A mystical yet wonderful variety that’s sometimes a bit of a prima donna, but one which has a real following. Winemakers in Badacsony and on Szent György-hegy are trying to decipher it, taste it and observe the vintages; they have spent years working on revamping and polishing its style to ensure the Kéknyelű variety and its legend stay alive.
However, not so long ago, it wouldn’t have taken much for the variety to have disappeared from the face of the earth! Kéknyelű is an ancient Hungarian variety, which is particularly special because it is only found in a tiny area of Hungary, namely in and around Badacsony.
According to the latest statistics, there are a total of 48 hectares of Kéknyelű vineyards in Hungary, of which 46 are in the Badacsony Wine District. The remaining two hectares mostly belong to wineries in the surrounding areas of the Balaton Highlands, Balatonfüred-Csopak and Nagy-Somló, although there are also a handful of vines in the Etyek-Buda and Neszmély wine districts.
Kéknyelű grape bunch and leaf
Such figures thus clearly show that this is a rare wine produced in small quantities, which, as an autochthonous (indigenous) variety, is of great interest to wine consumers. Mass production is impossible in this case, thus propelling Kéknyelű immediately into the quality wine category. Moreover, it has been considered a Hungarikum, i.e. something typically Hungarian, since 2013.
It takes its name from its easily recognised bluish petiole. It only produces female flowers, so it has to be planted with other varieties (most commonly Budai Zöld or Rózsakő) to aid fertilisation. It ripens late and is generally harvested in mid to late October, so the autumn weather of each vintage is critical. Thanks to its thick skins, it has good frost and cold tolerance and is not susceptible to rot. Its medium-sized, rather loose, sometimes incomplete clusters do not produce a large crop, so you could even say it restricts its own yields.
Those wineries that now work with it, or have even established new plantings, would like it to demonstrate a more approachable style. For a long time, it was considered too rustic, too chiselled and not particularly easy to drink; however, wines produced in the last few years have proven this wrong time and again. Nowadays, it is not inconceivable to find a light, approachable Kéknyelű on a wine shop shelf or the terrace of a Badacsony winery. What’s more, you can also choose from a range of styles and vintages.
It is relatively neutral aromatically, with restrained aromas and flavours, but distinctive acidity. It boasts herbs, citrus fruit, a hint of almond bitterness and the salty, mineral notes of its terroir. Its lively acidity also makes it suitable for producing sparkling wine. For example, the Istvándy Family Estate produce an elegant, dry sparkling Kéknyelű.
In line with global trends, you can make a light, reductive wine from Kéknyelű, resulting in a fruity wine with vibrant acidity and flavours of green apple and lime. At the Szászi Estate, you can currently taste the 2020 vintage, whose savoury flavours are complemented by aromas of citrus, green apple and peach. The Laposa Estate’s current vintage is also the 2020, but they point out that it is a wine meant for long ageing. Its minerality, unmistakeable Badacsony flavours and powerful backbone of acidity mean this wine will remain exciting for years to come.
Of course, many producers also age their Kéknyelű in oak, as many winemakers believe that the roundness contributed by the oak can only benefit the wine. For example, The Váli Winery’s Kéknyelű, aged in oak for 8 months, falls into this category, as does Balázs Sike’s single-vineyard Fekete-hegy Kéknyelű. It’s an ageworthy variety, so you can even lay it down for several years to give a serious, mature wine. It is also suitable for producing late harvest sweet wines. In the right vintage, with a long, sunny autumn, it can be left out on the vines until it has accumulated enough sugar.
Thanks to its neutrality, it pairs well with food without overpowering it, while its lively acidity makes it ideal for heavier dishes too. Bubbly and fruit-forward wines go well with fresh salad, fish, chicken dishes and grilled cheese. Pork, turkey, roast root vegetables, mature mountain cheese and even fatty liver sausage work well with oaked Kéknyelű with some age. Sweet versions are a good match for fruity desserts like tarte tatin or apple and plum crumble.