Unpronounceable Grapes from Hungary

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The Unprounceable Grape

The Unprounceable Grape wine label

Ever since an Hungarian wine made with Cserszegi füszeres was labelled as “The Unpronounceable Grape” for the UK market, there has been some caution as to whether Hungarian varietal wines are handicapped in the international market.

I was asked to talk at the Prowein wine fair in March 2015, about whether I thought this was so. We looked and tasted a range of Hungarian varieties, many with wonderfully poetic translations: Arany Sárfehér (golden mud), Hárslevelü (lime leaf), Királyleányka (the King’s daughter), Leányka, Szürkebarát (hooded grey monk – Pinot Gris), Portugieser (red – previously Kékoportó), Irsai Olivér and Cserszegi Fűszeres (the spicy grape from Cserszeg) – but we could have also included Juhfark (sheep’s tail), Kadarka (red), Kéknyelű (blue stalk), Ezerjó (1000 blessings), Kékfrankos (red), Olaszrizling and Furmint,

hungarian woman and wine

Old Hungarian postcard, woman with vine and white grapes

Some are hybrids of two older varieties, some are found elsewhere under different names, some are uniquely Hungarian (including just over the border in surrounding countries).  Particular favourites are the sweet wines of Tokaj made with Hárslevelü and Furmint, as well as the increasing number of fine dry wines made with these varieties. Kéknyelű nearly disappeared, but has been recently gaining favour and there are now just over 20ha of this variety on the north shore of Lake Balaton. Its crisp acidity, which can make it neutral when young, helps it age well and develop more interesting characters; the oldest I tried recently was from 1967 – madeirised but still keeping its freshness. Most Hungarian white varieties typically show amazing acidity and a range of spice and floral notes, the acidity allowing them to be harvested late enough to have developed good phenolic character.

While these unusual names may have put consumers off at the beginning of the 21st century, fashions have changed. “Life is too short to drink the same wine,” Antonio Graca, oenologist and head of research and development at Portuguese producer Sogrape, was quoted in The Wine Spectator in July 2013. ‘The black-and-white, Cabernet-and-Chardonnay world has faded. The 21st century has gone full color, bursting with gorgeous wines made from unfamiliar grapes that few people even knew existed 15 years ago. Yet these wines are hardly new. They are the cherished expressions of ancient wine cultures, gone global after centuries of reaching no farther from their native vineyards than the nearest cities. And because they remain somewhat obscure, these wines can be great value’, wrote Eric Asimov in May 2014.

Old postcard with the red wine of Eger

Old postcard with the red wine of Eger

Far from putting consumers off, Dr Antonia Mantonakis, a wine researcher at Brock University in Ontario, found ‘…that hard to pronounce names have an impact on how the consumer perceives the wine, both in flavor and price … Participants not only reported liking the taste of the wine better if it was associated with a difficult to pronounce winery name. But they also reported about a $2 increase in willingness to pay.’

Sommeliers have also expressed interest in these hard-to-pronounce grapes which give them the opportunity to explain and discuss these more exotic offerings and introduce diners to something new. One restaurateur in New York was quoted in The Wall Street Journal in 2010, as solving the problem by offering his hard-to-pronounce wines by the glass or by pairing them with dishes on tasting menus. “That’s the best way to introduce people to unfamiliar grapes … it’s easier for him to sell a ‘weird wine’ like Irsai Olivier [sic] than a retailer because he is able to take the bottle to the table and explain it to a customer, who might otherwise be scared off by the name and the label.”

wine mosaic logoGrape growing, wine making and consumer taste are sometimes out of synchronisation. After decades of making and consuming wine made with what have become known as international classic varieties, hundreds of grape varieties are now at risk of disappearing, according to the international group of wine experts who have created an organisation in 2013, called ‘Wine Mosaic’. The group’s goal is to save rare indigenous wine varieties from extinction by financing research and conservation, sharing information across borders, improving the image of ‘heirloom’ grapes and encouraging adventurous wine drinkers to broaden their palates.

Recent DNA research has shown that unusual and unknown grape varieties provide clues to wine history. They also offer researchers a genetic toolbox for overcoming challenges of climate change, vine disease and changing consumer tastes.  The publication in 2012 of Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz has helped to encourage this interest in diversity.

The name of the variety may be difficult to pronounce at first, but that is certainly not a handicap in the marketing of these wines. If anything, their uniqueness in the global market makes them highly interesting.

Thanks to Kristian Kielmayer and Agnés Nemeth for organising the Prowein tasting.

More on unprounceable varieties in the Balkans to follow.

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