Kadarka – the Ugly Duckling

by Elizabeth Gabay MW

The variety Kadarka has similarities to Pinot Noir; with bright sour-cherry, raspberry and spice fruit, lively acidity and silky tannins. It can successfully make a range of wines from fresh fruity styles to more intense, structured wines. The wines’ deceptive delicacy has hidden strengths, with good wines able to age for 10 to 20 years, and is one of my favourite varieties.
So why is Kadarka barely known? And why do so many look down on this variety?

Recent studies suggest that one of its parents is the Papazkarası, a variety found in the Strandja region of Thrace, between Bulgaria and Turkey. Papazkarası migrated westwards with settlers to around Lake Scutari on the Albania-Montenegro border, where it was crossed with a variety called Skardarsko, creating Kadarka.
It would have stayed little more than a local variety if political events had not intervened. In 1689 the Ottoman army defeated the Austrians and in fear of further attacks, a large group of Serbs moved north to the Pannonia Plain, taking with them their Kadarka vines.

The variety proved successful, making up over 60% of Hungarian vineyards during the 19th century. Under Communist agricultural policies encouraging high-volume, machine harvested varieties, did not favour the late ripening, frost-sensitive Kadarka. During the 1970s, the government encouraged growers to dig up their Kadarka, replacing it with Kékfrankos, Portugieser and French varieties. By 1989 Kadarka had dropped to 1% of Hungarian plantings. Kadarka’s reputation was now sealed as being thin and rustic.
The southern Hungarian region of Szekszard includes a varietal Kadarka in its range of appellation wines. Using new clones (such as Heimann’s Ceh Kereszt), old vines (some going back 100 years, such as Vida’s Öregtökek) and reduced yields to produce delightful wines full of vibrancy and elegance. Today Kadarka plantings are slowly increasing. Modern Egri and Szekszardi Bikaver include small percentages of Kadarka to give a spicy lift and a few Eger producers, such as St Andrea and Tibor Gal also produce varietal Kadarka wines.