When you hear of Hungarian wine, you are most likely to think of Tokaj and the sweet golden ambrosia that is Tokaji Aszú. However, Hungary has so much else to offer besides - come and discover for yourself this small but viticulturally mighty country, which has seen a lot of exciting innovation in recent decades.
Hungary is located in central Europe, in the sheltered Carpathian Basin - a mostly flat or moderately hilly area surrounded by tall mountain ranges. Its temperate climate and gently rolling hills, with a variety of soil types including clay, limestone and volcanic bedrock, provide the perfect conditions for creating wines of real character.
From Celts to Communists
Archaeologists have found that wine was first made in the Carpathian Basin by the Celts, a tradition carried on by the Romans. By the time the first Hungarians arrived in the 9th century, there were significant vineyard areas under cultivation.
The distinguished history of sweet Hungarian wines began in the 16th century, with the first attempts in Tokaj to produce Aszú from grapes attacked by botrytis (noble rot). The advent of Aszú also saw the introduction of Szamorodni, another dessert wine, made from bunches containing both healthy and botrytised grapes.
By the 18th century, winemaking in Tokaj was blossoming, with Aszú being served at royal courts across Europe. Peter the Great had a permanent military presence in the area to ensure constant supply, while Louis XIV called Aszú ‘the king of wines and the wine of kings’.
Hungary was one of Europe’s pre-eminent wine producers until the phylloxera vine epidemic that swept across the Continent in the 1880's wiped out the majority of the crop. Slow to recover, the industry was further hampered by the two world wars, and during the 40 years of communism that followed, the emphasis on quantity rather than quality cast a dark shadow over Hungarian wine.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, wine production has undergone a rapid revival, aided by the expertise of older generations and the youthful energy and entrepreneurial spirit of up-and-coming winemakers, who look to the latest trends and technologies for inspiration.
Grapes and wines
Furmint is one of the flagship native grapes of Hungary. Most famously, it forms the backbone of Tokaji Aszú. With its intense acidity and fantastic ageing potential, Furmint also produces complex dry wines full of character. The country has recently seen a veritable dry Furmint revolution, where a new generation of winemakers has completely reinvented the meaning and image of that grape.
Another indigenous white grape is Juhfark (Sheep’s Tail), whose endearing name comes from the long cylindrical shape of the grape bunches. It is almost exclusively grown in the volcanic hill of Somló, just north of Lake Balaton, where the natural acidity of the grapes, combined with the unique minerality of the soil, allows expert winemakers to create outstanding wines. Juhfark is commonly referred to as the ‘wine of wedding nights’, and its supposed benefit of helping women to conceive male offspring made it popular with Queen Victoria of Britain.
Historically, the principal red variety in much of the country was Kadarka, one of the traditional components of the famous Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) blend, and which also makes a fruity and spicy medium-bodied varietal wine low in tannins.
The most common red grape today is Kékfrankos, well known throughout central Europe under various names and the main component of Bikavér. Like Furmint, Kadarka and Kékfrankos are undergoing a quality revolution, with outstanding wines being produced in Sopron in the north-west, Szekszárd in the south, and Eger in the north.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tokaj is the best-known Hungarian wine region, as well as the very first wine region in world history to be classified. The area, which spreads across rolling hills between the winding rivers Tisza and Bodrog, has a unique microclimate resulting from a combination of high humidity thanks to the proximity of the rivers, a refreshing southerly breeze and plentiful sunshine. These create the perfect conditions for noble rot, essential for the production of botrytised wines.
But what makes the terroir of Tokaj truly unique is its volcanic soil. Encompassing around 400 extinct volcanoes, the region has an immensely complex and layered soil structure, which presents exciting opportunities for quality wine-growing.
Hungary as wine producer
Hungary has 22 distinct wine regions growing around 140 different grape varieties. This diversity is the greatest strength as well as the main weakness of the industry.
On the one hand, it allows winemakers to create wines that are in perfect harmony with the terroir by choosing the best-suited varieties. They can also experiment with the creation of unique blends, such as Bull’s Blood, which delight with a cornucopia of flavours and aromas.
On the other hand, the volumes demanded by major retailers are mostly lacking, and with the annual production of individual varieties often ranging from 500 to 5,000 bottles, the moniker of ‘boutique wines’ is, for better or worse, simply inescapable.
Old World, New Wine
Hungarian wine is one of the best-kept secrets of the Old World and has been heralded as the ‘next big thing’ by leading lights of the industry. With a diversity of regions, grape varieties and styles, there is so much here to surprise yourself with.
Put on your explorer’s hat and let the new generation of Hungarian wines take you on a journey of discovery across the heart of Europe.