Author: dr. Gabriella Mészáros, Dániel Ercsey
Photo: Árpád Pintér

Eger Wine District

Eger Wine District

The city is in the lucky position of being able to choose between being the custodian of a heroic past or its most popular wine. Nowadays, it’s good to be a citizen of Eger because its great comeback has already taken place; the prodigal son has been converted from his decades of wandering and has been embraced by his father. Eger has everything you would expect from a great wine region. Its wines boast attractive acidity, good structure and a unique character that is easily identifiable. White and red, dry and, to a lesser extent, sweet, Eger has made them all its own. Landscape, real culture, engrossment and touring, all in one place, in Eger.

History

Viticulture was already of economic importance in the time of King Stephen I, who founded the city and the bishopric around 1010, and donated the whole county’s wine tithe to the bishopric to aid the expansion of viticulture. From the 11th century, Walloon settlers gave further impetus to viticulture in the Eger Valley, enriching it with French traditions. The most famous vineyard in the area, Eged-hegy, or Eged Hill, is named after St Egyed, one of the patron saints of a Benedictine abbey in France. Storage of wine in oak barrels and cellars was introduced by Italian and French settlers, replacing the skin bottles. Viticulture in the 16th century continued to flourish until the Turkish occupation. For example, during the tenure of István Dobó as captain, receipts of wine in the Castle of Eger’s large cellar covered most of its defence expenses. Besides quantity, wine quality became increasingly important and thus accumulating wine stocks required significant storage space. This dual requirement resulted in the construction of increasing numbers of proper cellars actually carved into the stone (tuff) in addition to the rudimentary transformation of former natural “wasp stone” cavities as well as the vaulted cellars under the houses of wealthy wine merchants and rich peasants. By the second half of the century, an extensive cellar system had unfolded in the city.

After decades of unsuccessful attempts, the Turks occupied the Castle of Eger in 1596 and held it for 91 years. However, viticulture survived because, although the Turks were principally abstinent, the taxation of wine was a substantial source of income. The naturalisation of Kadarka can also be traced back to the almost 100 years of Turkish rule; cuttings were probably brought by Serbs fleeing the Turks.

Within several generations, a significant red wine culture began to displace the ancient white varieties. However, red wine cannot have been a total novelty, as the account books of Bishop Hippolit Estei had already praised the excellent red wines of Eger in 1507. The city’s best vineyards at this time were in Almagyar, Tihamér and Cigléd. After the expulsion of the Turks, wine production had exceeded 80,000 akó (over four million litres). There was a growing interest in red wine. The share of white wine in the bishop’s cellar inventories decreased and, by 1767, it was only 18%. Red wine was registered in two categories, mostly as vinum subrubum (siller) as well as vinum rubrum (true red wine). Most producers “filtered” their dwindling quantities of white wine into their reds, only the estates with more fastidious owners made white wine, using only the fruit from the “black-clustered” varieties to produce better-quality red wine. This played a decisive role in the later development of Bikavér wines.

From the end of the 17th century until the partition of Poland, one of the main customers for Eger wines was the Polish nobility. The heyday of the wine region did not fall victim to the Polish political collapse but continued into the 19th century. By that time, Eger and its surrounding settlements had become one of the most important wine regions in Hungary. In suitable years, even red Aszú wines were made. Not only did the area under vine grow, the number of cellars, especially those cut into the stone, also increased. Three-storey cellar systems were created in the centre of Eger and new cellar rows sprang up in the “hóstyák”, or city outskirts, and the surrounding settlements. However, the first signs of a decline in viticulture can be seen from the second half of the 19th century. Severe soil erosion led to increasing numbers of vineyards being abandoned, including the ancient Eged hills. Thus, the vineyard area began to shrink not only around the city of Eger but also in other villages in the wine district. The final blow to viticulture was the phylloxera catastrophe. The root louse reached the wine region in 1896 and caused the most devastation in the country. It thrived in the clay soil and the monoculture of the region and destroyed 93.51% of the vines. After the reconstruction of the vineyards at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Bikavér, the wine region’s most famed wine attained worldwide repute. The excellence of this wine speciality associated with the name of Jenő Grőber is not only due to Kadarka and the favourable local terroir but also to improvements in viticulture and winemaking knowledge and equipment. This period marked the start of another boom in Eger wine production, which lasted for decades.

