Hungary’s wine regions are a delight to travel around with their über cool combination of centuries old cellar rows interspersed with state-of-the-art wineries, set in charming, rolling and utterly welcoming countryside. Despite Hungary being quite a small country, there are plethora terroir-related factors at play that result in unique wine of various styles across Hungary’s 64,000 hectares under vine. All of the regions in this article will be visited by many of the attendees 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.
Starting just some 30km west of Budapest, Etyek easily provides a quick fix for vine junkies. However, there’s so much more about Etyek and its elegant wines than the proximity to the capital. There’s usually a strong breeze blowing in Etyek and add on the white calcareous soil that dominates the region, then the conditions are ripe for making vibrant wines with tongue tingling acidity and fresh aromas. Most of the wine is white here, with the likes of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and increasingly Zöldveltelini (the Hungarian moniker for Austria’s Grüner Veltliner) thriving – the latter can be considered almost local! Given the soils, it also comes as no surprise that the Etyek-Buda region has a strong sparkling wine tradition. Pinot Noir can also be pristinely pure here.
Eger is famous, or perhaps even infamous, for its Bull’s Blood (Bikavér) but it is slowly succeeding in distancing itself from the bottom-shelf Bikavérs associated mainly but unfortunately not exclusively with the past. The region’s vintners are putting increasingly sophisticated and complex Bikavérs on the table that reflect the attributes of its relatively cool northern climate with volcanic rhyolitic tuff, limestone and brown forest soils. The backbone for Bikavér comes from the local Kékfrankos grape, which is the most planted red wine variety in the country 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.
Once the dominant variety in Eger, but grubbed up during communism due to it being difficult to cultivate, the Kadarka grape is making a comeback and just a few percent can add valuable spice and perfume to the Bikavér blend. Look out for the white Egri Csillag blend, which is essentially the white version of Bikavér that was launched following the 2010 vintage. The city of Eger is a baroque beauty and serves as a wonderful base to explore the region, although there also some excellent wellness hotels with superb spa facilities nearby. For a great view of Eger, walk up to the castle that overlooks the town, which is where the marvellous Magyars fuelled by the ‘blood of bulls’ are said to have repelled Ottoman advances.
In the country’s south, Szekszárd also has a claim to be the first to make Bikavér and the more robust style reflects the warmer climate, although Kadarka never went away here and is every producers’ magic ingredient. Kékfrankos is also becoming much classier in Szekszárd, oozing vibrant sour cherry notes. Szekszárd is the source of excellent value reds and rosés, as well as siller – red wine grapes given between two and three days skin contact, producing a wine somewhere between a rosé and a red. A number of producers have teamed up to market these under the ‘Fuxli’ label, the word Fuxli referring to a small fox (reflecting the colour of the wine) in the local Swabian dialect. Incidentally, Swabian Germans have had a huge impact on winemaking in regions such as Etyek, Szekszárd and Villány.
Still further south than Szekszárd and close to the Croatian border, Villany has long been associated with robust blends made from the Bordeaux varieties with Cabernet Franc emerging ahead of its usually more eminent peers to find its own unique expression in this sub-Mediterranean climate. When the grapes are harvested in time, the limestone soils help preserve the acidity and build the structure. Kékfrankos is also coming along nicely after years of relative neglect to make riper wines with darker fruit than usual. Playfully light Portugieser hits the market just a few weeks after the harvest and makes ideal quaffing wine, although a few dedicated souls are capable of making something more complex. Villány and other neighbouring towns have charming cellar rows oozing old world charm and many of these cellars are still going strong.
Big red wines, as well as round and fruity whites, can also be produced on the southern side of Lake Balaton in the Balatonboglár region, where the soils are predominantly loess (similar to Szekszárd), or on the Tihány peninsula that juts out into the lake on the northern side. What locals often refer to as the ‘Hungarian Sea’ is not only big (Central Europe’s largest lake) and beautiful, but it is also prime winemaking country with varying soils across its six regions that lie either on or close to the lake. Much of Hungary’s best Olaszrizling comes from the hilly northern side – from the volcanic basalt of Badascony, or the Káli Basin where limestone also features, or from the mixed cocktail of soils of Csopak, although the some stunners are now coming from the southern shores.
Just a half hour’s drive north of Badascony, Somló has similar basalt soils to Badacsony. Somló Hill (dramatically topped by castle ruins) is the same kind of striking, sawn-off, flat-topped volcanic mesa as Badacsony Hill and several other Badacsony hills, but the impact of the lake is much less in Somló than it is in Badacsony (the latter being right on the lake). Consequently, Somló’s wines are edgier and racier than the more rounded and fruitier style of Badascony. Somló is the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions but it makes some of Hungary’s biggest whites. It also has the Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes in common with Tokaj.
UNESCO-listed Tokaj may be steeped in a history based on sublime sweet, botrytised wines but time does not stand still, even for the wine region that was the first in the world to have its vineyards officially classified. Tokaj, whose sweet wines are among the very best in the world, has seen that the future is dry and Furmint and Hárslevelű are now working their magic as single varietal dry whites that capture the nuances of Tokaj’s varied vineyards that can vary greatly within a few metres, with various volcanic rocks and loess in the mix. Furmint and Hárslevelű, so great as a team in the botrytised Aszú wine that made the region famous, are now also being blended in dry wines to remarkable effect.
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.