When it comes to Old World viticulture, Central Europe is exploding with rich history and delicious bottles-- and Hungary is no exception. Viticulture in Hungary dates back to the 5th Century AD, when vines were first brought to present day Hungary by the Romans. Today, Hungary produces some of our favorite, under the radar wines; from dry, thirst-quenching whites, to full-bodied ‘bull’s blood’ (don’t worry-- we’ll explain), to the world-renowned dessert wines of Tokaj, we can’t get enough of Hungary’s exciting and diverse viticultural scene.
A Bit of Hungarian History
Viticulture in Hungary dates back to the 5th century AD, when the Romans first brought vines to Pannonia, otherwise known as present day (western) Hungary. As time went on, additional grape varieties were brought over from other European countries, including France and Italy, most of which were white.
Upon the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, the production of Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) became popular, crafted from a variety of ancient grapes; the resulting red wine was red and robust, known for its spicy, full-bodied character. Bikavér got its nickname, Bull’s Blood, after it was speculated that said ingredient was used to fortify these savory bottles of red!
During the Turkish occupation, Tokaj became popular for sweet dessert wine production, creating the country’s famed Tokaji Aszu wines. Produced from late harvested grapes affected by noble rot, this ‘liquid gold’ became beloved by various European royalty, including Louis XIV. The late 19th century brought phylloxera to Europe, significantly impacting Hungary’s viticulture. Field blends became replaced with single varieties, including Blaufrankisch (Kékfrankos), Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Muscat. As of the late 20th century, a strong emphasis has been placed on the revival of traditional Hungarian grape varieties.
Hungary is divided into 22 wine producing regions, generally broken down into 5-7 larger regions. Of these larger regions, Eger, Tokaj, Villány, and Nagy Somló are the most well known.
Located in the north, Eger sits about 85 miles northeast of Budapest, best known for Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) red blends, and Egri Csillag, otherwise known as ‘Star of Eger,’ white blends. Tokaj, Hungary’s best known region, is known for its Furmint production, used to produce dry, still whites and sweet, Tokaji dessert wines. Believe it or not, Tokaj is actually the oldest classified wine region in the world! (*Note, Tokaj is the name of the region. Tokaji is the name of the wine!)
Villány, located in the southern part of Hungary, is one of the country’s warmer regions, known for savory red wine production. Mediterranean influenced climates give way to long summers and mild winters, perfect for growing Kékfrankos, Cabernet Franc, and other Bordeaux varieties. Then, there’s Nagy Somlo. Small yet fierce, comprised of only 300 hectares, the region is known for its Juhfark cultivation, creating smoky, high-acid whites, full of lemon-like intensity and a persistent minerality. However, just a few years of aging allow these wines to shine, giving way to a golden rich color, savory tertiary characters, while still maintaining bright acidity.
Don’t be intimidated by the wacky spelling of Hungary’s traditional varieties! Once you can overcome the grapes’ funky names, getting to know the wines behind the bottles is totally worth it. Here’s a cheat sheet to some of Hungary’s most important varieties:
Furmint - Perhaps Hungary’s most important white variety; when affected by noble rot, the grapes are used for Tokaji Aszu production. When fermented dry, wines are steely and high-acid, with a thirst-quenching minerality
Hárslevelű - Meaning ‘lime (tree) leaf’ in Hungarian, dry varietal expressions of Hárslevelű are generally dense and medium-full bodied, with notes of spice, flowers, and sappy stone fruit
Juhfark - Meaning ‘sheep’s tail’ in Hungarian, Juhfark wines tend to be smoky and savory, brimming with citrus-driven acid
Kékfrankos - Otherwise known as Blaufrankisch; a solid component in Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) wines
Kadarka - Produces spicy, earth-driven wines, full of red fruit flavors; another popular component in Bikavér
Bordeaux Varieties - Cabernet Franc is definitely Hungary’s most popular Bordeaux variety, though Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon also have a growing presence
Much of Hungary’s soils tend to be volcanic, comprised of loess, clay, and/or sand, atop basalt bedocks. In Tokaj, a variety of colored (red, brown, yellow) clay soils dominate, with mineral rich subsoils laid beneath. Most of the country is characterized by a European continental climate, made up of warm, dry summers and chilly winters. However, certain regions exhibit sub-Mediterranean influences, providing more mild winter seasons. Hungary has a vast array of steep slopes and rolling hills. However, it’s the country’s Tisza and Bodrog rivers that create a uniquely moist microclimate, creating the perfect conditions for the development of noble rot, leading to production of botrytized wines.
Sweet or dry, red or white, the wines of Hungary are suitable for an array of palates, dishes, and seasonal scenarios. From bone dry and crisp, to utterly sweet and luscious, the wines of this viticulturally rich country are not to be missed. As they say in Hungary, Egészségére (cheers)!