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A Hungarian wine cellar.
A Hungarian wine cellar.
Emily Monaco

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The Rich History of Hungarian Wine

From sweet dessert wines to oaky reds.

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Most European countries have the Romans to thank for their wine industry. But Hungary, with nearly 100 varietals and 22 wine-growing regions, may predate even Julius Caesar.

The written proof supporting this theory is spotty at best, yet many historians believe the tale. "Indirect proof is there, that the Celts inhabiting the country knew viticulture as early as the third century B.C.," says sommelier Gergely Barsi Szabó of Barsi Szabó Edwards Wines.

One of only three European languages to derive its wine vocabulary from a language other than Latin, alongside Greek and Turkish, Hungarian includes words from Turkic, a language belonging to a people historically established in China during the sixth century B.C., and Bulgaro-Turkic, suggesting a South Caucasian influence as early as the fourth century B.C. In other words, if they were talking about it, they were likely making it, and long before the more famous French or Italian vineyards were planted by the Romans.

Throughout their long history, Hungarian wines have been perceived as elusive and mysterious, and nearly always lauded. Even King of France Louis XIV is said to have had a weakness for Tokaj aszú dessert wine, dubbing it, "Wine of Kings, King of Wines."

... Hungarian wines have been perceived as elusive and mysterious, and nearly always lauded ...

But if Hungarian wines have long been held in such esteem, why is it that today one would be hard-pressed to find any at a local liquor store? The answer lies in the complex and varied history of Hungary.

Legend or Law?

By the fifth century A.D., Hungary's terroircomposed of multiple microclimates, each providing a distinct yet ideal winemaking environmenthad made it a wine epicenter. After the Magyar invasion of Hungary in 896, what would later become the much lauded vineyards of Tokaj were awarded to the followers of Árpád, the leader of the dynasty that would rule the Kingdom of Hungary until 1301. By the 17th century, these vineyards would become some of the most valuable on the planet, enough so to merit the world’s first vineyard classification system, introduced in 1700.

Hungary's wine industry flourishedand even gave way to myths and legends, the most popular of which concerns the origin of one of Hungary’s most popular red wines, dubbed "Bull’s Blood." According to local lore, the defenders of Eger, a city in Northern Hungary, drank the local red wine to fortify themselves for battle against 16th century Turkish invaders. The wine spilled onto their beards and clothes, coloring them red, and so began the rumor that the Hungarian armies drank the blood of bulls for strength, fashioning them into fearless warriors for anyone who believed the tale.

Tokaj vineyards in Hungary. [Photo via Shutterstock/Pecold]

Of course, today, the story is more legend than law.

"It is true that the Eger fortress was unsuccessfully sieged by the Turks in 1552, and that Eger people are very proud of that, but I don’t think there was any connection between the battle and the wine," says Gábor Bánfalvi, co-ower of Budapest culinary tour company Taste Hungary. And Szabó agrees. "The truth is that most of the Hungarian cultivars were white up until the Turkish conquest, and the first red varietals entered Hungary from the south with the fleeing Serbians and the Turks," he says. "A nice legend, though."

And not the only one.

Tokaji was the world’s first protected wine, but it is arguably also one of the world’s first sweet white wines, made from nobly rotten grapes as early as 1571. That's long before similar wines were made in Sauternes, France (1836) and Rheingau, Germany (1775)two regions famous for their sweet grapes.

According to legend, close to harvest time one year, Hungarian farmers were forced to leave their fields in order to battle the Turks. Upon their return, the farmers’ grapes were already infected with noble rot, but they decided to pick them and make wine anyway, and they have been doing so ever since.

Tragedy Hits Wine

By the 19th century, sweet Tokaji wine was renowned the world over. But at the end of the century, disaster hit twice. Firstly, American railway links between the midwest and eastern seaboard made it possible for cheap American grain to flood the European market, and price collapse hit Hungary fairly hard. This coincided with the phylloxera epidemic that swept across Europe, destroying vines throughout the continent and devastating Hungary’s unique varietals. While neither disaster fully crippled the wine industry—Hungary counted 401 vineyard acres in 1910 as compared to 355 in 1900—these setbacks were doubled with the onset of communism. The government took control of vineyards, favoring quantity over quality, and many of Hungary’s unique varietals and the distinct quality of vinification disintegrated.

