Hungarian wine history dates back to at least the Roman times. Outside of Hungary, their best-known wines are the white dessert wines from Tokaj and the notorious red known as Bull's Blood or Egri Bikavér from Eger.
The Hungarian language is locally called Magyar and its most closely related to Mansi and Khanty, which is spoken in Western Siberia. While Magyar is an Uralic language, Greek and Magyar are the only two European languages whose words for wines are not derived from Latin, for example:
• Szőlő: grape
• Bor: wine
• Ászok: cask
It is believed that wine was brought into the region by the Romans and by the 5th century A.D. vines were widely planted throughout Hungary. After the Magyars’ invasion in 896 A.D., Árpád, the infamous Hungarian conqueror, rewarded his followers with vineyards in Tokaj. Over time, new grape varieties were brought from Italy and France although white wine remained dominant. In the early 16th century, the ancient red Kadarka grape was introduced into Eger, north of Budapest and is part of the famous robust red blend known as Bull’s Blood. The name Bull’s Blood comes from a legend dating back from the Turkish siege of the Eger Fortress in the 16th Century. After five weeks of siege the Magyars lost their strength, the commander ordered the soldiers to be given wine and delicious food. After drinking it their fighting spirit returned, their beards dripping with wine, glistened red. At the sight of this the Turks, took flight. Among the fleeing Turkish soldiers it was rumored that bull's blood was mixed into the red wine, as otherwise the strength and resistance of the town and defense of the Castle of Eger could not be explained.
During the Turkish occupation, Tokaj became renowned for its sweet wines and it was famously named ‘Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum’(Wine of Kings, King of Wines) by Louis the XIV of France (1638-1715). In the late 17th century, following the Austrian occupation, the Germanic influence brought new grape varieties and the concept of a formalized viticultural approach. As a result, in 1730 the world’s first vineyard classification system was established in the Tokaj region. It was based on soil, terroir and the predisposition to noble rot.
At the end of the 19th century, Hungary like all other European wine growing countries was singularly affected by the Phylloxera epidemic which brought radical changes in the way viticulture was practiced. The abundant grape varieties found in the traditional vineyards, where multiple varieties would grow together and make up the blends of Eger and Tokaj wines, were replaced with single varietal vineyards, reducing grape selections to a few varietals. Blaufränkisch and Bordeaux varieties were planted in red wine growing areas, Furmint, Muscat and Hárslevelű in the Tokaj region therefore reducing the indigenous grape selection. During the Communist period (late 1940’s to 1989) quantity was favored over quality and Zweigelt often replaced Kadarka as it is easier to grow and vinify. Prices were set by the state and quantity was key. Over cropping, pasteurization and industrial production dominated until 1989 with the fall of the U.S.S.R. Political change brought new challenges and Hungary had no other option but to turn its exports to the West. Which meant that Hungary had to adjust by offering more sophisticated products to new and emerging markets. This is how Hungary changed focus giving most of its attention to quality improvement and innovation in order to compete and measure up to other West European wine producing countries.
After 1989 state subsidies came to an end and grape growers faced strenuous new challenges. The surface under vines was reduced from 618 000 acres in the 1960’s to 242 000 acres in the mid-2000’s (André Dominé-Wine 2004).
In 1990 the old wine legislation from the 1970’s was replaced by a more stringent system based on the European Community regulations. This new classification system comprises of 5 quality grades:
- Table Wine (Asztali Bor)
- Vins de Pays (Tajjelegü Asztali)
- Quality Wines (Minösegi bor)
- Special Quality Wines (Különleges Minösegi)
- Overripe grapes and wines affected by Noble Rot (Aszú) and vintage wines over 5 years old
Since the fall of Communism wine-makers are rediscovering old traditions and experimenting with new grapes and methods. Western producers have recognized the potential of Hungarian wines and have invested and committed themselves to uplifting it. Producers and merchants from Tuscany, Bordeaux and Germany have joined forces with local growers to produce high quality wines. This either by developing vineyards with popular grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or by attempting to revive interest in regional grapes such as Furmint, Rebola and Plavac Mali and producing truly unique regional wines using modern techniques.
GEOGRAPHY & TERROIR
The area now known as Hungary was at one time covered by the Pannonian Sea, surrounded by the Alps, the Carpathians and the Dinaric Alps. As a result the landscape is dominated by extinct volcanoes, which created ideal soils for viticulture. Tokaj in the North is at the same latitude as Colmar in Alsace, France, while Villány in the most southern region is at the same latitude as Cognac in France.
Hungary has three main wine growing regions all dominated by the continental climate with hot, dry summers and cold winters. South of Budapest between the two main rivers, the Danube to the west and the Tisza to the east, lay the Great Hungarian Plain, the Pustza, with its sandy soil. Half of the country’s wine production comes from this area with light reds, semi-sweet and sweet wines. To the north and north-east we find Eger and Tokaj. In the Eger region red wines dominate with black loam and volcanic soil. Tokaj is the oldest and most well known wine region in Hungary with sweet wines grown on volcanic soil covering a loess-rich volcanic subsoil. Tokaj also produces world class, aromatic dry white wines made from the Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes.
With the new regulations introduced since the early 1990’s, Hungary now officially recognizes 22 distinct wine regions. Each region grows individual grapes and styles of wine with Eger and Tokaj are the most famous. Other areas are Kunság, Csongrád, and Hajós-Baja, in the Great Hungarian Plains, producing mainly uncomplicated table wine. Villány is the most southern and warmest region of Hungary and it produces amongst the best and most full-bodied red wines. It is often compared to Bordeaux whereas Eger is referred to as the Burgundy of Hungary and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc dominate. Eger is located north of Budapest and it is one of the most beautiful towns in Hungary. It is known for its Egri Bikavér, also known as Bull’s Blood. The Kadarka grape was the main component for this blend as it has been mostly replaced with Kéfkfrankos. The other components of Bull’s blood are Cabernet Sauvignon, Kékoporto and Merlot.
Another wine growing region of interest is Badacsony. Located in the wider Balaton wine region, along lake Balaton, south west of Budapest. Volcanic soils, basalt, combined with a warm climate produce full-bodied whites with considerable acidity, the total planted surface covers 1790 ha only. One of the notable indigenous grape is Kéknyelű which has become synonym with Badacsony. Kéknyelű has become rare with only a few vineyards left. Being a very low yielding crop it was replaced with higher yielding varietals. Badacsony is where the finest Kéknyelű wines are produced. Olaszrizling is the most planted varietal with 1032ha, it is also known as Welschriesling in Austria or Italian Riesling in other Western European countries. Olaszrizling is not related to Rhine Riesling, which is found in Western Europe. It is followed by Rizlingszilváni (89 ha) and Szürkebarát (86ha). Rizlingszilváni is also known as Müller-Thurgau. Hermann Müller-Thurgau an oenologist from Geisenheim, Germany, created this varietal by crossing Rhine Riesling and Sylvaner. Rizlingszilváni is found extensively in Germany and Hungary is the second producer, the German Mosel and the Italain Alto-Aldige regions are said to produce the finest. Szürkebarát is a descendent of Pinot Gris brought to the region in the 14th Century from France.