The story of Kéknyelű, primarily found in Badacsony and to a lesser extent in the Balaton-felvidék, is another tale of a noble variety, once revered, falling from grace thanks to the emphasis on quantity and mass production that happened during Communist times. Kéknyelű, meaning ’blue stalk’ and named after the slightly blue tint of its petiole (its German name, Blaustängler, has similar origins), was once the darling of Badacsony, the small wine region on the northern shores of Lake Balaton characterized by its distinctive black volcanic butte. It has a similar place in the collective consciousness of Hungarians to Somlói Juhfark and Tokaji Aszú thanks its popularity at the end of the 19th century and between the wars.
It was known by the local peasants as the ’gentleman’s grape’ since it is naturally late-ripening (generally only harvested mid-October), low-yielding with poor fruit set, and requires a lot of work in the vineyard. Moreover, it also needs another variety, such as Budai Zöld, to help with its fertilization since it only has female flowers and relies on the wind for pollination. Since the local peasants could not rely on such a poor yielding grape for their livelihoods, they thought that only gentleman could afford to cultivate such a fickle variety! The Imperial Court was also known to enjoy its wine, and Badacsonyi Kéknyelű was listed between the wars on the wine list of Budapest’s prestigious Gundel restaurant, as well as at the 1939 New York World Exhibition. Naturally, unreliable Kéknyelű was not welcome in the vineyards of the post-war planned economy. It was gradually pushed aside for higher-yielding varieties and fell into obscurity, except perhaps in the minds of a few.
Although Kéknyelű has been cultivated in the Carpathian Basin for centuries, it was long thought to be related to or the same as Picolit from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northeast Italy, another high-quality grape eschewed for decades due to its poor berry set and low yields. However, this theory was rebutted in 2006. So, Kéknyelű remains a secretive variety, with little known about its origins or parentage. Nowadays, thanks to a renewed interest in unique wines and a greater focus on indigenous varieties, plantings of Kéknyelű are on the rise in Badacsony and Balaton felvidék and have now reached 46 hectares. Although there are isolated plantings in Etyek-Buda, Zala, and Kunság, its stronghold is the volcanic soils of Badacsony, where it feels most at home. Since 2003, the region has even organized a yearly festival in its honor over the first weekend of June.
Production remains limited, but once you’ve tasted Kéknyelű, you’ll understand why it was such a popular and expensive wine in its heyday. Like Somlói Juhfark and Tokaji Furmint—which are both lean, fairly neutral wines with high acidity deriving from volcanic soils—Kéknyelű’s high acidity, relative neutrality and serious extract make it a good translator of terroir. It‘s a true ’terroir wine’. While young, its relative simplicity, pale color and subdued nose with some peach, citrus, mineral and floral notes make it pleasant enough to drink. Yet if you wait a while, it will really come into its own. A few years of bottle maturation and it develops smoky, nutty, honeyed richness. Badacsonyi Kéknyelű is frequently lauded as a ’masculine’ wine thanks to its high acidity, minerality, and alcohol (although I have to admit, I find that expression rather meaningless) and a true example of Magyar character, just like Juhfark and Furmint.
Thanks to its relatively recently reignited popularity, it has not yet really developed a clear style. It may be aged in steel or in oak, its high acidity also makes it perfect for late-harvest or ice wines, and I’ve even tried a traditional method sparkling wine. However, producers of the variety have now clubbed together to try to find a common style. They too are jumping on the bandwagon of having their ’own grape’. You may have to travel down to Badacsony to do some serious Kéknyelű tasting as it’s not the easiest of wines to come by elsewhere, but that’s hardly a trial! As you’re next to the Balaton, the obvious pairing choice would be some local lake fish, perhaps some perch, or if you take some home with you, try it with seafood, salad or some fresh goat’s cheese. If you can get your hands on an older vintage, then sip it alongside some aged sheep or goat’s cheese. You’ll be glad it’s making a comeback!
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