Tokaji was the world’s first protected wine, but it is arguably also one of the world’s first sweet white wines ...

As a result, today, Hungary’s wine reputation is almost nonexistent. "Most people are actually surprised that we make any wine at all," says Banfálvi. But this is a huge misconception. In the past 20 years, Hungarian wines have slowly been making a comeback.

Hungary's Recovery

"In the early '90s we had a destroyed reputation and lost the market of the former Eastern block," says Banfálvi. "In two decades we were able to turn everything around, and both family and privately owned wineries have popped up all over the country, and started focusing on quality and on educating the nation on how to learn to appreciate wine again."

Grapes undergoing "noble rot." [Photo via Shutterstock/evryka]

It is a time for relearning old techniques, for adapting to a changing climate and to different varietals. Szabó calls it a "massive jump ahead."

These modern wines are not necessarily the wines that made the Hungarian wine market great before communism, but they’re just as worthy of Hungary’s long-lived reputation. "Until the late '90s or even a bit later, the most popular wines were the heavy, oaky reds and now, just like in many other places, the focus is shifting to local varietals and less oak," says Bánfalvi. Hungary is also becoming better known for fiery white wines, vinified in tandem with its famed sweet whites.

In the past 20 years, Hungarian wines have slowly been making a comeback.

The only problem, so far, is getting Hungarian wines recognized outside the country. Gábor Nagy, who runs Faust Wine Cellar in Budapest, sees the complication divided between two points. "Our quantities are not the same as France or Spain or Italy," he explains, saying that the entire wine production of Hungary is comparable to the production of Bordeaux: about 330 million liters in Bordeaux, as compared to around 260 million liters in all of Hungary.

The Wines of Hungary

Bánfalvi recommends commencing a tour of Hungarian wine with two of the country’s most famous styles, the first of which is Tokaj aszú. "Yes, it is a sweet wine, but taste it and you'll be addicted for life," he says.

And he’s rightthis isn’t just any sweet wine. Made with a combination of local grapes including Hárslevelű and Furmint, Tokaji is produced in one of several sweetness categories: Aszú, 3, 4, 5, or 6 Puttonyos, the unique unit used to measure a wine's sugar content, 6 Puttonyos being the sweetest, with a minimum of 150 grams of sugar per liter. In most instances, the grapes are hand-picked from shriveled clusters when they reach peak ripeness, making Tokaj aszú a very labor-intensive but rewarding harvest. The final wine is aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels before being bottled, adding to its deep, rich flavor.

"This wine has an amazing gold-amber color, honey, pruned apricot aromas, with some honey and citruses on the palate," says Bánfalvi. "It has a beautiful creamy texture and can be aged for centuries."

Bull’s Blood is a wine Bánfalvi says most associate with drinking cheap red wine in their college days. Of course, it is much more than this. At Faust Wine Cellar, two different Bull’s Blood wines are on offer—one from Szekszárd, in southern Hungary, and the other from Eger.

The former, Janos Nemeth’s 2012 Sygno Bull’s Blood—or Bikavér, as it is known in Hungarian—was blended from five different red wines made from five different grapes. Blending is the idea behind Bull’s Blood, which was invented in the early 20th century by Jenõ Grüber—with no actual blood included, despite rumors to the contrary. In this case, the blend is Kékfrankos, Kadarka, Zweigelt, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, though each winemaker has his or her own combination.

Photo by Emily Monaco.

"[Grüber] came up with the name and the idea of creating a blend that is better quality than the individual wines that go into it," says Bánfalvi. "I think he must have just thought it was a catchy name, it reflecting the proud history of Eger and the qualities of the wine at the same time."

But according to Nagy, Bull’s Blood would have originally come not from Eger, but from this region; written evidence of Bull’s Blood in Szekszárd dates back to the 18th century, while in Eger it dates only to the 19th century, thus quashing all legends and myths to the contrary. "No vampire stories," he confirms. "Only wine."

