully integrated clove spice aromas entice the senses, along with a touch of graphite, cedar, and forest floor
- Bright, crunchy red fruits immediately grab the palate, the sour cherry and black cherry flavors really come through, as does an elegant spice
- Medium bodied, medium acidity, fine grain, supple tannins
- Medium + length finish, great concentration of flavors…definitely a well-made wine
Kadarka is the ideal match for spicy chicken or pork dishes. Try Hungarian chicken paprikash, chicken vindaloo, or chicken tikka masala. Spiced grilled chicken and vegetable kebabs served with herbed rice pilaf is another fantastic pairing. Pork chile verde or barbequed baby back ribs smothered in barbeque sauce are also great pairings for Kadarka. The crunchy fruit flavors and spice notes make this a great wine alongside Greek spanakopita. Baked sausage stuffed mushrooms or oven roasted tomatoes stuffed with herbs, rice, and feta cheese will be delicious with Kadarka, too.
Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz