Although Hungary’s winemaking origins quite possibly predate the Roman Empire, the country’s contributions to wine production have been diminished by the cards history and politics have subsequently dealt – Ottoman and Turkish occupations, the phylloxera plague, two world wars which ravaged the landscape, and decades of communist agricultural collectivization among them. Today’s Hungary, however, is making a verifiable comeback to the wine market: the country whose wines once enchanted kings and queens across Europe is in the process of reinventing itself and its wine production, all while staying true to the very offerings that first brought it international recognition so many centuries ago.
Many have the misconception that all eastern European countries are cold and frigid. On the contrary, Hungary, which is situated at the same latitudinal range as France’s Champagne and Northern Rhône regions, enjoys an appealing temperate
Hungary currently has 22 working wine regions. These are usually grouped into as many as seven larger regions, each with its own character. Four of these groups, however, are the standouts when it comes to quality, recognition and reputation: Eger, Villány, Nagy Somló, and the historic Tokaj. Eger, one of the most renowned regions, is located in the northern section of the country, and is close to 140 kilometers northeast of Budapest. Cultivated by monks thousands of years ago, the soil is a mix of brown forest topsoil which covers a granite-like volcanic rhyolite tuff containing limestone and rock. The rolling terrain has the distinction of being celebrated by archaeologists who found what they think could be a 30 million-year-old wine grape fossil. Today, however, it continues to be home to Hungary’s flagship wine, Egri Bikavér, or “Bull’s Blood,” a rich red blend brimming with tannins and spice. Named for a legend that explained the strength of the Hungarian army during the 1552 Ottoman siege of Eger, Egri Bikavér must be made from at least three varietals, with a minimum of 50% being an indigenous grape such as Kékfrankos or Kadarka. The end result is a deep and fiery burst of forest fruits coupled with a highly balanced acidity. Equally popular is Egri Bikavér’s white counterpart, the aromatic, tropical Egri Csillag, or “Star of Eger.” Also named for an ancient legend of how wayfarers used the roofs of winemaking huts for navigating Eger’s travel routes (which they called the “stars of Eger”), Egri Csillag must be made from at least four white varietals and a minimum of 50% indigenous grapes. Many of the grapes used are Eger’s most abundant: Leányka, Királyleányka, Furmint, Hárslevelu, Zengö and Zenit. The wine is notorious for its combination of florals and citrus overtones, and its near-sparkling freshness on the palate.
Villány resides on the southernmost tip of Hungary, and its terraced slopes provide its Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot as well as the deep and spicy native Kékfrankos grape with enough warmth and sunshine needed to create elegant, structured, full-bodied reds. Thanks to the proximity to the Adriatic Sea, the climate is sub-Mediterranean, bringing forth long summers and mild winters. Of all the varietals grown, Cabernet Franc seems to be Villány’s current star, especially after recent reviews by top international wine critics. Polished, silky, rich and assertive, the wine has been called exceptional on multiple levels, characterized by dark fruit flavors, a relaxed finish and a touch of Old World earthiness.
Despite its diminutive size of 300 hectares, Nagy Somló, Hungary’s smallest wine region, is gaining attention for creating some of the most exciting new white wines in Europe. Located on the slopes of an extinct volcano approximately 500 kilometers west of Budapest, the area’s bedrock is composed of vestiges of ancient lava and is covered by clay and sand topsoil. This unusual combination lays the foundation for grapes that transition into ashy, mineral-forward and almost savory white wines, most notably, Hungary’s indigenous Juhfark. Rumor has it that the wine may have health benefits (unproven up to this point) as well as complex flavor, adding to its intrigue and desirability among quirky collectors. Regardless, Juhfark develops into an even more satisfying wine with time, releasing the added delight of citrus notes and a spicy richness.
As Hungary’s most historic and celebrated wine region, Tokaj remains the country’s ultimate producer. Comprised of 28 towns, the hilly region features high moisture levels amidst abundant heat and sunshine – the ideal environment for the proliferation of the Botrytis cinerea fungus, or “noble rot.” As a result, Tokaj’s stature was earned by creating the world’s first botrytized sweet wine, the esteemed Tokaji Aszú, which was once described as “the king of wines and the wine of kings” by Louis XIV. Tokaji Aszú appeared at least 100 years before the now renowned dessert wines of France and Germany, sparking an almost insatiable following among the aristocracy. Today’s winemakers continue the tradition of producing this elite wine, using the white Furmint grape varietal as its base. The region’s humidity promotes the fungus which concentrates the grape’s, or Aszú’s, sugars and aromas, yielding an incomparable and luxurious delicacy with hints of apricot, citrus, honey and cinnamon. In tandem with Tokaji Aszú, Tokaj also produces dynamic dry and semi-dry whites from Furmint and Hárslevelü blends as well as the Burgundy-inspired Kadarka, a smooth and supple red reminiscent of Pinot Noir.
Despite the challenges it still faces, it is an exciting time of renewal for Hungary’s wine industry. Vineyards are still undergoing repair, and marketing and production capital is often found from outside investors instead of local angels. But the rejuvenated hillsides as well as the emergence of a new generation of passionate winemakers are all pointing in the right direction for this country whose history is ready and waiting to be revived. Bottom of Form