Hungarian wine reaches new heights with its many local grape varieties

“During my lifetime, the wine industry in Hungary has changed incredibly, from the fall of communism in 1989 to our attempts to make heavy imitations of Bordeaux in the early 2000s and today’s emphasis on local grape varieties.”

The comment comes from Gábor Bánfalvi, who runs Taste Hungary in downtown Budapest, a business that includes wine and food tastings, a well-assorted wine shop and wine exports to the United States. “When communism fell,” he continues, “the quality started to improve. Producers have become more professional while showcasing local grapes and local traditions. The younger generation has worked abroad, been well educated and wants to do something different.

A wealth of grapes

Kekfrankos, synonymous with blaufränkish, is the most widely planted variety in Hungary. It has its roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and can be found here and there in Eastern Europe. Kékfrankos is included in many of Hungary’s most famous red wine blends, and is the main grape variety in Bikaver wines. Sometimes the wines are made in a refreshing and fruity style; sometimes they are more structured and focused.

Other red grapes include for example Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, merlot, kekoporto (Portuguese), kadarka, zweigelt and others.

Some important white grape varieties are cserszegi fűszeres, olaszrizling (synonym of graševina/welschriesling), irsai oliver and furment.

Great diversity

Hungary is a small country with a continental climate but still with differences in growing conditions. Vineyards are found almost everywhere except in the far east towards the Romanian border. In total, there are around 60,000 hectares (for comparison, Bordeaux is around 110,000 ha and Chablis 5,800 ha).

Almost half of all wine in Hungary is produced in the Great Plains south of Budapest. One of the main wine regions here is Kunsag, the largest region of the country, with often very sandy soil. Here, a large part of the everyday wine of Hungarians is produced. Most of the wine is white, often made from olaszrizling and irsai olives but also from cserszegi fűszeres. The wines are often aromatic and easy to drink, but the styles differ. Much of the wine in Kunság is unpretentious, but the level of ambition increases.

The beautiful city of Eger, in the wine region of the same name, is a two-hour drive east of Budapest. Its baroque churches and magnificent wine cellars make it a pleasant stopover. Red wines dominate with 80% of production. Egri Bikaver – Bull’s Blood from Eger – is Hungary’s most famous wine, although people’s perception of it may not be the best. It is a wine with a long tradition, at least 150 years, but in the 1970s and 1980s it was mediocre at best. During the communist era, mass production prevailed and little attention was paid to quality.

I remember the communist style of Bull’s Blood, and I can understand that the producers of Egri Bikavér today feel the need to distance themselves from this style. They work hard to recreate the good reputation of the wine. Many of today’s Egri Bikavérs are excellent.

Bikavér from Eger is the most famous, but the Szekszárd region (see below) can also do Bikavér (but these two regions are the only ones).

And why bull’s blood? The name probably comes from an old legend. When the Ottomans invaded Eger Castle in 1552, Hungarians drank red wine to become strong and brave. The wine colored their beards red, and the Ottomans, not being wine drinkers themselves, although they drank bull’s blood. And that was enough to scare them away!

In the southwest of Hungary is Villany, the southernmost and warmest region of the country. The landscape is pretty, with vines sometimes on hillsides. A well-known pioneer here is Attila Gere, who bottled his first wines in 1989. Quality is consistently high in Villány, which has good growing conditions with sheltering mountains to the north and warm Mediterranean winds from the south.

The grapes are mainly kékfrankos and kékoportó, but in recent years they have also started growing cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and pinot noir. Cabernet Franc has become something of a signature varietal.

To the north of Villány is Szekszard. Here too, a warmer climate marks the wines. The region is known for its kékfrankos and kadarka, the latter being an interesting red grape variety that produces bright and elegant wines. He thrives in Szekszárd.

sopron is a rising region of 1,000 hectares, located on the border with Burgenland in Austria. Some exciting wines are made here, especially the red.

The area around the picturesque Lake Balaton makes a variety of different types of wines. Olaszrizling is the most widely planted grape variety. But you can also find German riesling, here called rhein riesling, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, muscat ottonel, kékfrankos and many others.

Just north of Balaton is the small region of Somlo. It should be mentioned, especially for white grapes juhfark grew up here. It is not yet as widespread in Hungary but worth noting. It differs from most local white wines because it is not aromatic. Juhfark gives full-bodied, structured and dry wines.

And, of course, Tokaj

Tokaj, the region that produces one of the greatest sweet wines in the world, is located in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Slovakia and Ukraine. Tokaj Aszú is made from grapes affected by noble rot. The grapes are mainly furment and hárslevelű. Today, however, dry wines made from furment are an essential part of production. The wines are often exceptional. Dry wines from hárslevelű are rarer but can be magnificent.

Furmint has a very high acidity, which is why Tokaj Aszú is never cloying despite its extreme sweetness. This acidity also gives dry wines a superb and refreshing vitality. They are often vinified and aged in stainless steel vats but are sometimes aged in barrels.

“The Hungarian wine industry now has a good reputation”, says Gábor Bánfalvi, “and it has huge opportunities for growth”. However, domestic consumption is not increasing, so access to export markets is vital. Gabór mentions some important countries such as Poland, Germany, USA. “We should aim to sell key wines to wine shops and restaurants, wines that are representative of Hungary as a wine country, maybe a kekfrankos, a dry furmint, a tokaj aszu.”

After that, people will surely want more.

—Britt Karlsson

Laura T. Thrasher