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Juhfark: A Pharmacy in a Wine Glass
Juhfark is a little-known Hungarian grape variety that is attributed with extraordinary abilities. In centuries past, wines from Somló—which is still the variety’s modern stronghold—were believed to cure a whole variety of ills, including anemia, kidney and liver problems, and digestive disorders. Back then Somló wines could be found on the pharmacy shelves as well as those of the wine merchant.
However, Juhfark is also endowed with an even more mysterious power. It’s said that if the happy couple partake of some Juhfark before consummating their union on their wedding night, they have a greater chance of begetting a male heir. The wine was thus also dubbed nászéjszakák bora, wedding night wine. And back in the day it was beloved by aristocrats and royalty; the Habsburgs and even Great Britain’s Queen Victoria were partial to a drop of Somlói to ensure their male succession. Whether this is true has never been scientifically proven, but statistically 25% more males are born around Somló than the rest of Hungary, so there seems to be some evidence for its magical properties. It was also said to preserve said offspring’s masculinity thanks to its ‘masculine’ style, so a kind of 18th-century Viagra, perhaps.
I’ve never quite understood why wines are said to be masculine and feminine, but according to many, Juhfark falls into the former camp with its fiery character and high acidity. When well made, it is zingy and lemony with ripe stone fruits, rhubarb, and a creamy palate. However, in the wrong hands or a poor vintage, it’s sour and empty with sharp acidity. Although usually fermented totally dry, some producers will leave a few grams of residual sugar to counter the acidity.
The grape itself is relatively neutral and is a good translator of its terroir. It is most expressive on volcanic soil and thrives on Somló’s basalt, mineral-laden hill, with this ‘Somló character’ coming across clearly in the glass. It will also thrive on calcareous soils, where it makes lighter, more fragrant wines. When young, it can be pretty undrinkable, to be honest, needing a year or two in cask and plenty of aeration to round out its, sometimes, rasping acidity and develop floral, honeyed tones. Its generous acidity means that wines will stay fresh for eight or more years.
It gets its name, Juhfark (Lämmerschwanz is the direct translation in German), from the shape of its tightly-packed long cylindrical bunches of small berries, which curve over at the tip, resembling a sheeps’ tail. When said aloud, it’s sure to provoke sniggers from international audiences.
Juhfark’s origins are disputed, but it seems sure that it’s either Hungarian or Austrian, most likely from Styria. Considered one of Hungary’s most ancient varieties, nowadays, it’s almost synonymous with Somló, Hungary’s smallest wine region, where it is one of the flagship varieties. Most of the plantings are found here on this striking volcanic butte, although there are also some plantings in Balatonfüred-Csopak, Etyek-Buda and in the Kürt wine region of Slovakia. However, pre-phylloxera, it was far more widely cultivated in the Carpathian Basin with many plantings also in Neszmély and Balaton-felvidék.
Juhfark is not the easiest variety to work with, which is probably why it fell from favor. It is thin-skinned, prone to rot and sensitive to frost, needing plenty of sun to ripen fully. Therefore, it needs to be planted in warm, well-ventilated, sunny sites to ensure that there is more to it than simply searing acidity. If yields are kept low too, the variety can yield elegant, balanced, full-flavored wines. Many producers on the hill are now taking the variety seriously and plantings are on the increase again, although still under 150 hectares. Admirable, age-worthy wines are made by small, boutique producers such as Györgykovács, Kolonics, Somlói Apátsági Pince, Somlói Vándor, and Spiegelberg. Although mainly a region of small producers and tiny holdings, there are also a couple of bigger players–Kreinbacher and Tornai.
Thankfully, however, Somló has not yet been ‘discovered’ and so is not overrun by tourists. Visiting the region and tasting its distinctive wine promises an unrepeatable experience, especially if you get to venture down into Spiegelberg’s barrel cellar where his wines repose to the strains of Gregorian chants. Juhfark’s distinctive, mineral, lemon, nutty, and sour rhubarb notes work well with fish, spicy soups and cheese, and its acidity will cut through the fattiest of meats. It may not help you sire a son, but it will certainly aid your digestion of rich Hungarian food. And it will definitely be a wine which you’ll remember.
Want to taste Juhfark from Hungary? Visit The Tasting Table Budapest. Order from our menu, or book one of our daily tastings: Wine, Cheese, & Charcuterie Tasting and Essentials of Hungarian Wine Tasting).
Want to taste Hungarian wine straight from the source? Taste Hungary has daily small-group wine tours featuring the Tokaj, Villány, Balaton & Somló, and Eger regions. We also offer daily private tours to all regions.