A XIX. század második felétől azonban már észlelhetők a szőlőtermesztés hanyatlásának első jegyei. Az erózió talajpusztítása következtében egyre több szőlőt (köztük az ősi Eged-hegyieket is) elhagytak, kezdetét vette a szőlőterület csökkenése, mely általánossá vált a borvidék többi településén is. A filoxéravész betetőzte a szőlőművelés egyre nehezedő helyzetét. A kártevő 1896-ban érte el a borvidéket és az országban legnagyobb pusztulást okozta. Az agyagos talaj és a monokultúra következtében a szőlőterületek 93,51 %-án kiveszett a szőlő.

From the 1960s onwards, Eger’s large industrial wineries were dumping wines of varying quality on the Hungarian and international markets. However, the early 1990s were a milestone in the social transformation of winemaking. Small and medium-sized family wineries appeared one by one, most with total vertical production integration. The Eger wine region was called Eger-Visontai from the 19th century until the end of the 1940s, when it was carved out as Eger. Wine legislation adopted in 1997 added the villages of Szomolya, Aldebrő, Feldebrő and Verpelét.

A XX. század 60-as éveitől kezdve a magyar és a világpiacot elborították az egri nagyüzemek változó értékű borai. A borászatban viszont mérföldkőnek tekinthetjük az 1990-es évek elejének társadalmi átalakulását. Sorra jelentek meg a kis és közepes méretű magánpincészetek, családi vállalkozások, többnyire a termelési vertikum teljességével. Az Egri borvidék a XIX. századtól a negyvenes évek végéig Eger-Visontai néven szerepelt, azt követően Egri néven különítették el. A borvidékek 1997. évi törvényi rendezése során gazdagodott Szomolya, Al- és Feldebrő, valamint Verpelét községekkel.

The wine district produces both white and red wine, 40-45% of which is white, 55-60% of which is red.

During the Middle Ages, Eger belonged to the ancient highland white wine regions; however, from the Turkish occupation until the time of phylloxera, red wine varieties were becoming the norm. In the 19th century and then during the post-phylloxera reconstruction, white varieties once again came to dominate the areas under vine. The boom in white wines meant that even black Kadarka grapes were turned into white wine. The varieties considered traditional in the second half of the 20th century were Olaszrizling, Leányka, Muscat Ottonel (Ottonel Muskotály), Kadarka, Kékoportó (Portugieser) and Medoc Noir (Menoire).

The former importance of Kadarka is indicated by the fact that even in the 1940s, Egri Bikavér contained 70% Kadarka, 15-20% Nagyburgundi and 10-15% Medoc Noir. Kadarka siller from Eger was also well-known. The best vineyard was considered to be Eged Hill, and Kadarka sometimes botrytised in its higher reaches.

Geographical location

It is located in northern Hungary, on the southern slopes of the Bükk Mountains. The wine district includes the 1st and 2nd class vineyards, as per the vineyard cadastre of the towns and villages of a) Andornaktálya, Demjén, Eger, Egerbakta, Egerszalók, Egerszólát, Felsőtárkány, Kerecsend, Maklár, Nagytálya, Noszvaj, Novaj, Ostoros and Szomolya in the Eger subdistrict; and b) Aldebrő, Feldebrő and Verpelét in the Debrő subdistrict.

The total production area of the Eger wine district is 22,162 hectares, of which 18,302 are first class. Only 5,732 hectares of this vast area are currently under vine.

