Hungary is a bit of an oddball of a country. It is a landlocked nation, tightly packed in central Europe, sharing its border with seven countries: Slovakia and Ukraine to the northeast, Romania to the east, Serbia to the south, Croatia and Slovenia to the southwest, and Austria to the west.
It covers an area of nearly 36,000 square miles with a population of 10 million people. Budapest is both its capital and largest city and is the indisputable political and cultural center of the country. It is believed that Hungary’s origins go back to the 9th century when the Magyars, a Finno-Ugric people, established their settlements in the middle of the Danube River basin. The country’s unique language starkly stands out in the region dominated by Slavic tongues. The Hungarian language is closely related to Ob-Ugric languages, Khanty and Mansi, spoken to the east of the Ural Mountains with slight similarities to Finnish and Estonian. I dare you to listen to some Hungarian without going, “What the hell was that?”
Despite its small size, geographically, Hungary offers a well-balanced topography of high-elevation regions near the Alps and Carpathian Mountains, lowland plains in the center, with the Danube River as its main tributary, and Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe. The country is situated between the 46th and 49th parallels, the same latitude as France’s wine regions from Northern Rhone to Champagne.
Warm to hot summers and cold winters are the result of the continental climate with small climactic differences between different regions. Rainfall is not abundant, but it is well-distributed throughout the year. The Carpathian Mountains to the north offer a protection from the cold fronts rolling in from Poland and Ukraine.
While writing this article, I turned to one of California’s foremost Hungarian wine experts Eric Danch. He is the co-owner of Danch and Granger Selections wine importer, specializing in the wines of central Europe. His Hungarian portfolio is a carefully selected lineup of esoteric wines with impressive quality to value factor.
Historically, Hungary has been one of the top producers of quality wines in Europe. Its wine history predates the Roman Empire. Aside from the legendary sweet wines of Tokaji, whose records go as far back as the 1400s, the country’s dry whites and reds were praised throughout the continent until the end of 19th century. There were four major historic events that led to a near annihilation of the Hungarian wine industry: the plague of phylloxera in 1880s, two World Wars, and 40 years of communist collectivization. It is important to mention that as a result of the Treaty of Trianon at the conclusion of the World War I, the Kingdom of Hungary was robbed of two-thirds of its territory, leaving the nation’s psyche scarred into present times.
After World War II, Hungary become a satellite state of the Soviet Union, cut off behind the Iron Curtain. Since the collapse of Soviet occupation and disbandment of the communist bloc during the 1990s, Hungary’s wine industry experienced an explosive period of revival. The combination of tradition and progressive sensibility of young wine makers are at the forefront of this restoration.
Hungary’s Key Wine Regions
Hungary has 22 designated wine regions. I selected four that in my opinion best represent the country’s presence on the international wine stage, but also depict both its historic heritage in wine making and new trends for the future ahead.
Located along the Slovakian border, the Tokaji region is Hungary’s crown jewel. Louis XIV of France famously christened Tokaji wines as “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” (Wine of Kings, King of Wines). He was referring to Tokaji’s sweet dessert wines, which at their best, are in a class of their own. Six endemic grape varieties are permitted in the making of Tokaji: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Kabar, Zéta, Kövérszölö and Sárgamuskotály. (Good luck pronouncing these).
Two stand out: Furmint and Hárslevelü. The wines are made from hand-harvested and carefully selected botrytized grapes (noble-rot affected) and vinified to the varying levels of sweetness with eszencia being the sweetest, packing 450+ grams of sugar per liter. The flavors of sweet Tokajis are hauntingly irresistible and the wine’s aging potential is believed to be indefinite.
But the region is not all about sweet wines nowadays. In the last few decades, new and innovative wine makers started turning out some impressive examples of dry white wines from the region. Again, Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes seemed to be the most suitable for the dry style, excelling in complexity and depth. I asked Eric about the general differences between the two grapes. “Furmint tends to be fuller-bodied, with more pronounced minerality and in need of longer aging to soften its rough-edged acidity. Hárslevelü exhibits more floral aromas and fruitiness wrapped in lighter body,” Danch said.
About 80 miles northeast from Budapest lies the region of Eger. There are two wines in particular that define the region: Egri Bikavér (bull’s blood) and Egri Csillag (star of Eger). Bikaver is obviously a red wine: a blend. The appellation’s specifications require that 50 percent of the grapes are the native Kadarka or Kékfrankos or a combination. The remainder can be a varying combination of international red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah or Pinot Noir. The wines are dense, spicy, packed with jammy wild berry flavors, often with an angular and almost boorish edge to them.
