Wine in Hungary

Hungary has six wine regions with 22 wine districts within those regions, and about 37,000 producers. The country made about 270 million litres of wine in 2020.

The official number for the area under vines is 65,000ha but analysts suggest some vineyards lie fallow and the real area of vines producing grapes is closer to 58,000ha.

Thousands of people in Hungary make their own wine from tiny plots in their backyard and these are not recorded in official statistics. An individual can make up to 50 litres of palinka, a local wine spirit like grappa, without paying tax.

About 50 companies make 80% of all Hungary’s wine, meaning the country has thousands of tiny producers. Hungary exports 35-40% of its wines. Prices for exports are low, averaging less than €1 a litre. Much this wine is in bulk.

In recent months I have visited twice courtesy of Wines of Hungary and the Ministry of Agriculture. The ministry regulates winemaking. Their aim is to increase the value of exports. This explains the funding of the Hungarian Wine Summit held in the capital Budapest which I attended from 20-24 March 2022 with about 60 wine journalists, sommeliers and buyers from 20 countries.

More about the wine regions can be found at here.

Map courtesy of Quentin Sadler

Balaton is the largest lake in western and central Europe. The lake is famously shallow at the southern end and locals tell me they can walk half a kilometre into the water and still only have water up to their chest.

Yet the lake exerts a powerful influence on the region and induces a continental climate. This means cooler summers with high humidity and milder winters. Balaton has a total of 8,300ha of vines from a diverse range of soils including clay, sandstone, loess, limestone and volcanic.

A feature of wines from the region is the combination of expressive fruit and fine balance. Wines that impressed me came from Gilvesy and Borhaz. Robert Gilvesy, a former architect, is the owner and winemaker at the former and his previous profession shows in the precision of his wines. Szabo Gyula is the winemaker at Borhaz and focuses on wines that reflect the local terroir and minerality.

India’s first Nobel prize winner for literature, Rabindrath Tagore, needed a heart operation while visiting the Balaton region just after the end of WW1. He planted a Linden tree to show his gratitude. The hospital room where he stayed for three weeks is preserved as a memorial.

Tagore’s bust sits under the Linden tree by the lake in Tagore Sétány (promenade). Indian Parliamentarians who visit continue the tradition of planting trees in the promenade.

Wines from three vineyards from south of Balaton, known as Balatonboglar, impressed me. This sub-region has about 3,400ha of vines.

Only 4% of Hungarian vineyards are organic. Kristinus is organic and will receive its Demeter biodynamic certification at the end of the year, a significant achievement. Their Liquid Sundowner, made in a ceramic egg, is distinctive. A local potter makes ceramic jars for fermenting and ageing wines. They plan to exhibit in various natural and raw wine events around Europe. I also enjoyed a tank sample of their Zweigelt which was savoury in the mouth, yet fruity and sweet on the nose. The vineyard produces an average of 350,000 bottles a year. Prices range between €18 and €50. 

Bujdoso make an attractive rose that is savoury yet rich and ripe with a lovely chewy texture. The family have been making wine since 1972 and have 80ha of vines, with 70% of their output white wines. All three generations graduated from the University of Horticulture and Viticulture, the country’s main university for winemakers in Budapest.

Legli make another excellent rose. The 2021 edition is made from Pinot Noir, Kadarka and Merlot and is an extraordinarily bright pink colour with a zesty acidity. 

The Somló region to the north of Balaton is Hungary’s smallest yet it produces an exciting range of wine styles. Almost all are whites with a unique mineral flavour because of the volcanic soils. They are sometimes described as salty with a slightly oily texture.

Roman documents unearthed from the region said “vinum somlainum omni sanum” which translates as “Somló wines heal everything”.

Tornai wines from Somló, established in 1946 and the oldest estate in the district, impressed me. It has won the International Wine Challenge trophy award, said to be that organisation’s major award, four times. Tornai resurrected the indigenous Juhfark grape after the end of World War II when it was almost extinct. The name means sheep’s tail in English, a reflection of the shape of the grape bunches. Cuttings have been shared around the country.

Export manager Peter Gajdics told me a story that in the 17th century monarchs in Europe sought out Somló wines because they were said to produce male heirs. Local wines became known as “wedding wines”. Peter told me that records from the local hospitals reflected the higher ratio of male births in the region. Who knows if this story is true? But it’s a nice tale. A sheep’s tail?

