Hungary – mention the name and it conjures up images of… well almost nothing for most people, and that’s part of her problem. Budapest may be growing as a city break destination, but Hungary as a wine country hasn’t really captured the imagination of drinkers in the UK.
History, geography and climate
Hungary does have plenty to offer as wine country – after all wine has been part of the culture for centuries and Hungarians consume around 31 litres a head each year – well ahead of the British.Outside her borders, Hungary is best known for Tokaji, truly of the world’s great sweet wines, and for simple, inexpensive whites. Inside her borders, like everywhere else, the pursuit of red wine holds strong.
The small town of Tokaji is at the confluence of two rivers – the Bodrog and the Tisza – which create the misty conditions essential for formation of Botrytis cinerea, so vital in creating the sweet Tokaji wines. But Tokaji makes a range of sweet wines, from late-harvest though to the extraordinary super-sweet Esszencia via the famous Tokaji Aszú at 3, 4, 5 or 6 Puttonyos. A small group of indigenous grapes is responsible for all styles, the most important by far being Furmint, Hárslevelu and Yellow Muscatel, with Zéta, Kövérszolo and Kabar also in production. Look out for increasing amounts of bone-dry wine from the region too, made from the same grapes harvested early and without Botrytis.
The Red Crown
Attila Gere is widely regarded as Hungary’s top red wine maker and has built a spanking new tasting room, taken over by a team of enthusiastic sommeliers in training when I was there. There’s no doubt his wines make a bold statement with their richness and intensity. He also has a joint venture with Austrian Franz Weninger and these wines show a touch more elegance and finesse. (Weninger also makes an impressive Syrah and velvety Kékfrankos from his vineyards in Sopron near the Austrian border). Neighbours Ede Tiffán and Jószef Bock also make wines in a similar mould with power and extraction first and foremost, though occasionally a little hot and rustic.
Star of Villány for me is Csaba Malatinzky, still regarded as an upstart outsider by the locals. Formerly a sommelier in Hungary’s best restaurant, he had the chance to taste the best in the world before building his own winery in 1997. Fast driving and thinking (it takes him 2 hours to drive from Budapest, when it took me 4 hours), there’s no resting on his laurels here. He attends to every fine detail (carefully wiping the bung holes of his barrels to avoid drips) and even goes to the trouble of sieving out the pips one week into fermentation to avoid extracting harsh seed tannins. There’s widely held view in Hungary that Cabernet Franc has found its spiritual home in Hungary, and Malatinzky’s flagship version is stunning.Szekszárd is the main challenger to Villány’s red crown and 2003 is regarded as a particularly outstanding year here, though I found myself shown barrel samples of Cabernet Franc with alcohol levels of over 17%.
Though its sheer ripeness may impress certain palates, I found the loss of all varietal character or drinkability too much. Apart from the inevitable Cabernets and Merlots, some producers are working hard with local grapes, and Takler’s Kékfrankos is a revelation (mostly Kékfrankos is light and lean) with its velvety black cherry notes and twist of spice. Bikavér is impressive here too and completely different to most interpretations of Bulls Blood.
On a bigger scale, the Liszt winery, owned by German George von Twickel, is making all the right moves in focussing on quality from the vineyards, now nearly 100 hectares. It was the first winery to be sold to a foreigner in 1993 (though Twickel’s mother was Hungarian-born). Merlot and Cab Sauvignon Barrique wines are best but local Kékoportó makes a supple, herb-scented, damson-like wine, in an easy-drinking style.
On the Shoreline
It is a long, and in places hair-raising, drive up to Badascony on the shore of Lake Balaton, historically known for its whites, as reds were forbidden here under the communist regime. The law was changed 5 years ago and today 100 of the 1800 hectares here are red. 50 hectares belong to Domaine Szeremley, now on just their second red vintage. Pinot Noir from imported clones has lovely fine structure and purity of fruit, while a baby Syrah looked slightly jammy but worth pursuing. Szeremley also specialises in unique local grapes like the rediscovered Bakator.
Hungary’s top reds are lavishly praised and priced to match within her borders, though export is not going to so easy. Producers in Villány recently set up a blind tasting challenge against the likes of Petrus, Ornellaia and other international greats. They comfort themselves with how well they did, though as the tasting was done mainly by the winemakers in tune with their own styles, along with a couple of Austrian writers, it is hard to see this making a big news story. Perhaps a few more international judges would give more of an impact.
Beefing it up
No look at Hungary’s reds would be complete without mention of Bikavér, which translates as “Bull’s Blood”. By law it must be blend of at least 3 varieties (while no particular varieties are specified, in Szekszárd they are keen to include Kadarka).It can be produced in both Eger and Szekszárd – both regions claiming their own legend for the origin of name. The problem is that the name has been debased and generally means cheap and rustic at best, and made from whatever didn’t make the grade for varietal wines.Moves to rescue it are lead by the likes of Tibor Gál, Takler, Thummerer and Vesztergombi, but these producers sell on their own names, in spite, not because, of the Bikavér name.
With string of hot vintages in recent years, Hungary has certainly improved her credibility as a producer of serious reds, though still seems to be working out where her real strengths lie. The fashionable Syrah will only ever make it in isolated hot spots, while Cabernet Franc could just be that point of difference that Hungary needs. Pinot Noir also looks promising, but as ever is fickle beast, while of the local reds, it is Kékfrankos that has the edge.
It is little more than 20 years since the fall of communism, and the Hungarian wine industry has made huge strides since the days of shipping trainloads over the Soviet border. There are certainly some impressive red wines to be found, but it remains to be seen whether these can be produced consistently and offered at sensible enough prices to convince the rest of the world that Hungary is a wine country, let alone the place to go for premium reds.