The Wines of Hungary
For centuries, Hungary has been home to some of the most prized wines on earth. Again today, this rich winegrowing culture is a hotbed of innovation, a magnet for international investment and talent, and the source of increasingly exciting wines.
Location & History
Organized viticulture in the lands that became Hungary dates back more than two thousand years; by the 16th century, Hungarian wines were the toast of Europe and the favorites of royal courts. Along the way, a vital national winegrowing tradition took root, enriched by the contributions of Celts, Romans, Magyars, Germans, Serbs and Belgians, and strong enough to withstand the devastation of phylloxera in the 1870s and state-enforced stagnation after World War II.
The diversity of historical influences is matched by the large number of winegrowing areas, varying in soil, climate and regional specialties. The Great Plain stretching south from Budapest down the middle of the country accounts for half the wine production, with vineyards providing erosion control in the vast expanses of sandy soil. Wines of quality, even of legend, come from the pockets of hillside vineyards that dot the arc of mountainous terrain stretching across the country—Villány, Szekszárd and the Lake Balaton region to the west, Eger (home of Egri Bikaver, the hearty Bull’s Blood) and Tokaj in the northeast.
Tokaj, Hungary’s fabled sweet elixir, has emerged from the shadows. The vineyards around the city of Tokaj were recognized as special early on and ranked through a formal classification in 1770, a century before Bordeaux received similar treatment. (No wonder UNESCO has designated it as a world heritage region.) Tokaj is produced at various levels of sweetness, reflecting the proportion of grapes affected with botrytis (a "noble rot" that brings exotic flavors) blended into the wine; the ultra-rare Essencia is made from the pure, syrupy juice squeezed from these magical grapes by their own weight. Some Tokaj producers have adopted a fresher, more modern style of winemaking, while others hold to the venerable tradition of long barrel aging and deep, amber coloration; either way, great Tokaj is in a class by itself. As it has for centuries, Hungary today brings something to the table for every wine taste and every wine lover.
In step with broader European winemaking trends, red grapes have been on the rise in recent decades. Renewed interest in the indigenous Hungarian Kadarka
and common Central European varieties like Blaufränkisch
(Kékfrankos) and Zweigelt
has blossomed alongside plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and other international varieties. Matching the range of red grapes to the right regions and improving practices in the vineyard and winery has yielded excellent single-variety bottles that can compete on the international stage.
Perhaps the most dramatic improvement has come in the quality of blended wines, from prestigious new-wave cuvées that define a particular house style to updated versions of traditional blends like Egri Bikaver. In the decades of Communist preference for quality over quantity, the once-respected Bull’s Blood sank into disrepute. But with modern production techniques, and the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir to the range of blending options, premium Bull’s Blood is back.
White wines have a long track record in Hungary, offering a perfect foil for the intense, pungent qualities of traditional cuisine. The most important whites are still Furmint
(the grapes of Tokaj), along with Riesling
(Olaszrizling in Hungarian, and no relation to German Riesling) and Zöld Veltlini
(Austrian Grüner Veltliner); Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are getting increasing attention.