Tornai wines have been recognised in international events. The winemaker is Zsofia Horváth. At Mundus Vini in March this year — of the 23 gold medals awarded to Hungarian still wines — six came from the Somló region, which is impressive given Somló’s small size. Good things come in small packages, as the saying goes.

Three of those six golds went to Tornai whites, including their Juhfark. Their Furmint is also awesome. The Tornai winners were Grófi Hárslevelű, Grófi Juhfark and Aranyhegy Juhfark (photo at left courtesy of Tornai).

The Tokaj region in the north-east of Hungary is one of the most famous wine making locations in Europe. It can get chilly and is known as one of the coldest in Europe. Cool air slides into the valleys of Tokaj from the Carpathian mountains.

The region makes what I believe is the noblest sweet wine in the world (Tokaj Aszú) as well as a range of magnificent dry whites. The flavours of the sweet wines are complex and remind me of a liquid blend of honey, quince, apricot, peach, caramel, almonds and hazelnuts.

At left is a regular Furmint berry. At right is the extreme version of Aszú of a berry.

Aszú is the Hungarian word for berries infected with the botrytis fungus, which is the secret to the wine’s flavours. Caroline Gilby MW offers an excellent explanation of the process here.

Three grapes are mainly present in Tokaj sweet wines. Furmint is the most common and typically represents two-thirds of the blend. It provides the skeleton or backbone of any Tokaj. The other two grapes are Hárslevelű and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, known locally as Sárgamuskotály.

Tokaj Aszú has a lot more sugar compared with other famous sweet wines. Sauternes typically have from 120g to 130g per litre of residual sugar, with the famous Chateau d’Yquem the exception at 150g. A German sweet wine like an Auslese (meaning “select harvest”) can have 100g, whereas Tokaj sometimes has up to 220g of residual sugar. But it is the acidity that combines with the sweetness that defines Tokaj Aszú.

Soils are mostly loess and the area is relatively flat with a maximum elevation of 400m. 

Wines presented at a tasting in Budapest by Dr Gabriela Mészáros and Wojciech Bonkowski on 23 March 2022 included a 2019 Balassa sweet Szamorodni, a 2007 Signature from Holdvolgy, a 2016 Tokaj made by Pajzos, a 2013 Grand Tokaj and a 2016 Relique 6 Puttonyos by Kvaszinger.

Both presenters agreed that 2013 was the best vintage for many decades and possibly the best of the past century, closely followed by the 2017 vintage.

These wines were superbly balanced yet displayed elegant and piercing acidity. It was like drinking liquid ripe peaches or apricots. The flavours exploded in my mouth and then those mingled aromas and acidity lingered for what seemed like minutes.

The tasting ended with each person being given a teaspoon of Eszencia from a half litre bottled from 1947. It was a little like a religious experience. A bottle of this rare liquid sold for £1,700 in London last year.

Eszencia is made entirely of Aszú berries with sugar from 500g to 700g a litre. The grape must for eszencia is so sweet that it is essentially syrup, making it difficult for yeast to ferment the sugar into alcohol. It can take four to five years to ferment eszencia fully.

The Szekszard region, about 140km south of the capital Budapest, has about 2,350ha of vines and historically makes red wines. It sits in the middle of Hungary alongside the Danube river which divides the country north-south.

The climate is continental with Mediterranean influences. Average temperatures during the growing season are 18-20°C with an average rainfall is about 600mm a year. 

The above is a video I made about travelling the region by Land Rover to taste wine.

Kadarka represents only 1% of Hungary‘s grape production but in the Szekszard region it is 4%, and at the Heimann estate 20% of the total. Theirs is a deliciously energetic wine made by Zoltan Heimann and worth seeking out.

Kadarka flourishes in windy hilltop positions because wind decreases disease possibilities. But it remains the lesser favourite child in the region because it is regarded as difficult to grow – a lot like Pinot Noir in other parts of Europe.

Bikaver is the main blend in the region (more on this later). It is consists of a minimum of four grape varieties, Kadarka, Kekfrancos and typically Merlot and one or two of the Cabernets, and 45% of the blend must be Kekfrancos. Merlot can only be a maximum of 30% of the blend. 

Global warming is becoming a problem with harvest arriving six weeks earlier compared with half a century ago. One winemaker told me she was producing Merlot at 16% alcohol. 

Villány is Hungary’s most southern wine region and boasts the highest number of wine cellars relative to population. It also gets the most hours of sun in the country and is the region with the most winemakers who have earned the prestigious title of “winemaker of the year”.

