Kéknyelű – The Pride of Badacsony

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“It’s a very ancient variety, closely linked to our region. It used to be present in other Hungarian wine regions as well, in miniscule amounts though. However, its wine was only important and famous in Badacsony. In the beginning of the 1990’s it was on the verge of extinction, with just around two hectares left – roughly 0,25 hectares on the Badacsony hill and the rest in neighboring Gulács. Since then it’s experiencing a minor revival but the facts remain the same; it’s still a difficult variety, mainly in the vineyard, and it’s not really widespread. The vast majority is planted in the Badacsony wine region, and in a significant area in the neighboring Balaton-Felvidék wine region. Apart from these areas it’s present only in gene banks and at experimental plantations.” 

                                                                                            – Bakó Ambrus on Kéknyelű 

Ambrus Bakó

You’ve heard the story before. The one about high quality grape varieties close to extinction, mainly because they’re playing hardball with most normally constituted wine makers. Sometimes the reasons for giving up has been more than understandable. Not all grape varieties possess the necessary quality worth fighting for. But some do.

You don’t have to be a hipster in order to praise viticulturists devoted to lesser known varieties and/or regions. The reason why most people never drink such wines is largely because they don’t know about their existence. And of course due to such wines limited supply. At the forefront when talking about the incredibly rare Hungarian variety Kéknyelű you will find Bakó Ambrus. Few wine consumers know the variety or its region, Badacsony, which is located on the north shore of Lake Balaton in Hungary. But they should – you should – because people like Ambrus are the modern day version of explorers that hinders standardization of wine. So here they are, the cornerstones of the fascinating Kéknyelű, presented by a true devotee, Bakó Ambrus.

So Ambrus; why Kéknyelű? It seems to be quite a demanding grape.

– I believe that this is the only grape in Hungary, maybe even on the planet, that is able to come close to or reach Riesling in terms of elegance, freshness and quality acidity. However, it is very hard to work with it.

Why? 

– Well, to start with there is the fact that it needs pollen from other vines to bear fruit. This is a problem if the weather is not favorable. For Kéknyelű that means if it’s not mildly warm and sunny during flowering, the fruit set will be very poor. Also, if the weather is too hot or rainy the yields will be tiny. Funny though, it has the potential to be a relatively high-yielding variety without these characteristics, so it is hard to decide on pruning.

Pollen from other vines?

 – Yes, you see, Kéknyelű is female only, so it was traditional to plant some Budai zöld with it. Vinifera vines today are almost all hermaphrodites, but in the case of Kéknyelű it requires a pollinator. The ancient and rare Hungarian grape called Budai zöld, meaning the green from Buda, got the job. In the 20th century that resulted in every second, third or fourth row was Budai zöld.

Nowadays there is this hybrid of Kéknyelű and Budai zöld called Rózsakő, also a hermaphrodite. It’s ability as a pollinator is far superior to Budai zöld. Furthermore it’s a much more dependable variety on its own. During the last twenty years we’ve discovered that Kéknyelű will produce fruit even when planted entirely on its own in a vineyard – if there are some other vineyards in the close vicinity from which the wind can carry the pollen. But yes, the yields will be less.

Kéknyelű

But irregular fruit set and hence uneven crops doesn’t seem to stop you?

– True. Actually, a more serious problem is its sensitivity to hot and dry weather. It is a truly vegetative variety. 

Vegetative?

– Let me explain. If there is stress, it will try to save itself and it abandons the fruit. If the heat is coming late in the season, that is late August or early September, the quality of the Kéknyelű grapes can be incredibly low. Low sugar and low acid juice which results in thin and bland wines. You could of course then state; let’s plant it in cooler and more water-rich sites. However, it ripens very late; later than Riesling, later than Olaszrizling and more around the same time as Furmint and Cabernet Sauvignon are ripening.

If you plant it in a colder, damper place, it will consequently almost never ripen. It is very difficult to find a proper site – one that is warm enough to ripen the grapes but at the same time as stress free as possible. It seems that one good location for Kéknyelű is at the highest sites on the hillside of Badacsony, next to the forest, preferably not south or west facing but rather southeast or east, with a substantial content of clay in the soil. Actually, my A Villa Mellett Kéknyelű is grown under conditions that come very close to these prerequisites.

But there is a reason why you love Kéknyelű right?

– Yes, I need to mention the positive sides as well, why we love it. The grape has a natural and strong immunity to botrytis. It is extremely rare that it would become significantly affected by botrytis and even then, only when cultivated at lower altitudes. Kéknyelű usually has high acidity, even higher than Riesling or Furmint when there is no heat or drought stress. And also, it rarely gets too ripe.

