A Beginner's Guide to Hungarian Wines - The Gloss Magazine

A Beginner’s Guide to Hungarian Wines

Wonderful Tokaj is not the only Hungarian wine of note. Julie Dupouy discovers dry red wines that delight too …

Hungary’s famous Tokaji wines, described by Louis XIV as “the king of wines, the wine of kings” has had legendary status for centuries as the preferred tipple of European royal families. This elixir of the wine world is born from a blend of late harvested grapes mixed with a paste of botrytised berries, botyris or “noble rot,” being a beneficial mould that grows on ripe wine grapes under specific climatic conditions, dehydrating the grapes and concentrating the sugars and flavours. Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat Blanc varieties, each on their own capable of impressive results, come together in Tokaj to give us pure degustatory heaven – everything a wine should be, dialled all the way up, with no loss of balance and fresh, zesty drinkability.

Hungary has long been considered a one-hit wonder, striking gold only in the region of Tokaj, and it is commonly thought the fairytale ends there. But when I first visited Hungary in 2010 as an adventurous trip to a land I knew little about at the time, I was quickly disabused of this fact. I was lucky to have a few recommendations and they paid off generously – I was impressed with the gastronomic scene in Budapest at every level. The real revelation, however, was the dry wine. There clearly there was great talent and passion behind the dozens of examples my husband and I tasted and quality was very consistent. In recent years, more dry wines from Hungary are finding their way to the Irish market and onto the shelves of our local wine shops.

What should you look out for? Some brilliant reds. Of 22 recognised wine regions in Hungary, only two of them focus almost exclusively on the production of red wine – Villany and Szekszárd. I was fortunate to visit the latter in February this year and was incredibly impressed not only by the quality of the wines but also by the beauty of the landscape and the hospitality of the locals. The region of Szekszárd (pronounced sexard), one of Hungary’s smallest regions, is in the south, in the Tolna province. Lying between the Mecsek Hills to the west and the Danube to the east, it is characterised by a multitude of valleys, carved out over time through slow erosion. As a consequence, the annual cycle of the vine and the ripening of the grapes varies greatly from one vineyard to the next, the orientation of the slopes and the location within the region dictating a broad range of styles. It is fascinating to travel from valley to valley via tiny and often extremely steep paths through the vineyards, originally dug out to help drain heavy rainfall.

Szekszárd proudly waves the flags for local grape heroes Kadarka and Kékfrankos, as well as growing some international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Kadarka is the most planted variety in the region and produces wines that display finesse and elegance with flavours reminiscent of red and dark berries, flowers and spices. Kadarka is often referred to as the “Hungarian Pinot”. Kékfrankos, more commonly known as Blaufränkisch, is the most planted red grape in Hungary. This variety is a real chameleon, taking on the character of the terroir from which it grows. Styles range from light, vibrant, floral and mineral to full-bodied with a dark fruit profile and spicy nuances. At the heart of Szekszárd’s wine production is the iconic Bikaver – also known as Bull’s Blood. Legend has it that in 1552, as the Ottoman Turks were invading the Castle of Eger in Northern Hungary, István Dobó, the captain in charge of the Hungarian troops, gave his soldiers red wine to make them brave and strong. The Turkish soldiers saw the red stains on the Hungarian faces defending their castle and believed that their enemies had savagely been drinking the blood of bulls. The Hungarians beat back the Turks (though the Turks had an army 30 times the size of the Hungarian one) and the castle was saved. So look out for Kadarka and Kékfrankos, and also Bikaver. Traditionally produced in both regions of Eger and Szekszárd, Bikaver is a blended red wine. In Szekszárd, Bikaver must be made of at least four grape varieties with a minimum of 45 per cent Kekfrankos.

While Bikaver was traditionally considered a cheap, everyday wine by previous generations, younger producers have grown rightly proud of their heritage and feel immensely passionate about the flagship wine of their region. We have seen this dynamic elswewhere – where young fresh energy rejuvenates a tiring style or regional brand. In 2015, a group of 13 ambitious producers founded the Szekszárd Bottle Project. Their aim was to have the wines of their region reconsidered by the wine world for their wonderful character and reliable high quality. They have since been joined by seven more wineries and the brand is growing stronger year by year. Only Kadarka, Kékfrankos and Bikaver can be bottled in distinctive beautifully embossed Szekszárd bottles. A very strict blind tasting assessment governs the wines that make the grade every year. What should you expect from modern Bikaver? The range is widely varied. I personally preferred the more elegant and perfumed wines with subtle oak use from wineries such as Sebestyen, Vida Péter or Tuske Pince. Give them a go but if you have any Ottomans coming to dinner, be careful not to spill! @julie_dupouy

Bikaver, Sebestyen winery, Szekszárd, €20; www.jnwine.com.

Dry Furmint, Disznókó, Tokaji, €18.45; www.obrienswine.ie. 

Dry Furmint, Steigler, Sopron, €36; www.petesprovisions.ie.

Villány Franc, Ipacs-Szabó, Villany, €45; www.thecorkscrew.ie.

Kékfrankos, Heimann & Fiai, Szekszárd, €28; www.64wine.ie.

Bonsai, Vida Péter, Szekszárd, €29.90 www.thewinesociety.com

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