Welcome to Hungary
We head to Hungary to explore an ancient and often overlooked winemaking culture
Wednesday 05 January 2022
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If we had a grape for every time someone told us they hadn’t heard of Hungarian wine before, we’d be pressing our first vintage by now. It’s funny — vineyards have existed in Hungary since the Romans brought vines with them up towards the Danube to what they then called “Pannonia”. By the 5th century there was an established winemaking culture within the country, and we know from legends like that of the Bikavér that it had become an essential part of Hungarian life, culture and folklore.
Egri Bikavér, or “bull’s blood” wine, is the rich, blood-red wine blend full of body and earthy flavours that apparently strengthened Hungarian warriors during the Ottoman sieges of the 16th century. Before we go into detail about the Kékfrankos, Gamza and other grapes that make up this special wine, think about this — you see a wave of Hungarian soldiers heading out of Eger Castle dripping from majestic moustache to armoured chestplate with a suspiciously red-looking liquid. Do you stick around?
Back then, it was probably wise to get out of there. But nowadays, you’d be mad not to stay for a while and taste classicus, superior and grand superior Bikavér from the cellar. These wines have specific blends to be followed, with classico using at least three varieties, and superior and grand superior using at least five.
Within this blend must be Kékfrankos, known elsewhere in the world as Blaufränkisch, the most widely-planted grape in Hungary. Mainly grown in the Sopron region, it can make an elegant, aromatic dry red wine full of mouth-watering acidity and rich fruit flavour. As Hungarian as it is Austrian (understandable given the geography and history of the nation), Kékfrankos is widely accepted as an indigenous variety.
Gamza or Kadarka is also used in the Bikavér blend. A difficult grape to cultivate thanks to thin skins, it can produce juicy, spiced red wines with light body and low tannin. It most likely came to Hungary from Serbia, Croatia or Bulgaria, but while the exact location of its origin might remain a mystery thanks to ever-changing geographical borders, Gamza is native to this part of the world.
For centuries Hungary’s climate of cold, snowy winters and hot, sunny summers enabled grapes to thrive. By the 15th century Hungarian wine was prized by the Ottoman empire, of which Hungary was partially occupied, and then the Austro-Hungarian empire was formed by the Habsburg Dynasty, the Ottomans receding back to Constantinople. And as we all know, Austrians enjoy wine. Hungarian grapes continued to make exceptional wines during this period, and up to 100 years ago, Hungary’s wine was prized throughout the European courts as some of the finest in the old world. One such celebrated wine was the gold standard of sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú, made in part by the Furmint grape.
When allowed to be heavily infected with Noble Rot, these “botrytised” Furmint grapes become richer and more honeyed, concentrating their flavours and aromas into dense, complex, sweet white wine. Furmint isn’t only used to make sweet or dessert wines thought. Dry Furmint is becoming easier to track down in the UK, and just like at home in Hungary it is enjoyed for its high-acid, pear-like flavours that match particularly well with ripe, runny cheeses.
Also found in Tokaji and in Tokaji Azsú blends is Hárslevelű, a grape that offers minerality and the floral prettiness of honey, it can bring elderflower and even delicate lemon blossom to its wines. With less acidity than many Hungarian varieties, it often also produces silkier wines, with a creamier texture.
A wine varietal that stands out for its rarity and its specificity is Juhfark. Grown only on the steep slopes of an extinct volcano in the North West of Hungary, Juhfark produces bracing acidity and tangible minerality — not for everyone, but a true, unique experience worth trying. It’s not everyday you get to taste a wine unlike any other.
Hungary is also home to a wide variety of grape crossings and hybrids. Over the 20th century, varieties were crossed to improve their yield or resilience to infection or pests, or even to create new flavours. Zenit is one such variety of grape, which was created in a research centre at the University of Pécs in the 1970s. Packed with minerality, citrus and orchard fruit flavours — fresh apples, mostly — wines made with Zenit have a lot of ageing potential, which may explain why a younger generation of natural winemakers have turned to it for some real experimentation.
Zeusz is another research centre grape, and it makes very fine dessert wines in the Badacsony region of Hungary. Think salt, dried sultanas and apricots, floral honey, while high acid and alcohol content means ageing is not only possible but will help mellow and craft it still further. In the UK we’re not too keen on sweet wines after decades of obsession with dry, astringent whites. It’s a shame. We’re missing out on so much.
Unlike Zeusz or Zenit, Muscat Ottonel wasn’t created in a lab. In fact, according to expert Jancis Robinson, “Muscat Ottonel is a seedling obtained in Angers in the Val de Loire, France, by the vine breeder Jean-Pierre Vibert in 1839, and later released in 1852 by his chief gardener, Robert.” Parented by Chasselas and a different Muscat grape called Muscat d’Eisenstadt, wines made from Muscat Ottonel are best enjoyed young and fresh, so that the juice is still light and the aromas of rose petals flutter around you as you sip.
Wine rapidly becomes more than fermented grape juice when you look a little deeper. History, culture and geography are steeped within it; time and experience macerated alongside the skins and the pips and the love and the experience. But for now, let’s pause the European history lesson. Taking a look at some of the grape varieties Hungarian wine is famous for right now, and getting more acquainted with the lesser-known indigenous grapes in our glass, makes this country’s wine all the more fascinating.
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