Hungarian Grape Dictionary

by Caroline Gilby MW

Hungary is a mosaic of fascinating grapes, many uniquely Hungarian and grown nowhere else, including 34 varieties listed in the “Wine Grapes” bible lists as originating in Hungary.

Data from a 2016 industry strategy report show 45,090 ha of white grape varieties and 19,061 ha of red grapes (both showing decreases over the last decade from 54,449 ha and 22,818 ha respectively). Information from 2011, showed 97 white wine varieties and 40 red varieties being grown but up-to-date numbers (for 2016) are only available for the most planted varieties. In the lead is Kékfrankos at 7,229 ha and here Hungary has missed a trick. Its neighbour Austria has claimed this grape for its own as Blaufränkisch even though Hungary has around twice as much planted. Arguably Hungary lagged behind in starting to treat this as a grape with potential for great quality rather than being a productive work-horse but is catching up now. Other important reds grapes in order are Cabernet Sauvignon (2,690 ha), Merlot (1,973 ha), Zweigelt (1,744 ha), Cabernet Franc (1,370 ha), Pinot Noir (1,094 ha), Portugieser (1,050ha), Blauburger (434 ha) and Kadarka (371 ha).

On the white front, the leading white grape is now a Hungarian cross called Bianca (4,757ha), noted for neutral wines though the vines have good winter frost tolerance and disease resistance. The tongue-twisting Cserszegi Fűzseres (4,275ha) has recently increased its share of plantings overtaking what is called Olaszrizling (3,988 ha) in Hungary. Hungarians see this grape as one of their own though it is perhaps more strongly associated with Croatia where it is named Graševina (other names also include Laški Rizling, Riesling Italico and Welschriesling). Furmint (3,883 ha), mainly grown in Tokaj, comes in fourth then Chardonnay (2,586ha) and Mūller-Thurgau (1,729ha). Hárslevelű, Tokaj’s second grape but also found more widely across Hungary, is planted on 1,610 ha and then Pinot Grigio comes in next with 1,601 ha. This grape is known locally as Szürkebarát which translates as grey monk.  A Hungarian hybrid called Aletta is next (1,550 ha) and then the grapey Irsai Olivér (1,491 ha). This is a crossing of two table grapes made in 1930 from Pozsonyi Fehér and Csaba Gyöngye, but it makes pleasantly grapey, soft, aromatic wines best drunk young.

The Hungarian grape picture is very much a mixture of international regulars (some of which notably Cabernet Franc do especially well here), local grapes that have potential for quality and regional identity (especially Furmint, Kékfrankos, Kadarka, Hárslevelű) and local grapes that are suitable for the domestic market at best. However, it is encouraging to see research going into rescuing old varieties that were nearly lost under communism. Grapes like Csókaszolo and Fekete-Jardovány are even appearing in bottle for limited commercial sale now and are worth seeking out.