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Csókaszőlő: A Remarkable Grape Brought Back From Hungary’s Past, Now In The US
Csókaszőlő is an ancient Hungarian variety which is experiencing a (very) small revival thanks to a few committed—and stubborn—winemakers. Even though there are written references about the Csókaszőlő variety dating back to the 16th century, there is as little information available about this grape as there are wines produced with it nowadays!
Csókaszőlő was widely planted in today’s Hungarian territory in the 16th century, when it was named vadszőlő (wild grape). It was believed to be the most important red variety in Hungary back then, until Kadarka arrived on the scene. Kadarka—which was brought by the Serbians and Bulgarians who were escaping the Ottoman Empire’s invasion—quickly became the most popular red variety, and relegated Csókaszőlő to a distant second place, mostly being used as a blending component with Kadarka.
Csóka means jackdaw (which is a type of bird) and szőlő means grape. It is named for its color, since like the bird, Csókaszőlő berries have an almost black color. Other synonyms for the variety are Cigányszőlő (gypsy grape) and Magyarka Neagra (Black Hungarian) in the Minis region of today’s Romania, where it was also planted,
Acidity is the feature that is most often mentioned about Csókaszőlő in the old documents. It was often described as “sour,” and was known for producing wines with a deep and lasting red color (remember the meaning of the name?). This feature perfectly complemented the pale-colored Kadarka, which was usually harvested late in the season (with some botrytis) in order to produce richer and slightly sweet red wines. A Csókaszőlő and Kadarka blend was very popular, and was later named “Budai Vörös” (the “red of Buda”). “Egyik adja a bor savat, a masik a borsat” (“One grape gives the wine’s acidity, and the other the spiciness”), goes a description from 1844 about this blend.
Like the revivals of other ancient, forgotten Hungarian grapes, the story of the rebirth of Csókaszőlő leads back to the University of Pecs’s Vine and Wine Research Institute and Winemaker Jozsef Szentesi (from the Etyek-Buda region). Szentesi is known for his passion for making wine from old and forgotten Hungarian grape varieties. He read about the old Budai Vörös blend in a 2001 article in a local newspaper, and became instantly intrigued by the unheard of Csókaszőlő variety. With the help of the Vine and Wine Research Institute, he planted 300 Csókaszőlő vines in 2003. The following year he produced the first 40 liters of wine from it, made in a glass Demijohn. This was the first Csókaszőlő wine produced in more than 130 years!
The director of the Vine and Wine Research Institute tasted the wine in 2005 and was blown away by it. He called some of the most influential winemakers of the time, including Dr. László Bussay, owner of the Bussay Winery in Zala, and asked them to go to Szentesi’s winery to taste this wine. Several winemakers planted Csókaszőlő after tasting that wine. Unfortunately most of them fell out of love with it soon afterwards, and replaced the Csókaszőlő vines after a few years. Due to its sensitivity to vine diseases, Csókaszőlő is a very difficult variety to grow. The Bussay family, however, remained committed to it, and have been making it ever since.
Csókaszőlő was the favorite variety of the late Dr. Bussay, who founded the winery. These days Dr. Dorottya Bussay, Laszló’s daughter, runs the winery. Like her father, she also fell in love with Csókaszőlő, and still produces a beautiful 100 percent Csókaszőlő wine. The Bussay Winery has just 0.7 hectares (1.7 acres) of Csókaszőlő planted, and produces only one barrel of it every year.
Bussay’s Csókaszőlő has a vibrant purple color and aromas of violets, cherries, and blood oranges. On the palate, it is crisp, fresh, and juicy. It has a nice spiciness, with blood orange and sour cherry flavors. It still has that famous acidity, bringing excitement to every sip. The wine was spontaneously fermented in an open tank. Two-thirds of it was aged for 10 months in a 1,000 liter previously-used oak cask, and the rest was aged in stainless steel tanks.
In the iconic reference book Wine Grapes (written by Jancis Robinson MW, Jose Vouillamoz MW, and Julia Harding MW) Bussay’s Csókaszőlő is mentioned as the second (after Szentesi’s) to be produced from this variety. Csókaszőlő’s production is “tiny and not readily available,” write the authors.
We are happy to say that is no longer the case (for at least the “not readily available” part)! We recently imported Bussay’s 2018 Csókaszőlő (along with three other Bussay wines) to the US! We also sell it in our EU online shop, and at our Budapest shop. As far as we know, this is the first time a wine from the Zala region—and a Csókaszőlő wine—has made it to the US!
Sources of Information
A CSÓKASZŐLŐ, Muvelt Alkoholista, 2020
Feltámasztott múlt: a csókaszőlő. Szentesi interjú és mini vertikális, Lajos Ambrus, Food and Wine magazine, 2009
Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Jose Vouillamoz, Julia Harding