A Brief Introduction to Hungarian Wine

Wine map Hungary
The wine map of Hungary

While we’re not going to pretend to be experts on Hungarian wine (not yet, anyway), there is enough shared history between Austria and Hungary to make us feel a certain affinity to it. After all, until 1918 the two countries were the main constituents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and despite the enormous – and very different – changes that they have undergone since, you can still find more than a few traces of that era today. There’s a certain whiff of Vienna about the splendid buildings and coffeehouse culture of Budapest, a more than obvious culinary kinship in the dumplings and goulash served up on any self-respecting Gasthaus’ table. And then, of course, there’s the wine.

Although Austria is at a completely different stage of its winemaking career to Hungary (a considerable period of time spent behind the Iron Curtain definitely slowed things down for our larger neighbour), an increasing number of viticultural projects are linking the two countries. Dynamic producers like Franz Weninger have vineyards on either side of the border, and with his ‘Hidden Treasures’ projects, Roland Velich of Weingut Moric is working to bring young, terroir-driven wine estates from across Hungary and Austria’s Burgenland region together. And in a quieter but equally powerful way, we’ve seen once widely planted grape varieties that fell foul of phylloxera and/or Austrian wine quality laws sneaking back in across the border from Hungary. One such example is Furmint, which you’ll find on only about 11 hectares around Lake Neusiedl – some time ago we introduced you to Heidi Schröck’s beautiful 2015 vintage.

When we visited Budapest this weekend, we found the Hungarian wine industry to be experiencing an exciting moment. While you do have to dig deeper to find the real stuff – there’s still a bit too much focus on producing souped-up international varieties like Riesling and Chardonnay, which may be recognizable to the outside world but ultimately aren’t what this terroir is really made for – there are plenty of unique wines and producers to discover. Once you start looking, you won’t want to stop, so to whet your palate here are a few of our must-try Hungarian grape varieties.

White Wines

Bottle of Harslevelu
A wonderfully mineral Harslevelu from the volcanic soils of Somlo

Hárslevelű – probably our favourite of all the autochthonous Hungarian grape varieties, this cousin of Furmint is grown in the regions of Villány, Eger and Somló, where it does particularly well on the volcanic soil. A pretty fussy variety, it’s often put into sweet wines or blends – something that does it an enormous disservice. Powerfully mineral and with a lively acidity, it’s a beautiful expression of one of the country’s most overlooked regions (with only 300 hectares to Somló’s name, it’s no wonder). Keep an eye out for wines from Osvath Fruzsina or Kolonics. Or, if you’re in Austria, turn to Josef Umathum – down in Burgenland, he’s defying Austrian wine quality rules with a small parcel of what is known here as ‘Lindenblättriger’, which he sells under the apt name of ‘Königlicher Wein’ (Kingly Wine).

Furmint – yes, we all know Furmint in its sweet form, but what about a dry one? Tokaj is also an extremely mineral-rich region that produces powerful, structured whites with a vital acidity and very wide-roaming flavour profile. Depending on whether it’s coming from Tokaj, Somló, Sopron or Lake Balaton, expect crisp and fresh or smooth and full-bodied from this expressive grape variety. A far better alternative as an aperitif wine or universal food accompaniment than the Olaszrizling or Rizling you’ll usually be offered.

Juhfark – the name means ‘sheep’s tail’, which comes from the long form of the grape clusters that are strikingly reminiscent of a woolly tail. And indeed Juhfark can have a slightly woolly taste at first – grown exclusively on the volcanic slopes of Somló, it is extraordinarily mineral, smoky and citrusy. Expect lemon zest, chaff and ash in your mouth all at the same time; while that might not sound appealing, it’s an interesting and surprisingly addictive experience. Don’t try to drink this one young, in large quantities or with complex dishes – matured and with a light but still flavourful meat (think partridge or quail) is a winning combination.

Red Wines

Bottle of Kadarka
Kadarka – the Pinot Noir of Hungary

Kadarka – going straight into the reds with one of our favourite new discoveries, Kadarka is the Pinot Noir of Hungary. You’ll find it in regions like Villány and Szekszárd, which has a cooler, Danube-influenced climate and manages to contain this obstreperous variety’s tantrums. Though it’s becoming increasingly unpopular because of its tricky nature (international varieties like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are, conversely, on the up), it can in fact produce incredibly elegant, structured and complex wines that are perfect accompaniments to almost any food and will give you just as much pleasure consumed on their own. Slightly lactic and flat in its youth, a matured Kadarka will ensure hours of fun. Look out for the Pósta wine estate, and don’t forget to serve slightly chilled.

Egri Bikavér – ah, the world-famous Bull’s Blood. Sold for 80¢ a bottle to the students of the 1980s, it doesn’t come with a great reputation. But if we take things back a notch, this red blend from the Eger region was once responsible for a great Hungarian victory. When setting out to fight the Turks one day (as you do), the considerably outnumbered Hungarian forces were convinced that they were going to lose. To cheer themselves up before certain death, they consumed large quantities of red wine, which stained their mouths and made them act like wild beasts on the battlefield. Cue a great victory over the Turkish army, who saw their enemies running towards them with red mouths and sudden strength and assumed that they had been drinking bulls’ blood. While cheaper versions of this wine might make you act like a bull too, well-produced and mature bottles will not. Typically based on Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch to us over here) or Kadarka, it’s a full-bodied, forest fruit-type wine with a bit of acidity to lighten things up.

Sweet Wines

Tokaji Aszú – no run-down of Hungarian wines would be complete without mention of ‘the king of wines and the wine of kings’ (thanks, Louis XIV – we couldn’t have said it better). Making Tokaj the oldest classified wine region in the world and beloved of kings and emperors from France to Russia, sweet Tokaj wines are aged, golden in colour and range from slightly sugary with a bright acidity to off-the-scale sugary, like drinking pure nectar. Not actually a grape variety in its own right either, to be classified as Tokaji the wine may only contain Furmint or its five relatives: Hárslevelű, Kabar, Kövérszölö, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. As is to be expected from something made from handpicked, botrytized grapes that can age almost eternally, the older the better . . . and the more expensive. Spend your money wisely and enjoy every last little drop either on its own or with a classic pairing like duck rillettes or blue goats’ cheese. (And if you’re looking for a slightly more affordable version, pop over to Lake Neusiedl in Austria – in yet another tradition the two countries share, the village of Rust is renowned for its sweet wines, which even helped it to buy its own sovereignty as a town. Forget bull’s blood – herein lies the real power.)

Of course there are plenty of other autochthonous and not-so-autochthonous grape varieties in Hungary, but if you try all or even just a couple of these you’ll have a pretty good overview of where the country’s real winemaking strengths lie. As indefatigable champions of local, often overlooked varieties, we’re all for the winemakers who are proving what complex, exciting and versatile wines grapes like these can produce. Happy tasting, and egészségére!

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