29 December 2023 / Borbála Kalmár / Translated by Sue Tolson DipWSET
The question of which grape variety a winery plants is always an interesting one – after all, vines are not annual plants, they will be around for a generation at least. Of course, they are also capable of much longer, and despite the phylloxera crisis and the turbulent times of the 20th century, you can still find vineyards in Hungary that have spanned 100 years – for example, the Vida Family Wine Estate has one such well-established Kadarka vineyard. In most cases, the hobby winemaker will choose a variety that they enjoy drinking, while more conscientious producers will try to select varieties that best correlate with the matrix of consumer needs, climate change and terroir.
While in Hungary, the easiest way to attract new wine consumers is with aromatic varieties and prestigious international varieties such as Merlot, when considering the export market, it is most difficult for these to stand out from the rest. At the same time, it is not impossible, but requires unique terroir, a whole region working together, a well-thought-out marketing strategy and the positive opinion of serious spokespeople – a good example of this in Hungary is the success story of Villányi Franc.
As we have moved forward in the time since the regime change, the sense of liberation that surrounded the turn of the millennium is receding and more and more producers are going back to their roots. In other words, to grape varieties that encapsulate a piece of our history, of our past, to grape varieties that have already proved that they can perform well in Hungarian soil.
The name of wine producer József Szentesi from Nadap (Etyek-Buda wine region – editor) is inextricably linked to old Hungarian varieties and their present revival. Among other things, it was he who – so to speak – sparked off the fashion for Csókaszőlő, an old Hungarian variety that can now be found in more and more Hungarian wine regions.
The first time that Csaba Török tasted this grape variety as a single varietal wine was at József Szentesi’s, and he planted it with his typical idiosyncrasy on his estate, 2HA Vineyard and Winery, on Szent György Hill. “I liked the wine made from it at Szentesi’s, and later at Ráspi’s too, and I thought, I can do that and better too,” Csaba recalls the early days. However, he did not get his clones from the Etyek-Buda wine region, but rather from the research institute in Pécs. Although, in the end, Csókaszőlő did not become part of his permanent range as a single varietal, since it did not live up to expectations, visitors to the winery can certainly taste it. The final wine at wine tastings at Csaba’s is always a cuvée called Courage, which if the blend demands it, also includes Csókaszőlő. It is only released as a single varietal wine in particularly good vintages – we’ll come back to what that means.
Csaba Török (Photo: 2HA Vineyard and Winery)
The fact that winegrowers in Badacsony prefer to use Csókaszőlő in blends is nothing new: our ancestors also typically used Csókaszőlő in blends. The variety has similar flavour characteristics to Kadarka, but is much darker in colour, so they were often blended together, for example to produce the iconic Buda Red. There are two legends about the choice of name: one holds that the grape is named after its colour, while the other says that it became Csókaszőlő because the jackdaw (csóka) is a kind of transition between a crow and a raven. In other words, it’s difficult to classify. It was also once called Vad Fekete, or Wild Black, and was not only found here as Kleinschwarz, or Little Black, but also in Austria.
Autumn panorama from 2HA Vineyard and Winery (Photo: by the author)
Csaba is not the only one who works with the variety in the Badacsony wine region, it can also be found in Endre Szászi’s range, in very limited quantities. Vylyan in Villány also usually releases it as a single varietal, but it is also made in Pécs and the Mátra. When you hear the name Csókaszőlő, the other benchmark besides József Szentesi is, without a doubt, Bussay Winery.
A bird's eye view of Bussay Winery (Photo: Bussay Winery)
Dorottya Bussay and her husband Tamás Kis are now making the wines in the Zala wine region. Dóri’s father planted Csókaszőlő out of love at the time, also following a Szentesi tasting. And today, although they also cultivate other varieties such as Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Tamás says it is Csókaszőlő which has been reliably producing really lovely red wines for many years. As to why the variety thrives better in Zala than at the relatively close Lake Balaton, Tamás says this lies in the clayey, highly calcareous soil and the unusually high rainfall, compared to the rest of the country. The national average is 600 mm, while in Zala, it is 800 mm, with plenty of sunshine too.
They have recently planted more of the variety, grafting over the Sárgamuskotály and the Pinot Gris.
Besides the fact that Csókaszőlő meets consumer demand and produces consistent quality, Tamás believes that this variety seems to be more resistant to phytoplasma (the most destructive grape disease in Zala, for which the only solution is grubbing up – editor). Despite its great success, the plan is not for the increased quantity to be released solely as a single varietal, it will also end up in the Mura Red.
Vineyard near Bussay Winery (Photo: Bussay Winery)
Autochthonous, or indigenous, grape varieties are not only enjoying a renaissance in Hungary, increasing numbers of wine regions and countries are trying to become unique in the wine market in this way, an ambition which is often matched by consumer demand. And while sometimes you really don’t want anything other than a wine you’re already familiar with, sometimes it’s good to go off the beaten track and try a new variety. Who knows, it could be your new favourite!