Legend has it that in the mid-16th century during the Ottoman siege of Eger, the Turks witnessed crazed behavior of Hungarian troops fueled by the local red wine. Their faces, stained red with shockingly bloodshot eyes, made the Turks believe that it was bull’s blood that the Magyars drank. Although outnumbered, the Hungarians won.
The more recent white version, Egri Csillag, is also a composition of at least 50 percent of local white grapes: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zenit, Zengö and Királyleányka. The wines are delightfully aromatic. Vibrant and pronounced flavors of jasmine, pineapple, ginger, and lychee are complemented by a slight tingle of zesty finish.
Aside from these two classic styles of wine, Eger also offers a great selection of single variety wines from several producers who do a great job at showcasing the individual potential of the native grapes. Eric singled out Kadarka as his personal favorite red grape with a great versatility of expression.
There is an air of magic and a touch of mystique about the region of Somló. It is tiny; only 741 acres. Located on an extinct volcano stump, the area comes with a unique geological soil composition of black basalt as its bedrock and loess, clay, and sand in the topsoil. White grapes dominate here with Furmint, Hárslevelü, and Olaszrizling performing well. But it is the native Juhfark which excels. Juhfark means “sheep’s tail” in Hungarian and refers to the elongated shape of the grape clusters. In my research, “fierce” was the reoccurring description of the Juhfark whites. Other descriptors included: ashy, smoky, savory, intense minerality, visceral with aromas of cantaloupe, soaked wheat, toasted almonds, honey-coated apples and blooming magnolia flowers. For centuries, the locals believed that these special wines of Somló cured ailments and promoted fertility. Drinking Somló wines on a wedding night was supposed to ensure the conception of a male heir. We tasted Furmint, Hárslevelü, and Juhfark from the Apátsági Pince label side by side, all three whisked with botrytis and they were stupendous, a rare combination of decadent richness and cerebral finesse.
The second-largest wine making region in Hungry is the region of Mátra, which produce vast quantities of inferior quality wines during the communist era. A prolific production persists, making up for about one-third of Hungary’s wine export. It is situated in northern central Hungary with the vineyards sprawling at the lower elevations of the Mátra Mountains. There are two sides to this historic and prolific region: the commercial and… the other. In recent years, there has been a resurgence taking place beneath the muck of commercialism that cannot be ignored. Small, family-owned wineries with a focus on quality and uncompromising integrity are sprouting up and giving the region a new identity. Mátra’s grape breakdown by color is 70 percent white and 30 percent red. There is a plethora of grapes cultivated here, but Olaszrizling, Irsai Olivér, Hárslevelű, and Szürkebarát are amongst the most important whites, while Kékfrankos, Turán, and Pinot Noir are popular reds.
There is one man in Mátra whose stance perfectly exemplifies the new trend of artisan wine making in the area and the whole of Hungary for that matter: Levente Major and his winery. I have never met Major, but I love him already just from reading about him. He is a quintessence of a new-age Hungarian wine maker. A renaissance man of a sort: a philosopher, a geologist, a historian, but first and foremost, a creator of wine, fully devoted to his passion.
Here, it is all about the symbiotic relationship with nature. His holistic approach to farming is based on principles leading to a balanced and minimally disturbed ecosystem in the vineyards: no plowing, no use of pesticides, hand-picked grapes and the use of cover crop. A similar philosophy extends to wine making: exclusively ambient yeasts are allowed during the fermentation in open vats and used oak barrels. He uses a wooden basket press instead of mechanical crusher-destemmer. In general, he avoids machinery in favor of manually processing his harvest. As of 2016, which coincided with Levente acquiring organic certification, all the wines are unfiltered with extremely low sulfuring applied only at bottling. When asked how he knows when to harvest his grapes, he answers, “When my kids eat them – that’s when the fruit is ready to be picked.” Whether or not it’s true, I appreciate the answer.
The story of Hungarian wine is one of my favorite ones. It is deeply rooted in history and folk tradition where facts, myths and legends intermingle and coexist in harmony, giving it both historic bearing and poetic flare. It is a story of defiance and integrity; a story of rebirth and reemergence after over a century of irrelevance and inconsequence.
There are many wine makers like Levente in Hungary, wine makers whose dedication and methodology focus on the long-term well-being and prosperity of our natural environment. Wine makers who care about the preservation of the traditions of the craft and the unadulterated quality of the final product, rather than their commercial success. But it also takes importers like Danch and Granger who go to great lengths to seek out these producers, to expose them to an international audience and to teach us the appreciation of their labor. And that is one of the aspects of the world of wine that fills me with hope, pride, and makes me tick, and tick and...
Cezar Kusik Wine contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021