The wine is, however, rich and powerful, at 14 percent alcohol. "Strong like bull," says Nagy. "And the color is like blood."

This Bull’s Blood, however, is not nearly as flavorful and rich as the 2009 Egri Bikavér from Ferenc Tóth winery in Eger, which has rich, spicy aromas and, Nagy promises, at least 10 years potential for aging in bottle.

The rules for making Bull’s Blood are many. "I can't tell you all of them because you'll be here until day after tomorrow as well," jokes Nagy, but he does share a few, notably that Kékfrankos must be the main wine used, making up at least a third but no more than half of the blend.

Kékfrankos is actually the principal red wine variety in Hungary today, as well as one of the oldest, dating back to the 13th or 14th century. A Kékfrankos Selection from the Ráspi Winery in the Soproni wine region, near the Austrian border, brings out the best in this Central European grape, with a single-varietal wine boasting a rich color, plus cherry, smoke and leather aromas that come from 18-month oak aging.

Wine from Ráspi Winery.

But before there was red wine in Hungary, there was white: Furmint is the signature white grape here, the major element of Tokaji, but also quite intriguing when vinified as a dry white, boasting green apple and grapefruit notes. "Depending on the vinification, it can be as elegant as a nice Chardonnay or as refreshing and cheerful as a Sauvignon Blanc or Grüner Veltliner," says Bánfalvi. "But at the end of the day it has its own identity and is a very important grape for us."

Kékfrankos is ... the principal red wine variety in Hungary today, as well as one of the oldest

Nagy likes Furmint in Bene Winery's 2013 John's Bless Tokaji Furmint, also available at Faust. This dry white is made with 100 percent Furmint, and it is far from ordinary.

"This wine is a little bit tricky," he says. "If you smell it, it seems a bit sweet, or it has a smell of a whiskey or like a sherry, or like a brandy, or like a rum." He grins. "But if you taste it …" he shakes his head and smiles; the flavor is far drier and crisper than the aroma would have you believe, a "trickiness" that comes from the minerality of Tokaj's terroir, the quality of the grapes, and the six month aging in oak barrels.

It would seem that white wines remain Hungary’s strength, especially Villányí Hárslevelü (2011), made by Zsófi Iványi in the south of the country with the Hárslevelü varietal, another grape popular in Tokaj for its aroma and color. This unique wine is made via skin-on fermentation of late-harvested grapes, producing a nearly orange wine with a whopping 14.5 percent alcohol and a deep, rich aroma of hazelnut, oak and passionfruit. Fourteen months of oak aging adds to the illusion that this white is actually a pale rosé. When swirled, it takes on a lychee-honey aroma and a long finish.

For sourcing Hungarian wines in the U.S., Bánfalvi suggests BlueDanubeWine.com. Specifically, he recommends the wines of Samuel Tinon, Bodrgo Bormühely, Demeter ZoltánJudit Bott or Patricius Winery from Tokaj, or Gere AttilaEszterbauer or Vylyan for a variety of reds.

The Next Big Thing

Believing that Hungary would follow in the footsteps of Germany and Austria, New York-based Athena Bochanis launched her Hungarian wine importing company, Palinkerie, in 2013. Catering to top tier restaurants like Manhattan's Michelin-starred Betony and Brooklyn's Meadowsweet, Bochanis decided to take a chance and become the east coast food and wine ambassador for Hungary. Says Bochanis, "I knew exactly what I wanted to bring: fresh-faced, high-quality, natural, and well-priced wines. Wines that were modern, but with an old-fashioned sensibility. The wines of the new Old World."

According to Meadowsweet owner Jeremy Adona, Hungarian "wines [are] versatile with different types of cuisine and easy to drink on their own." Meanwhile, Betony wine director Dean Fuerth and co-owner Eamon Rockey were also seduced by Hungarian wines. Rockey cites both the country's incredible vinification history and its "unexpected gems" as good reasons to put such bottles on Betony's list, which currently includes three different Furmints, a Juhfark, a Harslevelu, a Kékfrankos rosé, and a Kadarka.

"If nothing else, Hungarian wines are provocative when offered to a guest," says Fuerth.

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