Kéknyelű

Could you elaborate a bit around the characteristics of Kéknyelű?

– To start with; the acidity. Even when it’s very high, around 9 g/l in the bottle, it’s of very high quality. Only in Riesling have I encountered such wonderful “electricity” as in the best Kéknyelű wines. On the other hand, there are noticeable differences as well. Kéknyelű always has a much higher ash content, mostly potassium, compared to Riesling – or most other varieties. This results in a higher pH (up to 0,2 higher) at the same titratable acidity level.

In the cellar it’s difficult to ferment due to low nutrient content, though less so than Riesling. In vintages when the vines are not too stressed, like in 2013, Kéknyelű will give a crop that is high in sugar and acid at the same time. In numbers that is around 13 to 16% potential alcohol and a juice acidity between 8-15 g/l. Even this kind of fruit is without a trace of over ripeness – the variety is not prone to over ripening. 

Sounds like a real challenge, to produce a Kéknyelű?

– Yes, the high potential alcohol content also makes it difficult to ferment. But if everything goes well, the end product will result in high acidity, a medium to full bodied structure and a very elegant, intense and complex wine. I should also mention that this variety doesn’t really require barrel aging unless the fermentation wasn’t perfect and the wine is somewhat bitter. 

Badacsony

Any preference on the training system?

– I believe in general, that in a warm region as ours, the best is to train the vines low like the Gobelet training, with only a stake to support for the vine. However, it is very hard to find farmers that choses such training, so the Cordon Royat is a good alternative, preferably with a high number of vines per hectare. These give somewhat lower yield, somewhat lower sugar in warm years and somewhat higher acidity in warm years. The vine has a denser canopy and if vine spacing is also close, the vineyard is able to create something like a plantation climate – lower temperature and higher humidity around the bunches and the leaves. Also, such training gives higher root/wood to green foliage ratio, which is good in heat and drought stress.

 And the yeast?

– Only indigenous yeast. Our terroir in Badacsony is great and the indigenous yeast are an important part of the local micro flora.

Ambrus Bakó Kéknyelű

There are currently just a few hundred of each Kéknyelű from Bakó Ambrus available in each vintage, but to give an indication on what to expect, here’s three impressions.

Bakó Ambrus A Villa Mellett Kéknyelű 2012

A warm year and yet there’s only 12.5 percent alcohol in the wine. And 5 grams of residual sugar. The 2012 A Villa Mellet fermented spontaneously in barrels and demijohns. Ambrus believe in not over feeding the yeast, but instead it has to struggle and hence ferments at a slower pace.

An extra year has been good for the wine. The bouquet shows a refreshing mix of white peaches, green apples, wet rocks and spring flowers. A touch of quince. Mineral driven palate, fine concentration, ripeness and yellow fruits. Not as acidity driven as 2013 but more harmonious.

Bakó Ambrus Kéknyelű 2013

Differing quite a lot from the 2012 wine. Partly because of the vintage variation of course but also due to the fact that in 2013 Ambrus started experimenting in a larger scale with an earlier harvest. Keep the acidity, keep the flavors but avoid too much sugar.

Pale, greenish color. Aromas of grey pears, spices, wool and wet rocks. The first thing that hits my mind is that of a Grüner Veltliner resemblance. On the palate though, it is more of a Riesling with high acidity, mineral notes, sour green apples and a slight floral feeling. Bone dry and yet no high alcohol whatsoever. A wine that calls for attention – and food. Such a pure restrained style.

Bakó Ambrus A Vincétől Kéknyelű 2013

A fascinating wine. The pale color doesn’t indicate anything what you’re going to experience. Tropical aromas, peaches and pineapples mainly, together with a delicate minerality and floral scents, attacks the nose. There’s the faintest hint of honey and botrytis. On the palate it is fresh as a daisy. Pure fresh notes of peaches, wet rocks and white flowers. The sweetness is lovely, probably semi-sweet or a bit like an Auslese, and the acidity adds nuances to the over all mouth feeling. Yes, it’s easy to relate this one to Riesling although it has a slightly differing body. Needs some time to settle.

Kéknyelű

Other producers worth checking out for their Kéknyelű are Szeremley and Laposa Birtók. In Europe you will find Ambrus’s wines at the Hungarian retailer of Bortársaság. Readers in the US; please consult Blue Danube Wine for any Kéknyelű availability.

By the way, if you ever need to mention the grape name, here’s the phonetic saviour: [Kayk-Nyeh-Loo]

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