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Kadarka – Hungary’s Answer to Pinot Noir?

5 minutes read

Vibrant and elegant or rustic and insipid? Little-known Kadarka, aka Gamza in Bulgaria, certainly divides opinions when tasted for the first time. Those who love it praise its crunchy, bright red fruit and refreshing acidity while those who are not impressed claim it’s like drinking sour squash. So, which is it?

Kadarka can produce a range of wines from vibrant, light and elegant red-fruit-driven wines to more structured wines with darker fruit capable of ageing for a decade or more. However, it has a very mixed past due to the intricacies of Central European history, and thus gained a reputation as a poor-quality grape with much of its plantings in Hungary being grubbed up in the latter half of the 20th century.

Its origins are somewhat hazy, but it seems certain that it began life in the Balkan-Pannonian region, perhaps around Lake Scutari on the Montenegro-Albanian border when the Turkish variety Papazkarasi was crossed with local Serbian variety Skadarsko. It later ended up in Hungary when Serbs fleeing the Turks migrated northwards bringing their Kadarka vines with them. The Hungarians adopted Kadarka as their own, and by the 19th century, an astounding 60 percent of vineyards was given over to this troublesome vine.

Why troublesome? Well, Kadarka is late ripening and is also a thin-skinned variety that is susceptible to rot and frost, so will produce very little wine in a bad vintage. What’s more, it ripens unevenly, meaning some grapes on the bunch will remain green. And it requires a lot of work in the vineyard. Despite surviving the phylloxera (which savaged European vineyards in the 20th century) with many plantings unscathed, at least those vines planted on the sandy Great Plain regions where phylloxera was unable to thrive, its near kiss of death came with the socialist regime following World War Two. The planned economy’s main concern was to produce volume and Kadarka’s fickle nature did not lend itself well to mass production and machine harvesting. So, vines were grubbed up in favor of less troublesome grapes, such as Kékfrankos and international varieties. By the end of the communist era, it had almost disappeared from Hungarian vineyards. The famed Kadarka wines of Buda, Csongrád, Kiskőrös, Soltvadkért, Szekszárd, Vaskút, and Villány were no more.

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Join our sommelier-led tasting experiences, featuring 5 or 8 fine Hungarian wines, paired with some of the country’s best artisan cheese and charcuterie.

However, fresh winds are blowing for Kadarka. Despite not being a native of Hungary, it is proudly considered a Hungarikum, and growing interest in rediscovering local treasures is also working in Kadarka’s favor. Its modern stronghold is Szekszárd, where the Heimann family, a leading producer in the region, has been taking it seriously for twenty years, seeking out old vineyards and working together on clonal research with the Pécs Research Institute. They have made clones available to colleagues around the country and plantings are on the up. The Szekszárd producers take it so seriously that is now one of only three styles of wine that can be marketed in the region’s specially designed bottle, along with Kékfrankos and Bikavér, the Hungarian name for Bull’s Blood. It also plays a minor role in both the Szekszárd and Eger Bikavér, adding spiciness and an attractive floral lift, although in the past, thanks to its countrywide dominance, it had played a more major role in the blend.

Varietal versions are also increasingly produced in Eger and Villány as well as outside the country’s modern borders in Slovakia, Serbia and Romania. In Romanian Miniş, Géza Balla has high regard for the variety, turning out structured and elegant wines, and even produces a botrytized sweet Aszú wine named Cadarcissima in good vintages. Cadarcă being the Romanian name for the variety.

It’s a versatile variety, so in cooler vintages, it may be used to produce rosé or siller, a light red, deep pink wine with some tannic grip. It’s often the key ingredient in Szekszárd’s take on siller–Fuxli. Any green grapes may produce white Kadarka or even a fizz, like the Kadarka Brut Nature produced by Eger’s St. Andrea Winery.

Classic Kadarka boasts vibrant crunchy red fruit like sour cherry, raspberry and cranberry, with black fruit coming to the fore in a warmer vintage. Its smooth tannins and racy acidity are always livened up with good dose of spice, one of its hallmarks, and perhaps some floral notes. It makes a wonderful match for Hungary’s paprika-laden cuisine and pairs well with spicy pork pörkölt, confit duck, chicken paprikás or maybe a spicy fish soup.

Is it Hungary’s answer to pinot noir? That remains to be seen. However, its modern versions deserve to be more widely known and appreciated.

Want to taste Kadarka? 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 TokajVillányBalaton & Somló, and Eger regions. We also offer daily private tours to all regions.