The Eger wine region, located in the relatively cool climes of north eastern Hungary, has it all for the curious wine traveller. Winemaking wise, Eger is very well endowed and can swing both ways with equally exciting results in terms of producing both white and red wine. Furthermore, not only is the city of Eger a genuine baroque beauty, it also has an imposing castle that is the stuff of wine legend – it is from here that brave Hungarians are said to have held the fort and repelled invading Ottoman forces. The marauding Turks apparently declared that the mighty Magyars were fuelled for the big fight by drinking the blood of bull’s – hence the name of the region’s signature wine! Incidentally, the southern Hungarian region of Szekszárd also claims to have been the first to make Bikavér (Bull’s Blood).
Nevertheless, Eger is famous, or perhaps even infamous, for its Bikavér but it is slowly taking the bull by the horns and succeeding in distancing itself from the bottom-shelf Bikavérs associated mainly, but unfortunately not exclusively, with the mass production philosophy of the past. The region’s vintners are putting increasingly sophisticated and complex Bikavérs on the table from lower yields that reflect the attributes of its relatively cool northern climate – based on vibrant acidity, as well as restrained alcohol and tannins.
The backbone for Bikavér comes from the local Kékfrankos grape, which is the most planted red wine variety in Hungary and is the same grape as Austria’s Blaufränkish. The Bikavér blend is fleshed out with and beefed up by other grape varieties, including the Bordeaux varietals, with a minimum of three grapes required for the entry-level Classic category and a minimum of five for the more yield-restricted Superior category – with no one grape supposed to dominate. Grand Superior is a single vineyard Bikavér from low yields. A recent development is that the spicy but hard to cultivate Kadarka grape, which was grubbed up during the former system, is making a comeback in Eger and many winemakers have started to use a few per cent of the grape to liven up the Bikavér blend.
In 2010, Egri Csillag (Star of Eger) became the white equivalent of Bikavér. Local flavour is guaranteed by the requirement that Egri Csillag must be composed of at least 50% of the Carpathian basin grape varieties, such as Olaszrizling, Hárslevelű, Leányka, Királyleányka, Zengő and Zenit. The aromatic varieties like Cserszegi Fűszeres, Zefír, Irsai Olivér, Tramini and Muscat Ottonel are limited to a maximum of 30% in the Egri Csillag blend. The same categories apply to Egri Csillag as to Bikavér.
While in Eger, look out for the impressive Nagy Eged Hill, which has the highest vineyards in Hungary and is a pure limestone outcrop in an otherwise sea of volcanic rhyolitic tuff topped off by brown forest soils.
Eger 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.
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.