25 May 2022 / Sue Tolson
Although there are no active volcanoes in Hungary nowadays, some millions of years ago, the part of Central Europe that is now Hungary was a hotbed of volcanic activity with numerous giant volcanoes under a vast inland sea, the Pannonian Sea. This covered much of the Pannonian Basin, and its remnants as well as its volcanoes now shape the topography of much of central and northern-eastern Hungary. Lake Balaton is what remains of the Pannonian Sea and the spectacular yet peculiar landscape on its northern shore are the remains of the volcanoes.
Hungary, moreover, boasts numerous mineral springs and thermal baths. Think of the historic spas and Turkish baths in Budapest, the world’s biggest thermal lake in Hévíz and Hungary’s countryside dotted with spas and wellness hotels. Hungary doesn’t have oil, but it has vast amounts of thermal water not far below the surface, also evidence of its volcanic past.
Naturally, this volcanic activity has also shaped the landscape of many of its wine regions, which have yielded some of the most sought-after, unique, and historically important wines in Europe, and which is still one of the things that makes Hungarian wine particularly exciting. The wide range of different mineral-rich soil types – including andesite, rhyolite, rhyolite tuff, zeolite, basalt and basalt debris – result in wines with generally higher acidity and mineral aromas and flavours ranging from wet stone, salt and steeliness to mineral, flinty, smoky and oily notes. The most intense mineral notes are found on the basalt and andesite soils of Somló, Badacsony and Tokaj, with the rhyolite tuff and andesite tuff soils of Eger and Mátra yielding more mellow, fruitier wines.
Let’s take a look at these regions, starting with Tokaj, birthplace of the unique lusciously sweet Aszú and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002, thanks to its traditional viticultural landscape and many kilometres of wine cellars carved into the soft volcanic tuff. Tokaj’s numerous hills are the result of millennia of volcanic activity, creating a wide spectrum of soils and rocks, which can differ widely from side of a hill to another, even within the same vineyard. You can find red nyirok soils, black basalt and gleaming white soils. The mostly strongly volcanic soils are found in the Mád Basin, so unsurprisingly, some of Tokaj’s most renowned and distinctive vineyards, such as Szent Tamás, Betsek and Úrágya, are found here, and its wines boast more distinct minerality than some other parts of the wine region. The soil here is mostly red, iron-rich andesite. Given all this, it’s no wonder that the Tokaj region was the first in the world to classify its vineyards, as early as the 18th century, a century and a half before the famed Bordeaux 1855 classification. Nowadays, winemakers are increasingly producing single vineyard wines to showcase the diversity of the Tokaj terroir, particularly from flagship variety Furmint, a great translator of terroir. Expect chalky, mineral wines with racy acidity and a range of stony, saline notes.
Now let’s head down to the Balaton and the unusual surreal landscape of its northern shore – a collection of truncated volcanic buttes and cones, known in Hungarian as ‘witness mountains’. The Balaton-Highlands Wine District area was shaped by over 50 volcanoes creating the Tapolca and Káli Basins at the edge of the receding Pannonian Sea. Huge tuff rings around massive craters were then filled with lakes of lava. The soft tuff was later eroded, leaving the solidified basalt behind. There are two wine districts here – the Balaton Highlands (which also encompasses a wider area) and Badacsony, the biggest, more impressive hill on the lake shore, which also incorporates about another ten other hills, such as Szent György Hill, Csobánc and Szigliget, all with slightly different types of basalt-based soils. Writers and artists have long been attracted to this surreal, romantic landscape, and now wine lovers too, drawn by its characterful wines and over 2,000 years of winemaking history.
The Badacsony wine district mainly produces white varieties, including Olaszrizling and Szürkebarát (aka Pinot Gris). However, it also boasts its own unique variety, Kéknyelű, all but lost during socialism, but now being rediscovered by a growing band of producers, who are aiming to position it as Badacsony’s flagship variety. It’s quite a neutral variety, with restrained citrus and floral notes in its youth, but really coming into its own with age, gaining smoke and honey notes and greater complexity with a few years of bottle age. Badacsony wines boast great balance between minerality and fruit, with the region’s moderate lake-tempered climate enabling it to produce wines with high alcohol and glycerine as well as a creamy, oily texture.
Heading a little to the north from the Balaton, you come across the ‘Hat that God left behind’, the hulking black hill of Somló, also created by this same volcanic activity. However, this witness mountain sits alone on the plain surrounded by agricultural land. Vines are planted around the entire circumference of the hill, creating a patchwork of tiny plots, dotted with white press houses and intersected by steep terraces, culminating with basalt organ formations and a ruined castle at the top. The wines from the Somló PDO are some of the most distinctive and easily recognisable of all Hungarian wines. Mostly Olaszrizling, Furmint and Hárslevelű, together with the hill’s own unique variety, Juhfark, they boast intense gun-flinty minerality, restrained fruit, high, tangy acidity and a long saline finish. Juhfark, a relatively neutral variety that also improves with age, is an excellent transmitter of the mineral-rich soils. But beware, Somló wines are not for the faint-hearted nor for those expecting fruit bombs.
Less obviously volcanic, the Eger Wine District, home to Egri Bikavér, also boasts a diverse geological composition, including rhyolite tuff, into which 99% of its historic cellars were carved. Its historic vineyards are known for their fiery red wines; however, like Hungary’s other volcanic wine regions, it used to produce mainly whites. Thus, partly as a tribute to the past, Egri Bikavér has recently gained a white spouse, the frequently aromatic blend, Egri Csillag.
The nearby, somewhat less well-known Mátra Wine District shares a similar volcanic heritage. It is predominantly known for the aromatic whites it produces from its andesite and andesite tuff bedrock. However, attractive reds, especially Kékfrankos, are also increasingly produced. The area centred around the town of Gyöngyös celebrates its volcanic origins with an annual volcanic wine festival held each August in nearby Gyöngyöspata, where they also host winemakers from other volcanic wine regions, both from Hungary and abroad.
So, let’s celebrate volcanic Hungary with a glass of (sometimes very) mineral water from a Hungarian spring, a dip in one of its spas and, of course, a delicious glass of wine from one of its volcanic wine regions.