Is Budapest on your travel bucket list?
Caroline Gilby MW gives us a tour of 2018's most exciting wine destination, Hungary
Things to know about Hungarian wine:
- The country has 22 wine regions and just over 64,000 ha of grape vines putting it 8th in Europe and well ahead of better-known countries like New Zealand.
- Hungary has 97 white grape varieties and 40 red grape varieties officially being grown for wine.
- There are 34 grapes listed in the 'Wine Grapes' bible as native to Hungary, many only grown there, and more being rescued from obscurity.
- The world's first vineyard classification was established in Tokaji in Hungary in 1730 by royal decree, long before Bordeaux or Burgundy.
- Tokaji was the world's second wine appellation in 1757 (after Chianti in 1716) and the sweet wine itself was described by France's Louis XIV as 'Wine of kings, king of wines.'
You must have been hiding under a rock if you haven't been to Budapest, or got it on your travel bucket list as one of Europe's must-see cities. Sadly, this fame hasn't spread to the rest of Hungary, nor to its largely still unknown (outside its borders at least) wines.
At best, the Hungarian wine experience for many people will have been picking up a bottle of Italian-lookalike pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, possibly a pleasant surprise, or having heard perhaps of Tokaji as one of the world's great sweet wines. However, there is a lot more to discover in Hungary today.
1. There's a delicious Hungarian red known as 'Bull's Blood'
The name 'Bulls Blood' crops up frequently if you do even a little exploration of Hungarian wines, though producers now prefer its equivalent name, Bikavér.
There are various legends around the origin of the name Bull's Blood, tied to a famous battle in Eger in 1552 where the castle was besieged by Turks, and the Hungarian defenders gained the strength to win the battle by drinking copious amounts of local red wine, which the invaders believed to be the blood of bulls.
Whether the story has any truth, a wine called Bikavér has been known since early 19th century. Under communism, it became a rustic, cheap red blend of whatever wasn't good enough to become varietal wine.
Today, though it is being reinvented as Hungary's red flagship blend. Bikavér has protected designated of origin status (DHC in Hungarian) in two regions only – Eger in the northeast and Szekszárd in the south. Both regions have slightly different but equally strict rules.
The Eger region in the northeast of Hungary is one of two designated for the production of Bikavér – the country's flagship red
2. There's tons of variety
Kékfrankos was Hungary's most planted grape in 2016, with 7,229 ha being grown in that year alone. This is more than twice the area of Austria where the grape is known as blaufränkisch and claimed as Austria's own flagship.
Recent research has revealed that blaufränkisch/kékfrankos is a cross of the almost extinct blaue zimmettraube and gouais blanc (making it a half-sibling of grapes like chardonnay, gamay and furmint). This research also showed that its origin is Lower Styria in today's Slovenia, an area that was old Hungary before World War II, so arguably rooted in Hungary, not Austria.
3. Kadarka is Hungary's answer to pinot noir
and many producers are rediscovering its potential to make delicate, refined reds - gently spicy, red-fruited and pale in colour. It is produced in its own right but also adds a touch of spicy local character to bikavér blends (and indeed is obligatory in the Szekszárd version).
Bikavér is always a blend with kékfrankos the dominant variety, but the kardarka grape adds a spicy note, and as you can see here, a pretty colour
4. Hungarian white wines are delicious.
Hungary actually grows more white grapes than red and among these are some seriously exciting local varieties.
Juhfark, whose name means 'sheep's tail' for the shape of its bunches, really only grows on the slopes of the extinct Somló volcano. Wines from this region are renowned in Hungary as wedding night wines. Allegedly, the volcanic soils give such mineral intensity to the wines, it helps to guarantee an heir.
Volcanoes also feature in Hungary's most famous wine region, Tokaj (note Tokaj is the place, Tokaji the wine). This far north-east corner of the country consists of hundreds of extinct volcanoes – creating a region of sunny slopes, cool cellars and well-drained, volcanic soils.
5. The other important strength of the region is its grapes, particularly furmint. This is one to watch as the next big thing in the wine world.
It shares an ability with grapes like riesling and chardonnay to really reflect its terroir. It's also incredibly versatile, producing fine sparkling wines, increasingly world-class dry wines (the best of which can give Burgundy a run for its money), and some of the world's greatest sweet wines. One of its key features is its hallmark acidity which gives elegance and a refreshing, appetising character whatever the wine style.
Furmint is one of the white grapes to watch for its dry wines as well as sweet
Tokaj wine with summer fruits
Hungary is endlessly fascinating, as its winemakers gain confidence in their treasure trove of amazing grapes, distinctive wine regions and great soils. This is a country whose wines will repay exploration; not always cheap, but superb value as they more than deliver amazing quality for the price you pay.