Portugieser’s long list of synonyms include many which make some reference to Portugal. Previously it was even named Kékoportó in Hungary, going as far as to imply it comes from Porto (Oporto in Portuguese), home to fortified port wines. The variety was forced to change its name in Hungary when the country joined the EU and the Portuguese objected to the use of Kékoportó—which essentially meant blue port—as it conflicted with the name of their famous fortified wines. In EU law, the name of the place takes precedence over the name of the variety, so Kékoportó became Portugieser (although many people still refer to it using its old name). Incidentally, Hungary has also taken advantage of this same law to force the Italians to rename Tocai Friulano to just Friulano and Tocai Rosso to Tai and the Alsatians to use Pinot Gris instead of Tokay.
It was long believed that the variety was brought to Austria from Porto by an Austrian ambassador Johann von Fries in 1772, hence these names. But genetic studies have now shown that it is a cross between Grüner Silvaner and Blauer Zimmettraube, and historical ampelographic sources have provided solid geographical evidence that the grape actually originates in Lower Styria, today’s Slovenian Styria.
Evidence also shows that Portugieser was widely established in Austria by the 19th century and cuttings were then taken to Germany, where it became very popular in the 1970s, producing simple, rather thin red wines or uninspiring rosé, Weissherbst. Portugieser is still widely planted in Austria and Germany as well as in other parts of Central Europe, presumably thanks to its generous yields and the fact that it’s relatively easy to grow and resistant to many vine and grape diseases. It can produce yields averaging 120 hectoliters per hectare which magnifies the variety’s naturally low acidity.
In Hungary, Portugieser has made its home in the Villány wine region, but is also found in the Kunság and Eger, where it often ends up in the Bikavér blend. It’s an early-ripening variety with thin skins whose mid-September harvest is often used for new wines, which come onto the market in Hungary to coincide with St. Márton’s Day on November 11th. Its soft tannins and pronounced fruit aromas mean it doesn’t need long maturation to round out, so is perfect for new wine.
Portugieser has, however, been tarred with the same brush as Beaujolais Nouveau as producers rush to drum up some extra cash flow while their other wines mature. It makes light-bodied, easy-drinking wines with spicy red and black berry fruit and a hint of violets, yet these are often considered dull and flabby, just everyday drinking wines. Many even think it should be grubbed up in favor of more prestigious varieties. However, with the right care in the vineyard, such as restricting yields, and the appropriate winemaking techniques, Portugieser can produce more interesting, structured wines. Though it’s usually produced as a fresh, fruity wine for early consumption, there are also more serious oaked versions now being made as well as some rosé.
Villány is known for its robust Villányi Franc, but the younger generation of producers is looking to Portugieser to create a younger, fresher face for the region alongside its full-bodied flagship reds. They have come up with a youthful, lighter, more modern sibling for the region’s big gun and have chosen to base it on Portugieser, another key variety in the region. REDy is a community initiative that uses common marketing and has similarly styled labels for the wines. The wines have Portugieser as a backbone blended with other local and permitted grapes in the region, such as Blauburger, Zweigelt, Kékfrankos, and Kadarka. The aim is to produce an upbeat, juicy, fruity wine which appeals to younger drinkers and those looking for lighter wine styles. It was launched last year with the participation of ten wineries.
The wider Pannon wine region, which also includes the Pécs wine district, clearly has Portugieser close to its heart as an annual wine competition, Portugieser du Monde, has been held in Pécs and Villány for the last six years and now sees around 100 wines per year being submitted from all around Central Europe. The fresh, fruity wine pairs well with goose or dishes, typical for St. Márton’s Day, or you could pair it with roasted meat or sausages, in homage to its Germanic connections.
Want to taste Portugieser 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.