16 June 2022 / Sue Tolson
But enough of the statistics! Let’s keep it simple to start with and have a quick look at six key Hungarian wine districts.
Of course, we have to begin with Tokaj, both a wine region and a wine district. Located in north-eastern Hungary, it is the country’s most famous wine region, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest classified wine region in the world. It boasts a unique climate due to the convergence of two rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog, which encourages the development of botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, similar to Sauternes in France. This enables the production of Aszú, the deliciously sweet wine upon which its renown is built. Although, as sweet wines have fallen out of favour, Tokaj is increasingly producing dry white wines too. Only six varieties are permitted to bear the hallowed Tokaj name, with Furmint and Hárslevelű the most widely planted and best known.
Another historically famous wine district you should not miss is Eger. Located in northern Hungary, its soils are partly volcanic, partly limestone, so perfect for producing top quality wines. It also boasts the highest vineyard in Hungary, the iconic Nagy-Eged Hill. The region focuses on blends, in particular, fiery, full-bodied red Egri Bikavér and aromatic white Egri Csillag. However, it also produces excellent Kadarka, Syrah and Leányka.
Close to the Danube, in the south of Hungary, on a series of picturesque hills and valleys, Szekszárd is home to full-bodied, yet elegant reds, produced from its loess, iron-rich red clay and limestone soils. The region boasts its own take on Bikavér as well as some of the country’s best Kékfrankos and Kadarka, which are its three flagship styles.
Hungary’s most southerly wine district, close to the Croatian border boasts a warm, sub-Mediterranean climate with hot summers and plenty of sun to ripen the grapes for its powerful red wines, often made from the Bordeaux varieties. It’s currently garnering interest too for its take on Cabernet Franc, Villányi Franc, which thrives in this warm, sunny climate. The region shows its lighter, more youthful side in the softer, lighter Portugieser wines, a variety famous historically in the area.
Mostly white grapes are grown on the volcanic soils of the Badacsony Wine District. Watch out for rich, ripe Olaszrizling, Szürkebarát (aka Pinot Gris) and local curiosity Kéknyelű. The wines from this breathtakingly beautiful series of volcanic buttes and cones boast a distinctly salty minerality.
A lone volcanic butte, known as a ‘witness mountain’ in Hungarian, rising from the middle of a plain, Somló was renowned historically for the medicinal properties of its wines, not only in Hungary but throughout Europe. Expect tangy, fiery whites with intense stony minerality and racy acidity produced from the mostly Olaszrizling, Furmint, Hárslevelű and indigenous Juhfark grown on its basalt soils. One of Hungary’s top sparkling wine producers is also located here.
Although Hungary of course cultivates many international grapes, it also boasts many local and indigenous varieties. Let’s look at a few of the most common.
Currently currying favour with trendy somms around the world, Furmint makes both sweet botrytised wines and dry minerally wines with racy acidity, with sparkling wine on the rise too. Tokaj is its true home, but it can also be found in Somló and along the northern shore of the Balaton in Badacsony, the Balaton Highlands and the Balatonfüred-Csopak Wine Districts.
Unrelated to Rhine Riesling, although its name might suggest otherwise, Central European favourite Olaszrizling is one of Hungary’s most widely planted varieties and can be found all over the country. However, some of the best come from the northern shores of the Balaton, from the Csopak PDO and the Balaton Highlands, as well as from Somló. Olaszrizling generally produces easy-drinking wines with soft acidity and notes of almond, but some complex, single-vineyard wines are also produced from the variety, particularly in Csopak, while Somló and Badacsony versions show distinct mineral notes.
Furmint’s stablemate in Tokaj, Hárslevelű’s softer acidity and attractive honey and floral notes can help round out Furmint’s austere nature. Produced in both dry and sweet versions in Tokaj, it is also found in Somló and Eger, where, in the latter, it has its own PDO, Debrői Hárslevelű.
Dubbed the unpronounceable grape by British Master of Wine Caroline Gilby, this widely planted 20th century Hungarian crossing makes aromatic, spicy, easy-drinking wines. Perfect for summer drinking or as the basis for a fröccs.
Somló’s flagship variety, most of Juhfark’s very limited plantings are found on the iconic volcanic hill. It produces very mineral, salty wines with firm acidity, which need several years in bottle to show their honeyed, complex best.
Hungary’s most widely planted black grape, Kékfrankos produces medium-bodied red wines with sour cherry, spice and crisp acidity. Hotspots for the variety are Szekszárd, Eger and Sopron; the latter is just across the border from Austrian Burgenland, where the variety is known as Blaufränkisch. Also makes great rosé and siller wines.
Hungary’s answer to Pinot Noir, the variety is just as fickle in the vineyard and also produces a light red wine with soft tannins, red berry fruit and spice. It fell out favour in the late 20th century due to its difficult cultivation, so is no longer as widely planted as it once was, although it is now becoming increasingly popular again. The best examples come from Szekszárd and Eger.
Although not a local variety, Villány has taken this French variety to its heart and made it its flagship variety. However, Villányi Franc is nothing like the Cabernet Franc from the Loire, as these are rich, full-bodied wines with dark berry fruit and oak spice. Notes of green bell pepper are rare here!
Like every great wine-producing country, Hungary boasts some unique styles of its own.
This spicy red blend is based on Kékfrankos. The best wines are complex, elegant and multi-layered. The recipes differ a little, but this historic blend can be found in both Szekszárd and Eger where it is known as Szekszárdi Bikavér and Egri Bikavér, respectively. Kékfrankos gives the wines structure, while Kadarka adds perfume, and a wide range of other permitted black varieties round out the wines and add further complexity.
Neither a rosé nor a red wine, Siller is somewhere in between. Made from black grapes, Siller wines spend longer macerating on the grape skins than rosé, generally around 2-3 days, resulting in a more deeply coloured wine with more tannins, rather like a light red wine. Many are made from Kékfrankos or are a Kékfrankos-based blend. Although more widely produced in the past, nowadays Szekszárd is the best place to find Siller, although you can find examples from Villány and Eger too.
We began with Tokaj, so now we also end with Tokaj…
Tokaj is the home of Aszú, the wine of king and the king of wines. This botrytised, lusciously sweet wine is incredibly complex yet has refreshing acidity, so never feels cloying on the finish. Generally based on Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sárgamuskotály and blends thereof, it’s redolent with dried apricot, marmalade, honey and nuts and has incredibly long ageing potential. Its generally high price is due to its production method in which individually picked aszú berries are soaked in fermenting must or new wine.
Also a botrytised sweet wine, but rather made from whole grape clusters with varying amounts of botrytised and healthy berries. It comes in both sweet and dry versions. Édes (sweet) Szamorodni is a lighter, fruiter, more approachable version of Aszú, while the Száraz (dry) version is aged oxidatively under a layer of flor, with the resulting wine having some similarities in style with Sherry or Vin Jaune.
Otherwise known as ‘nectar’, this incredibly sweet, syrupy ‘wine’ is made from the free-run juice of the aszú berries, which trickles out of a hole at the bottom of the vat under the weight of the dried berries. Although often added back into Aszú, Eszencia can also be bottled on its own and, understandably, commands extremely high prices. Served by the spoon rather than the glass!