Photo Credit: The Culture-ist
If I asked you to think of Hungarian wine, what comes to mind? You’re probably either a) surprised that Hungary makes wine or b) the only one you’ve heard of is Tokaji. Hungary actually has a rich history of winemaking and was known throughout the world for their wines prior to the end of World War II and the ensuing decades behind the Iron Curtain. Now, due to their period of Soviet imposed isolation, the average person primarily associates Hungary with goulash and the Cold War. This is an incredible tragedy, as Hungarian winemakers are producing excellent wines. The few I mention here are just a small taste of what they have to offer.
Photo Credit: Visit Hungary
Tokaji is the most well-known Hungarian wine. It is produced in the Tokaj-Hegylia wine region, located primarily in northeastern Hungary with a small part creeping into southeastern Slovakia. Tokaji was once praised by Louis XIV as “the king of wines and the wine of kings” and, quite fittingly for a wine favored by the Sun King, is known for its exquisite golden color. It is one of the rare dessert wines that even people who don’t care for sweet wines can appreciate.
Photo Credit: Return of Kings
Interestingly enough, Tokaji is actually the result of rot. Botrytis, sometimes referred to as noble rot, is common in the region and the Furmint grape berries affected by it shrivel and concentrate their sugars into a honeylike syrup. A Tokaji Aszu is made from individually hand picked botryized berries (Aszu being Hungarian for “dried” in reference to the grapes’ raisiny appearance.) Tokaji Eszencia is the runoff juice from those aszu berries. It is one of the rarest and sweetest wines in the world.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Egri Bikaver, or bull’s blood, is the other most commonly found Hungarian wine in the US. It is a full bodied spicy yet fruity red blend typically consisting primarily of kékfrankos grapes as well as Kadarka, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The name stems from an old legend that that during the 1552 Seige of Eger, the Hungarians defending the city fought with such ferocity that the invading Ottomans claimed that they must have been mixing bull’s blood into their wine. Eger, the wine region, is located in the north east of Hungary encompassing the town of Eger and various other villages on the slopes of the Bükk Mountains. Eger is probably most commonly associated with red wines like Egri Bikaver, Egri Cabernet, and Egri Kékfrankos, but it also produces some very fine whites including Egri Leánkya, Egri Olaszrizling, and Cgri Chardonnay. What makes Eger a particularly interesting wine destination is the Szépasszonyvölgy, the Valley of Beautiful Women, a complex of caves carved into the hillside near the town, which the local vintners have turned into cellars and tasting rooms.
Photo Credit: Teds Great Adventure
Kékfrankos (also known as Blaufrankisch in Austria and Nagyburgundi in certain areas of Hungary) is grown in Szekszarad, Sopron, and Villany in addition to Eger. It has the aroma of dark berries and cherries with a spicy note of black pepper and star aninse that can seem very forward initially, but mellows into something wonderfully subtle and earthy as it ages. In this respect, it is very similar to Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais, which makes sense as both Gamay and Kékfrankos are the offspring of the Gouais Blanc grape.
My personal favorite Hungarian wine was one I tasted at an organic/biodynamic vineyard on the shores of Lake Balaton in the western half of the country. Juhfark (Hungarian for sheep’s tail) is an acidic yet earthy white. In spite of its heavy acidity, it’s less fruit forward than you would think, balancing notes of apples with a strong mineral character reminiscent of the volcanic soils that it grows in. The Hapsburg dynasty used to drink this wine on their wedding nights due to the belief that it would guarantee the birth of a male heir. The Lake Balaton wine region is technically six smaller regions that ring the lake. Grapes have been cultivated there since the Romans brought them when they conquered the region during the first century AD.
Photo Credit: Travel.Luxury
Balaton is best known for its white wines, particularly the Olaszrizling, a varietal related to the classic Riesling with the same ability to change taste like completely different wines depending on the soil it grows in.
Hungary, and Central Europe in general, is an incredibly under-rated wine region with a winemaking tradition every bit as historic and skilled as those in Western Europe. Do yourself a favor and hunt some down for a palate opening experience!
Cheers, or as the Hungarians say, Egészségedre!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristy Kingan is a research analyst at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by day and a complete wine geek by night. She completed the first level of the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2016 and is particularly interested in wines from Central and Eastern Europe.