Hungary has been producing wines for nearly two thousand years, and for much of that time her wines were justly famous for their great quality. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world has rediscovered Hungarian wines in all their diversity, from the full-bodied reds of Eger to the sublime dessert whites of Tokaji.
Hungary recognizes 22 distinct wine regions (borvidek), scattered across the entire country. Four of the most important are Tokaji in the far northeast; Eger, northeast of Buda-Pest, about halfway to Tokaji; Villany, in south-central Hungary, and Nagy-Somlo, to the northwest in the hills near Lake Balaton. Tokjai is home to the world's first formal vineyard classification system, predating even that of Porto. Tokaji's 1730 classification is based on soil, terroir and the propensity towards Noble Rot (botrytis cinerea).
At the end of the 19th century, Hungary like all other European wine growing countries was decimated by the Phylloxera epidemic which brought radical changes in the way viticulture was practiced. The field blends found in the traditional vineyards, where multiple varieties would grow together and make up the blends of Eger and Tokaj, were replaced with single-variety vineyards, reducing grape selections to just a few different grape types. Blaufränkisch and Bordeaux varieties were planted in red wine growing areas, Furmint, Muscat and Hárslevelű in the Tokaj region thereby reducing the indigenous grape selection. During the Communist period (late 1940’s to 1989) quantity was favored over quality and Zweigelt often replaced Kadarka as it is easier to grow and vinify. Prices were set by the state and quantity was key. Over cropping, pasteurization and industrial production dominated until 1989 with the fall of the U.S.S.R. Since then, Hungary has opened its industry to world markets, made the transition from a bulk supplier to a producer of unique, quality wines, and begun the process of rediscovering its ancient native grape varieties.
New wine classification legislation was enacted in 1990, consisting of 5 quality grades:
- Table Wine (Asztali Bor)
- Vins de Pays (Tajjelegü Asztali)
- Quality Wines (Minösegi bor)
- Special Quality Wines (Különleges Minösegi)
- Overripe grapes and wines affected by Noble Rot (Aszú) and vintage wines over 5 years old
GEOGRAPHY & TERROIR
Hungary has three main wine growing regions all dominated by the continental climate with hot, dry summers and cold winters. South of Budapest between the two main rivers, the Danube to the west and the Tisza to the east, lies the Great Hungarian Plain, the Pustza, with its sandy soil. Half of the country’s wine production comes from this area with light reds, semi-sweet and sweet wines. To the north and north-east lie the famous borvidek of Eger and Tokaj. In the Eger region red wines dominate with black loam and volcanic soil. Tokaj is the oldest and most well known wine region in Hungary with sweet wines grown on volcanic soil covering a loess-rich volcanic subsoil. Tokaj also produces world class, aromatic dry white wines made from the Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes.
Villány, the most southern and warmest region of Hungary, produces amongst the best and most full-bodied red wines.
Another wine growing region of interest is Badacsony, near Lake Balaton. Balaton, Europe's largest lake, moderates the climate and allows for a longer growing season. Volcanic soils combined with the milder climate produce full-bodied whites with considerable acidity. One of the most notable indigenous grapes grown in this region is Kéknyelű which produces rich, fragrant, crisp whites.
Affinitas (Sopron, Tokaj)
Bako Ambrus (Badascony)
*itself a crossing, probably of a type of Pinot x Muscat a Petits Grains, discovered by vigneron Clotar Bouvier in his vineyards in 1900.
Yipes! Those grape names!
Hungary boasts a large number of indigenous grapes, and we all have to suck it up and just learn them. However, several widely-grown grapes are imports better known under the names used further west. Here's a guide:
Kabar . Harslevelu X Bouvier*
Sarga Muskotely Yellow Muscat
Szürkebarát (desc. of Pinot Gris)