The Romans left a winemaking legacy and traditions in western Hungary, which formed part of the Roman province of Pannonia. When not in battle, Roman soldiers were required by Caesar to cultivate land and it was based on this ordination, along with the requirement that Roman soldiers drink a litre of wine per day, that winemaking was first established in Hungary.
Subsequent invaders and settlers – first the Huns and Avars and then the Magyars, from whom the modern Hungarian nation is descended – preserved the winemaking heritage left by the Romans. In the Middle Ages the Church helped to further establish winemaking and encouraged Italians and others with winemaking skills to settle in Hungary. When the Ottoman Turks invaded from the south in the mid-1500s, it was wine that apparently helped the Hungarians (at least temporarily) to fend off the Turkish invaders.
One of Hungary’s most famous wines, Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood), gets its name from this moment of supernatural overpowering of the Turkish armies at Eger. Egri Bikavér was traditionally made from three grape varieties – Kadarka, Kékfrankos (known as Blaufränkisch in Austria and Lemberger in Germany), and Blauer Portugieser, which was widely used during the communist years to produce large quantities of dull wine.
In the past couple of years rules governing the composition of Egri Bikavér have changed. In Eger, the use of thirteen different grape varieties is permitted but there must be local varieties present in the blend. It is increasingly common to find local varieties such as Kadarka or Kékfrankos being blended with international varieties such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Syrah. New Eger winemakers are working hard to dispel the bad reputation that Egri Bikavér acquired during the years of communist overproduction and are now producing more innovative, interesting and complex blends. Higher quality blends (called Bikavér Superior) spend a whole year maturing in oak barrels and six months in the bottle before they are sold.
During Ottoman rule, winemaking declined throughout much of Hungary. Nevertheless, it was never fully suppressed and, among other reasons, wine was an important source of tax revenue for the Ottoman overlords. Two regions where winemaking continued to flourish were along the Ottoman’s Empire’s northern borders with Austria and Poland, especially around Eger and in the hills of Tokaj.
It was during the period of Ottoman rule that Hungary’s other famous wine emerged from the Tokaj region. In the mid-1600s, the Princes of Transylvania inherited Tokaj castle and the surrounding wine estates. One day, when facing imminent attack from the Turks who conducted frequent slave raids on the area, the family delayed the harvest, only to discover that the grapes had become infected by a fungus called Botrytis cinerea (otherwise known as the Noble Rot).
Tokaj’s warm south-sloping vineyards in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains benefit from long dry autumns, but also experience early morning humidity created by the nearby Tisza and Bodrog rivers. These conditions are perfect for the formation of Noble Rot. Rot-infected grapes are used to produce world famous Tokaji Aszú, a sweet amber-coloured wine with aromas and flavours of marmalade, apricots and honey. The sweetness level of a Tokaj wine is known as the puttony and the scale runs from three to six puttonyos. Other styles of Tokaji include Tokaji Szamorodni, which is made from bunches of grapes containing a high proportion of botrytised grapes. Meanwhile, Tokaji Eszencia, the sweetest of the Tokaj wines, are very rare and only made in the best years from the free run juice of the botrytised berries.
Tokaj wines expanded their international reputation during the period of Austrian rule, when they were used by Austrian rulers to impress other foreign leaders, including Russia’s Peter the Great and Prussia’s Frederick II. Tokaji was so highly coveted, both at home and abroad, during this period that it was believed to contain healing and restorative powers.
Tokaji has also featured in popular culture where it’s been celebrated by composers from Beethoven to Liszt and featured in literature by Goethe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Bram Stoker, whose character Jonathan Harker was served Tokaji on his first night in Dracula’s castle. Despite this, Dracula himself (played in the 1931 film by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi) confesses to never drinking wine.
Although Tokaj and other Hungarian wine regions suffered during the communist years, the country's wine industry has experienced a massive come back over the last 25 years, thanks partly to international investment and the adoption of new winemaking technologies. These include the use of stainless steel tanks for white wine fermentation, the use of oak barriques for maturation and fermentation and the adoption of more innovative approaches to blending.
Regulation and new laws have also played their part by helping to establish industry benchmarks and set quality standards. For example, a 1997 law established 22 official wine regions. Tokaj and Eger, already discussed, both lie in the north east of the country, along with Hungary's second largest wine region, Mátra, which is known for white wines made from Olasz Rizling, Tramini and Chardonnay. By contrast, Sopron in the far north east on the Austrian border and next to Lake Neusiedl (Fertő in Hungarian) is known for red wines made from Kékfrankos. This reflects a similar trend seen across the border in Austria, whereby the area around Lake Neusiedl has become famous for its Blaufränkisch wines.
In the west around Lake Balaton, which is Europe's largest lake and a major centre of leisure and recreation for Hungarians, four wine regions have been established. In the Badacsony wine region on the Northern shores of Lake Balaton, grape cultivation on the area's volcanic soils stretches back to Roman times. Szürkebarát (a descendant of Pinot Gris) is one of the best known varieties cultivated in Badacsony. Although Kéknyelű was historically the dominant grape variety, Kéknyelű plantations were severely damaged by frost in the 1980s. Despite this, Kéknyelű, which produces full-bodied, smoky wines, is experiencing a rise in popularity.
Hungarian winemakers are experimenting successfully with a range of international white grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Although styles vary, the resulting white wines are often richer and more full-bodied than wines produced from those varieties in France. Oaking is also sometimes used - for maturation, fermentation or both. Meanwhile, a parallel focus on local white grape varieties such as Furmint, Hárslevelű, Kéknyelű, Irsai Olivér and Juhfark offers Hungarian producers a further opportunity to differentiate their wines in international markets.
Together with the production of more complex and interesting reds, recent innovations show that Hungarian wine is finally coming of age, shaking off its communist past and reclaiming its former glory. With a growing variety of great Hungarian wines now appearing in international stores and restaurants, it will become increasingly hard for us to resist their magical allure. Even Dracula may acquire a taste for them.
Guide to Hungarian Grape Varieties
Furmint (w) - the principal grape variety in Tokaji dessert wines. Also makes dry wines with high acidity with varietal characteristics including apple, pear, quince, green herbs, spice and (with age) honey and nuts. Also grown in Slovenia, Croatia and with small amounts in Austria and South Africa.
Hárslevelű (w) - the second main grape variety used for making Tokaji dessert wines. Hárslevelű is highly aromatic with floral perfumed aromas and flavours of elderflower and lime tree blossom. Also grown in Slovakia, Romania and a small amount in South Africa.
Sárga Muskotály (w) - the third important variety used for making Tokaji dessert wines. Aromatic with orange blossom characteristics. Also grown in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, California and elsewhere.
Olasz Rizling (Welschriesling) (w) - produces crisp, light dry wines with nutty characteristics. Also grown in Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Slovenia, Croatia and Romania.
Irsai Olivér (w) - produces soft, dry, aromatic wines with grapy characteristics and lowish acidity. Also grown in Slovakia and, in smaller quantities in the Czech Republic, Russia and Switzerland.
Kadarka (r) - although Kadarka has been in decline in Hungary in recent years, it is still used to produce medium-bodied red wines that are sometimes described as having similar characteristics to Pinot Noir. Also grown in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania.
Kékfrankos (r) - known as known as Blaufränkisch in Austria and Lemberger in Germany, Kékfrankos is also grown in the Czech Republic, Croatia and Canada, among other places. Kékfrankos can produce well-structured spicy red wines with red cherry, blueberry and red current flavours.