Villány aims to preserve ancient indigenous varieties such as Portugieser, which is grown almost solely in the Villány region. An international Portugieser contest is held each April.

Winemakers at the Bock, Gere, Polgar and Tiffany estates have been named winemaker of the year in Hungary, and these estates were some of the first to consolidate on the changes that came after Hungary’s transition to a market economy in the 1990s.

The region has a sub-Mediterranean climate with about 2,500 ha under vine. Of those, Cabernet Franc is currently grown on 341ha though that figure is expected to rise in coming years.

A change to the rules in 2014 means that wines made entirely from the grape in the premium and super-premium categories are called Villanyi Franc. Both are aged in oak for at least a year, often longer.

The region has hosted the first and only competition devoted to Cabernet Franc since 2015, apart from Covid-hit 2020. Locals are proud to quote the late Michael Broadbent who once wrote that “Cabernet Franc has found its natural home in Villány”.

At last year’s conference Dr Peter Teszlak from Pecs University noted, via a translator, that Cabernet Franc was the main ancestor of many Bordeaux varieties.

“It needs water and can be stressed by drought, meaning it is more similar to Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said.

Villany has had several dry and hot vintages over the past decade, suggesting that a key issue for the future was how to maintain standards when rainfall was limited.

Based on his data going back to 2003, Dr Teszlak said it was likely that in future every second year would be very dry. The use of cover crops such as those found in organic farming methods offered great potential.

“Clearly organic farming is part of our future.” Cover crops mean roots go deeper, which means better vines. Medicinal herbs could be planted as cover crops to produce extra profits for vineyards, he suggested.

On the days before and after the conference a series of tastings were held in Villany’s main sub-regions. Wines tasted were impressive.

One tasting was at historic Siklós Castle in the famous knight’s room, a huge area adorned with suits of armour and the coats of arms of local noble families.

Main local red grapes: One producer told me Hungary has about 220 grape varieties, but probably only about 100 are used regularly.

Kadarka: many winemakers likened Kadarka to Pinot Noir, in terms of its being difficult to grow. Never-the-less it is a refreshing variety with delicate fruit aromas and herbaceous spiciness. Only about 380 ha of Kadarka is grown in Hungary. It produces low alcohol wine at about 12% ABV and has large dense bunches that produce juicy berries.

The skin is thin and prone to disease and it requires precise canopy work during the growing season and strict bunch selection at harvest. In Szekszard they are planting new Kadarka clones with the aim of raising grape quality. 

Kekfrancos: this grape typically offers flavours of sour cherry and black pepper, with powerful acidity and medium tannins. The grape is grown throughout Hungary but different regions elucidate different expressions of the grape. Kekfrancos is known as Blaufrankish in Austria and Frankovka in Slovakia. 

Bikaver represents an exciting new trend in Hungarian wine making, the result of a combination of an old idea and a myth. The Hungarian word “bikaver” translates as bull’s blood. In 1552 when Turkish soldiers were laying siege to the Eger region, a story arose that Hungarian soldiers were drinking wine laced with bull’s blood which made them extra fierce in battle.

Thus arose the myth of Bull’s Blood, which has used to market Hungarian red wine for many decades. The quality of bull’s blood has been quite low until the resurgence of the style in the last decade or so.

Three wine districts mainly produce this wine style. Szekszard has 2,300 ha, Villanyi has 2,450 while Eger 5,500 ha. Kekfrancos is the main grape in the blend.

Tibor Gal of Gal Tibor Winery in Eger said “blends create more personality. People want something original”. He likened winemaking with single varieties to a long marriage that had become boring. Blends were new and exciting ways to make wines, he said.

Price of wine land: The price of land for wine varies considerably around the country. North of Lake Balaton the cost of one hectare of developed wine land is between €80,000 and €90,000 per hectare. In the region south of Lake Balaton a developed hectare of wine land costs about €50,000. In the Matra sub-region land can be purchased for about €15,000 for an undeveloped hectare.

Hungarian oak: Most winemakers use Hungarian oak because they prefer the flavours. Hungarian oak is less fine and precise than French oak, but also half the price. A barrique of French oak is about €1000 compared with €500 for Hungarian.

Hungary has two large oak forests, one in the north-east near took Kai and the other in the south of the country near Mecsek.

Words: 2,460

Categories: Hungary, Not home, wine

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