Kadarka, Cadarca, Gamza

Kadarka Vineyard
New plantings of Kadarka by an old farmhouse in southern Szekszard, Hungary

Based in the South of France, Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay has contributed on Provence and Hungary for winetravelguides.com and has updated the Provence sections for both Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine and Oz Clarke’s annual pocket wine book. An active educator, she works on the MW education program, gives masterclasses and runs a local wine tasting group.

Hungary is increasingly looking to its vinous history and indigenous varieties. There is a growing number of winemakers, who, with the help of research institutes like the one at Pécs, are replanting varieties which were almost lost during the phylloxera epidemic. Kadarka is one of those varieties now seeing a revival. It also happens to be my current favourite variety.

Recent research suggests that an ancestor of Kadarka, the Papazkarası variety found in the Strandja region of Thrace, on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, was taken westwards and planted around Lake Scutari on the modern Albania-Montenegro border. There, it was crossed with a local variety, Skardarsko, creating Kadarka. It would have stayed little more than a local variety if political events had not intervened. In 1689 the Ottoman army defeated the Austrians and, in fear of further attacks, the locals moved north to the Pannonia Plain, taking with them their Kadarka vines. Today, Kadarka can also be found in southern Slovakia, south-west Romania (where it is known as Cadarca), northern Serbia and in Bulgaria, where it is called Gamza.

Kadarka Vine
Old Kadarka vines at Vida

Kadarka proved successful. By the 19th century it made up 60% of Hungarian vineyards. The Bikavér blends of Eger and Szekszárd included upto 60-70% of Kadarka, providing a touch of spice. To counter Kadarka’s pale colour it was often blended with Csokaszölö, the Jackdaw grape (today a very rare variety). Kadarka’s delicacy led to winemakers using long maceration (which I think can unbalance the elegance in the few wines I have tasted made this way). Added richness was also gained by taking advantage of the thin skins and susceptibility to rot. In the right vintage, a small amount of botrytis (upto 15%) can add glycerol and body, although some producers are not enthusiastic about allowing botrytis. In some years, sufficient botrytis can be achieved for a sweet red Kadarka. Indeed, Kadarka was so highly regarded in the 19th century, that Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt annually sent some wine to Pope Pius IX.

Politics continued to play a part in Kadarka’s history. Under Communism, agricultural policies encouraged high-volume varieties. It did not favour the late-ripening, frost-sensitive Kadarka. In the late 1960s a high yielding clone, P9, was developed, but its large berries made it vulnerable to dropping its fruit under windy and rainy conditions and its fragile character meant it was not strong enough for mechanical harvesting. By the early 1970s, the authorities demanded wineries replace Kadarka with high yielding vines, almost bringing the variety to extinction. By 1989, Kadarka had dropped to 1% of Hungarian plantings. Planting is slowly increasing, now at 2% of the total, largely in Szekszárd, but also in Eger, Hajós-Baja and Kunság on the Great Plain.

The P9 clones’ large bunches suffer from uneven ripening, which, compounded with Kadarka’s propensity to pale skins, means that some bunches have pale, almost unripe grapes, which some have used to make a white Kadarka. Alternatively, they were blended with riper grapes to make a pale red / dark rosé Fuxli (siller, schiller) wine. Today these grapes are used in lighter rosés or are pruned away to concentrate the vines energy on the ripening bunches.

Heimann Kadarka
Tasting Kadarka made with the new clones from Heimann

In Szekszárd, Kadarka is either bottled on its own or in the Bikavér blend. On its own it shows Pinot Noir-style silky tannins, sour cherry and raspberry fruit, sometimes with fragrant floral rose notes and hints of spice, and high acidity. In hotter vintages, old vines and low yields, the wine can be bigger, richer with more black fruit and bigger tannins – but always retaining its suppleness and freshness. In the Bikavér blend, winemakers assure me that a small percentage is all that is needed to add spice and freshness to the blend. Too much Kadarka, and with age the spicy notes start to dominate.

Kadarka grower Peter Vida
Peter Vida in his vineyard of old vine Kadarka

Quality Kadarka will never be produced in vast quantities (although new clones are helping), which makes these wines even more of a delightful discovery. While producers who love Kadarka may curse its delicacy, its struggle to ripen, its susceptibility to rot, they have also learnt to turn these characteristics to their advantage to make a varied range of wines from light rosé, dark siller, light red, rich red and even sweet wines.

Elizabeth Gabay MW

Thirsty for Kadarka? Check our Kadarka selection here.