Soil

The soils are very varied and include limestone, dolomite, schist, rhyolite tuff of volcanic origin, gravel to the south and marsh sediment.

Climate

Its climate is similar to that of Mátraalja, with spring coming quite late, followed by a relatively short growing season. The wine district is one of Hungary’s coolest, with an average annual temperature of 10.1°C.

Grape varieties and typical wine styles

Typical white varieties include Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling, Leányka, Chardonnay, Muscat Ottonel (Ottonel Muskotály) and Müller-Thurgau (Rizlingszilváni in Hungarian), while typical black varieties are Kékfrankos, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Portugieser, Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.

The Eger climate is one of the coolest in Hungary. Hence, it the home of well-retained primary aromas and refreshing acidity. Grapes are grown on varied soils, resulting in considerable stylistic differences. So, knowledge of the terroir characteristics that have played a role in the development of the “Eger wine style” is as important as the varieties that are at home here.

Looking at white wines, there are two different styles that complement each other. On the one hand, many producers make lean, dry, primary fruit-driven wines with high acidity, while others produce wines from high-quality varieties that are matured in oak, have higher alcohol and are maybe bottled with a touch of residual sugar. The rich aromatics makes the former appealing, while the latter are appreciated for their full-bodied, fleshy structure and oily smoothness. Királyleányka, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat are the perfect embodiment of the first category, while Olaszrizling, Leányka, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris (Szürkebarát) best represent the second. Furmint was once traditional too and has recently reappeared as a representative of this style. The Debrői Hárslevelű category is also a good framework, but the frame still needs the wines to fill it. However, there is nothing wrong with the variety’s abilities or the terroir.

The creation of the “Egri Csillag” category in 2011 was to enable producers to showcase the capabilities of Eger’s terroir in the case of white wine. The harvest of the first vintage (2011) and its successors has yielded many interesting, merit worthy wines. The use of aromatic varieties, such as Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Királyleányka, may also make the brand interesting on international markets. The categories of Egri Csillag Classic, Superior and Grand Superior can be differentiated between in terms of concentration, complexity and ageability. Classic wines are clearly light, fruity and intended for early consumption, the latter are two are made from a completely different quality of fruit. The brand is meant to showcase the beauty of Eger wines by focussing not on variety but rather on individual terroir. After three or four years, these wines have sometimes aged beautifully. White blends are much less common in the world’s wine regions. Perhaps because everything happens more quickly, it is more difficult to decide the assemblage such that it can develop real harmony during ageing rather than a hodgepodge of flavours.

Egri Bikavér appeared in Hungary at the end of the 19th century. Following the reconstruction of the vineyards following phylloxera, Kékfrankos, then known as Nagyburgundi, was blended with Oportó and Kadarka to create a full-bodied blend with high alcohol. The real champion of this brand was Jenő Grőber, who also added Medoc Noir to the blend to increase the wine’s body. Good marketing and careful quality assurance have made this one of Eger’s, and even Hungary’s, best-known wines, which was highly esteemed around the world until World War II. It is regrettable that the last 50 years have given this otherwise laudable brand name a good battering.

Bianca
Chardonnay
Cserszegi fűszeres
Furmint
Hárslevelű
Irsai Olivér
Királyleányka
Leányka
Olaszrizling
Ottonel muskotály
Pinot blanc
Rajnai rizling
Rizlingszilváni
Sárgamuskotály
Sauvignon blanc
Szürkebarát
Tramini
Viognier
Zefír
Zengő
Zenit
Zöldveltelini
Blauburger
Cabernet franc
Cabernet sauvignon
Egri Bikavér
Kadarka
Kékfrankos
Menoire
Merlot
Portugieser
Syrah
Turán
Zweigelt
Medina
Néró
Eger, belváros/Egri borvidék
Eger, belváros/Egri borvidék
Eger, belváros/Egri borvidék
Eger, belváros/Egri borvidék
Egri utcakép/Egri borvidék
Eger, belváros/Egri borvidék
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