22 November 2023 / Edit Szabó (translated by Sue Tolson, DipWSET)
It may have been brought from the Balkans by the Serbs fleeing the Turks, but we still think of it as a Hungarian grape variety. And no wonder, since before phylloxera, 70% of cultivated vineyards in Hungary were planted with Kadarka. This was the red wine for everyday drinking, because it was not a heavy red, rather a light red, piquantly acidic, refreshing both straight and with soda water, and an excellent accompaniment to Hungarian dishes spiced with paprika. It was one of the obligatory elements of Bikavér, and it was also used to make the intoxicatingly sweet “red Aszú”, only in special vintages, and then of memorable quality. However, it started to disappear from our vineyards after phylloxera, and as it is a rather fickle variety, nobody really wept for it. The chic French varieties were reliable and produced good wine, while our Kadarka only produced ripe, good-quality fruit every two or three years, so it was not worth bothering with. Despite this, the data shows that Hungary was still cultivating 600 hectares of the variety in 2008. However, its popularity rapidly declined and by 2021, this had fallen to 274 hectares.
The Kadarka variety
Fortunately, there were a few enterprising winemakers who not only knew its drawbacks but also its virtues, and who devoted a significant part of their lives to restoring the honour of this maligned and stigmatised variety. Prominent among them are Ferenc Tóth from Eger, who has become an unofficial ambassador of Kadarka, Géza Balla from Miniş in Transylvania and Ferenc Csutorás from Eger, who, like Ferenc Tóth, has been observing for many years how the various Kadarka clones behave in his vineyards.
Szekszárd is also fond of Kadarka, producing a good quarter of Hungary’s total, with more and more winemakers turning to the variety with interest and an open mind. Every spring, local producers get together to taste the latest wines, and it’s encouraging to see that the number of samples is increasing every year. More than thirty wineries in Szekszárd are now producing wines from Kadarka and tastings demonstrate the wide variety on offer.
The Szekszárd Wine District
Sommelier Csilla Sebestyén, one of the owners of Sebestyén Winery in Szekszárd, is an expert in rare wines and knows the international market well. In her opinion, the Szekszárd Wine District has a very varied Kadarka profile. There are those who make light, excitingly spicy, fresh wines with low alcohol and tannin, those who prefer a slightly more deeply coloured, fruitier version, those who favour a layered, serious, high-quality wine made from grapes harvested from old vines and those who make several versions. According to Csilla, although the variety itself is not known abroad, it is one of the wine region’s most important exports, because there are very few grapes in the world with a similar profile. “Despite its restrained colour and moderate alcohol, Kadarka is extremely rich in flavour, which surprises everyone. In the past, foreign wine merchants would say that it was impossible to sell a wine with such a colour, but fortunately tastes are changing, and my experience is that over the last 10-15 years, Kadarka has been gaining international recognition. It’s particularly popular in restaurants because it is versatile. It pairs well with dishes that are generally considered to call for white wine, such as seafood or certain Asian dishes, but it also works well with sushi. I love it for its unique flavours, it reminds me of the raspberry sweets of my childhood. It’s slightly tart, spicy, with a touch of cherry and a little cranberry, and different from any other red wine,” says the specialist, giving nuance to the picture.
Csilla and Csaba Sebestyén (Photo: Sebestyén Szekszárd)
Katalin Tóth, managing director of the Tóth Ferenc Winery in Eger, fell in love with Kadarka alongside her father. They currently cultivate Kadarka in three different vineyards and work with eight clones, but Katalin says she would be in trouble if she had to describe the precise characteristics of the variety. “I’m able to define Leányka, Olaszrizling, Hárslevelű or Kékfrankos, but it’s very difficult to pinpoint Kadarka, because there are so many clones, so many different worlds. It’s a difficult variety to get to know, mysterious and demanding of attention, but perhaps that’s why it’s so loveable.” The wines are usually made by blending different clones, but now the picture is slowly becoming clearer, and you can see which Kadarka is suitable for a Siller, and which can be used to make a more serious red wine. The style of their wines is also influenced by climate change. They only used to produce barrel aged Kadarka, but now they also make it in inert vessels as it brings out more of the fruity, spicy notes they like in the wine.
Katalin Tóth (Photo: Tóth Ferenc Winery, Eger)
The growing popularity of Kadarka both in Hungary and abroad is due to a combination of factors. According to Csilla Sebestyén, a healthy lifestyle and a health-conscious diet are important for many people today, so people are eating lighter foods, which demand fresher, fruitier wines. And because Kadarka is just that, more and more young wine lovers are discovering it for themselves. Katalin Tóth says that only three to four winemakers in the Eger Wine District used to make monovarietal Kadarka, but now many do, and it is being planted in increasing numbers of vineyards. Her experience shows that in tastings, it is an undivided success, not with the young but rather with knowledgeable middle-aged wine lovers. In her opinion, it is not an ingratiating variety, it doesn’t reveal itself easily, so its qualities are appreciated above all by those who have already acquired a certain expertise in wine tasting and can uncover the special values of a wine. She also points out that Kadarka is a great food wine and goes very well with spicy Hungarian dishes. There is nothing better with fish soup at Christmas or with lecsó (Hungarian pepper stew), but it is also a perfect accompaniment to Italian dishes with tomatoes and mushrooms, pasta and pizza.
Almost everyone has had a defining Kadarka experience in their life and still remembers the taste of the wine that made them fall in love with the variety and which they consider a benchmark. There are those who consider the Almagyar Érseki Vineyard, i.e. Ferenc Csutorás’s Siller their defining wine, those who swear by the natural wine of Sziegl Winery from the Hajós-Baja Wine District and some who firmly adhere to the other extreme, the Nagykadarka from St Andrea Vineyards and Winery, which is made from fruit from the exceptional terroir of the Nagy-Eged Hill vineyard.
The Tóth Ferenc Winery places a particular focus on Kadarka, so every year, they buy other commercially available Kadarkas and do a blind tasting to get an idea of what is on offer. For Katalin Tóth, the 2007 Kadarka from their own winery has been the most influential, and they strive for similar quality in every vintage. The wines from Géza Balla in the Miniş wine region, among others, are highlighted in the blind tasting. Csilla Sebestyén considers the 2020 old vine Iván-völgy single-vineyard Kadarka from her own winery to be the most outstanding and the aged Kadarkas from the Vida Wine Estate to be the most surprising. “We invited Elizabeth Gabay Master of Wine to Szekszárd and tasted a vertical selection of Kadarkas with her. We went all the way back to the 2003 vintage and our jaws all dropped. We previously had no idea that the variety could achieve such greatness and depth and defy time so beautifully. It was then that Péter Vida Sr said that we should all learn about Kadarka again,” says Csilla.
The 100-year-old vines of the Vida Wine Estate
So Kadarka is one of our great treasures, but we need to learn to handle it and appreciate its qualities. In a market where wine connoisseurs are looking for specialities and local varieties, it really has something to offer, and perhaps it would not be a bad thing if we rediscovered it for ourselves. Let’s serve Kadarka as often as possible and be proud that such wines “grow” in this palm-sized Hungary!
Title photo: Macro image of a 100-year-old Kadarka vine of the Vida Wine Estate