13 May 2022 / Sue Tolson
Juhfark’s stronghold is Somló. There are a few plantings elsewhere in the country, although it was much more widely planted before phylloxera; however, there are only about 150 hectares left, 105 of which are in Nagy-Somló Wine District. In the past, it was believed to cure all kinds of ailments and was mysteriously known as wedding night wine, as it was believed to aid the siring of a male heir. It was thus sought out by royalty and aristocracy, such as the Habsburgs and British Queen Victoria. Although not scientifically proven, it seems there 25% more male children are born around Somló than in the rest of Hungary. Now more often produced as a single varietal wine, Somló wines were generally blends in the past – so perhaps it’s Somló that has mysterious powers, not Juhfark. It is a fiery wine with piercing acidity, so often has a few grams of sugar to balance this and can be zingy and lemony with herbs, ripe stone fruit and a creamy texture. It may be aged in oak to add complexity, while it benefits from a few years’ ageing to round out the acidity and develop honeyed notes. A good reflector of terroir, it is perfect for bringing out the stony minerality of Somló’s basalt, mineral-rich soils. Its name, which tends to make English speakers laugh, comes from the shape of its tightly packed cylindrical clusters of small berries, resembling a sheep’s tail, or Juhfark. There are numerous great wineries making Juhfark but watch out for small boutique producers like Somlói Apátsági Pince, Somlói Vándor and Spiegelberg Artisan Winery as well as big players like Tornai Winery, who also produce excellent well-priced examples.
Kéknyelű is found primarily in the Badacsony Wine District and a little in the Balaton Highlands Wine District. It was the darling of Badacsony at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. However, it needs a lot of work in the vineyard, including planting with another variety, such as Budai Zöld to help its pollination, so it fell out of favour in the times of mass production. Known as the ‘gentleman’s grape’, as only the rich could afford to cultivate this fickle variety. It was nearly extinct but was saved by the growing interest in indigenous varieties, so it is increasingly being planted again and is on the way to becoming the wine district’s flagship variety, although there are still only around 50 hectares. It is quite a lean, neutral variety and, like Juhfark, a good reflector of terroir. When young, it’s relatively simple and lean with pronounced acidity and restrained, delicate spice, peach, citrus, salty minerality and floral notes, needing a few years to come into its own, developing honeyed, nutty, smoky richness with age. Modern Kéknyelű has yet to develop its own style – it can be aged in steel or oak, or even turned into fizz; however, producers in the region are coming together to try and find a common style. Its name means blue stalk due to the slightly blue tint of its petiole. Istvándy Winery, Borbély Estate and Laposa Estate all produce good examples of the variety.
Ezerjó is mostly associated with the Mór Wine District but is also found in Neszmély Wine District and the Kunság Wine District, where it is most widely planted, even having its own PDO – Soldvadkert. At one time, there was little else planted in Mór and it was widely cultivated in Hungary – one of the four most planted varieties. Nowadays, there are less than 600 hectares planted in the country. It does not produce very complex wines, but it is quite adaptable, making a whole range of wines – sparkling, dry, off-dry, sweet and botrytised. It can be fruit-forward, or barrel fermented and aged on its lees to smooth out its zesty acidity and add texture. In the past, its sweet botrytised wine, Móri Aszú, was well regarded, although nowadays, only Tokaj is entitled to use the term Aszú. You’ll most commonly find it in its zesty, lean, citrus fruit-forward version, although it may also boast herbal, cut grass and medicinal notes, making it the perfect aperitif or partner to seafood. Its name translates to a ‘thousand blessings’, which given its relative simplicity, most likely refers to its productivity. Producers to watch out for include the Geszler Family Winery, Csetvei Winery in Mór as well as Frittmann Winery and Gedeon Estate in the Kunság.
It’s not only old varieties which are growing in popularity, there are also some modern crossings that are increasingly finding favour. Two 20th century white crossings in particular have become hits in the last few decades - Irsai Olivér and its offspring, Cserszegi Fűszeres, once dubbed the unpronounceable grape by a British Master of Wine.
Both are aromatic, fruity wines destined for early consumption, thus often dismissed as being girly or feminine, but are pleasant, light, summery, easy-drinking wines which enjoy great popularity. So let’s learn a little more about them.
There are about 1,500 hectares of aromatic Irsai Olivér planted in Hungary’s cooler wine districts, such as the Mátra Wine District, boasting 500 of these, Neszmély Wine District, Balatonboglár Wine District and Pannonhalma Wine District. This represents 4% of Hungary’s white grapes. It was originally produced as a table grape in 1930 at the Kecskemét Research Institute and only started to be used to produce wine in the 1980s, but quickly became popular. Not only is it easier to say than its offspring, its soft acidity, light body and relatively low alcohol as well as fresh fruit, lime, Muscat and grape blossom aromas give it wide appeal and make it very approachable. Generally dry or off-dry, despite being floral and aromatic, it makes a lovely quaffable summer white. Best drunk when youthful as it loses its attractive aromas quite quickly. It supposedly gained its name from the son of a friend of its breeder. Reliable producers include Nyakas Cellars, Etyeki-Kúria, SkizoBor, Csanádi Vineyards and Légli Winery.
Despite its name, although of course Hungarians can pronounce it, it has proved more popular than its parent and is now cultivated on about 4,300 hectares, a little more than even enduringly popular Olaszrizling. It is a crossing of Irsai Olivér and Gewürztraminer, created at the Pannon University of Agriculture in 1960, so quite a spring bunny. The Great Plain has become its home, indeed every fourth vine in the Hajós-Baja Wine District is Cserszegi Fűszeres, but it also does well in the Etyek-Buda Wine District, the Balaton Highlands Wine District, the Mátra Wine District and the Neszmély Wine District. It is generally made as an everyday dry or off-dry wine with more body and acidity than Irsai Olivér but the same Muscat character as well as lychee, floral and spicy notes. In fact fűszeres means spicy and it was born in Cserszeg, hence its name. It’s popular in blends thanks to its pronounced aromatic character and spicy kick, while it can also be produced as a sweet wine. Producers to watch out for: Sándor Zsolt Organic Vineyards, Frittmann Winery, Koch Winery, Hilltop Winery.
So, why not try something new, something unique and truly Hungarian, and pick up a bottle, or simply enjoy a glass, of Juhfark, Kéknyelű, Ezerjó, Irsai Olivér or Cserszegi Fűszeres.