Once considered a cheap and cheerful but less polished alternative to its more coveted southern neighbour of Villány, Szekszárd has confidently set sail off on its own course with its increasingly sophisticated and complex reds. Long loved by consumers for its excellent value for money, Szekszárd’s vintners are now also succeeding in making more varietally pure Kékfrankos and Kadarka, which also play a key role in the region’s flagship Bikavér blend.
Szekszárd is wisely focussing on a three-pronged approach of single varietal Kadarka (including exploring different clones) and Kékfrankos, and the Bikavér blend, which come in their own Burgundy style bottles. The way the word Szekszárd is embossed under the neck of the bottle a la Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a nice reference to the spice of the Rhône, which is also a feature of Szekszárd reds.
Szekszárd is the Hungarian epicentre of the Kadarka grape (the same grape as Bulgaria’s Gamza) which came to Hungary from the Balkans, supposedly brought by Serbs fleeing Ottoman invaders. However, for so long its wine has all too often either been watery and insipid on the one hand, or overdone and covered in an oaky, overripe and tannic cloak and trying to be something it’s not, on the other. Now plenty deliciously spicy and playfully light Kadarkas are coming through, typically exuding a distinctive rose hip note.
Bikavér is typically based on a Kékfrankos backbone and is fleshed out with international varieties, especially the Bordeaux grapes, and enables such grapes to play an important role without hogging the local limelight. The finishing touch is the spice and aromatics added by a few percent of Kadarka. A few percent is all that’s needed or else its pronounced aromas can start to take over, something not desired in a wine in which the aim is for no grape to dominate.
Incidentally, Bikavér is not often referred to by its English form of Bull’s Blood any more, due to the wine’s not entirely former association with the bottom shelf of supermarkets. Szekszárd and Eger lock horns over which region coined the term Bikavér first but while the northern Hungarian region of Eger battles with different levels of quality, Szekszárdi tends to be a higher end wine. In Eger, where the Kadarka grape was grubbed up during communism in favour of higher yielding varieties as opposed to Szekszárd where it survived, winemakers are increasingly planting Kadarka to add it to their Bikavér blends.
Szekszárd is strongly associated with its loess soils and as such is sometimes wrongly dismissed as incapable of making truly great wine. It should not be forgotten that some excellent wines come from loess. These include Wagram and parts of Wachau and Kremstal in Austria, where it is prized for its ability to make fuller Grüner Veltliner; many top German vineyards; and eastern Washington, USA. Indeed, some of Tokaj’s and Hungary most elegant wine comes from loess-dominated vineyards. However, there’s other soil and rock types lurking under the loess in Szekszárd with lots of red clay and chunks of limestone in the Szekszárdian mix, with the red clay (terra rossa) clearly visible and poking through as you drive around this undulating region.
Szekszárd will be one of excursions that will be part of the 10th International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC), which will be held April 10-11 in Budapest in collaboration with Premium Sponsor, The Hungarian Tourism Agency.
Robert Smyth is a Budapest-based wine journalist, writer and communicator. He is the author of Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World (Blue Guides, 2015). He has been been covering wine for more than 15 years and writes on Hungarian and international wine for the Budapest Business Journal (BBJ), Winesofa.eu, VinCE Magazin and Wine Connoisseur, among others. He’s also served as deputy editor of the Circle of Wine Writer’s Update and edited David Copp’s Wines of Hungary and contributed to the same author’s Tokaj: a companion for the bibulous traveller. He holds the WSET Diploma and Advanced certificates from London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust, run tastings for Tasting Table and also guide tours for Taste Hungary. He regularly judges at Hungarian and international competitions and also translates wine text from Hungarian to English.
Photos: Zsófia Pályi, Balázs Szabó and Krisztina Kovács