Hungarian and Austrian history has been so intertwined, for better or for worse, over four centuries. So it’s inevitable that some grape varieties have also crossed today’s borders, and have comfortably settled down on the other side. Some have migrated east to west, and others have gone in the opposite direction.
These are some of the Austrian varieties which have headed east and are still cultivated in Hungary today.
Cirfandli / Zierfandler
Cirfandli, Austria’s Zierfandler, is known for its role in the Gumpoldskirchner blend, and along with Rotgipfler has been around the longest in Hungary. It was first planted in the mid-1800s in the southern Pécs wine region. Most of its 18 hectares can still be found there, and Pécsi Cirfandli is the region’s best-known wine.
Cirfandli wines have good ageing potential and are characterised by lively acidity, ripe honey, peach, wild flowers and spice as well as a distinct nutty character. This versatile variety can also make lovely late-harvest or botrytized dessert wines in the right vintages, with notes of dried fruits, apricot, quince and fig as well as its hallmark acidity.
Pair the dry version with spicy Asian dishes and the dessert wines with a slice of delicous apple or curd-cheese strudel.
Zóldveltelini / Grüner Veltliner
Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s über-trendy flagship variety, is known in Hungary as Zöldveltelini. It’s a natural cross between Traminer and very likely an obscure Austrian vine, only one of which survives today in the Leithagebirge region (which is near Eisenstadt, in Burgenland). This versatile variety is capable of producing anything from base wine for Sekt though light, peppery, everyday wines to concentrated, ageworthy, mineral expressions of the terroir of its home regions along the steep slopes next to the Danube.
Producers in neighboring Hungary have only begun to take it seriously in recent years, but fine wines are already starting to trickle through from Etyek, Sopron, Somló, and Tolna.
Expect light wines with peachy fruit, as well as more concentrated, spicy expressions with wonderful minerality and a note of white pepper. In keeping with the Austrian theme, Zöldveltelini pairs well with a crispy Wiener Schnitzel—or Bécsi Szelet as it’s known in Hungary—and a refreshing cucumber salad. Its zesty acidity cuts through the richness of this Viennese, and I might add, Hungarian, favorite meal.
The most widely planted Austrian varieties—Blauburger and Zweigelt—are two red 20th-century crossings created by Fritz Zweigelt at the Klosterneuburg research center west of Vienna.
Blauburger is a crossing between Portugieser and Blaufränkisch (aka Kékfrankos), which created a variety yielding deeply colored wines, which are also relatively neutral and light with little acidity or tannin. Its creator saw a great future for it, but this has clearly not yet caught on with winemakers as very few producers actually make a single varietal from it. It is most often used to ramp up the color of Egri Bikavér, and more than half of Hungary’s 400 hectares or so can be found in the Eger wine region.
Blauburger’s half-sibling, Zweigelt, which is the product of a Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent crossing, did catch on. And it is now Austria’s most commonly planted red wine grape. Initially known as Rotburger, its name was changed to Zweigelt in honor of its creator, although nowadays this is proving controversial because of Zweigelt’s Nazi sympathies. Many now say the variety’s name should be changed again, or that it should revert back to its original name.
Unfortunately, when Zweigelt was introduced in Hungary in the 1960s, it was a victim of the mass production of the controlled economy and was mostly planted on the sandy soils of the Great Plain, as well as in Eger, Szekszárd, and the Mátra. Thanks to its high yields it was widely grown, on more than 2,000 hectares, and was rarely treated as a high-quality variety. It’s still mainly used for blending or to make cheap commercial varietals.
Fortunately, however, some producers are now taking Zweigelt seriously. Producers close to the border in Sopron, as well as in the Bükk and even on the northern shores of the Balaton, are now turning out some really attractive examples.
Zweigelt can produce firm, full-bodied wines with bright berry fruit (if the yields are controlled). Styles vary from simple, unoaked versions with smooth tannins and flavors of sour and black cherries to more serious oaked versions. It’s also popular in red blends thanks to its beautiful, rich fruit and appealing spiciness. Try it paired with a spicy Hungarian fish soup.