Hungary is one of Europe’s most intriguing historic wine-producing countries, but it remains a blank spot in the world’s wine map for many wine-lover’s. The country is in the unique position of being one of the oldest winemaking countries, yet it is still re-introducing itself to the world—a process that began in the early 1990s after Communism ended and the modern Hungarian wine industry was born. Partly because of its location and recent history, and partly because of the language barrier (so many diacritical marks and accents!) and the unfamiliar varieties and regions, Hungarian wine can be seen as a bit too obscure. It doesn’t help that it’s hard to find a bottle from Hungary in most wine shops around the world, save for perhaps a few dusty bottles in a corner of the “other Europe” section.
But it would be a shame for wine enthusiasts to overlook this corner of the wine world! Hungary is Europe’s 7th biggest wine-producing country! It produces around 300 million liters of wine annually (equal to approximately one percent of the world’s wine), and even produces more wine than well-known winemaking countries like Austria, New Zealand, and Greece.
Hungary has also been doing this for a long time. Wine was made here when Hungary was a part of the Roman Empire. Throughout Hungary’s entire turbulent history—the wars, the occupations, the border changes—winemaking has never stopped. Tokaj wine is even mentioned in Hungary’s National Anthem, the Himnusz: “In the grape fields of Tokaj, You dripped sweet nectar.” Tokaj, by the way, is also the world’s first demarcated region, demarcated in 1737 by a Royal Charter.
The good news is that Hungarian wine is making more and more appearances outside of the country. We realize that wine-lover’s may need some extra guidance when it comes to getting to know Hungarian wine—whether they are just purchasing a bottle to drink at home, or planning a trip to Hungarian wine country. For the past 13 years, Taste Hungary has been focused on thinking about Hungarian wine in a new way—making it understandable, approachable, and fascinating. We do this through our virtual wine tastings, wine tours, writings, wine tastings at our Budapest wine cellar, wines we select to import to the US, and the wines we choose to sell at our Budapest shop.
We hope this short guide to Hungarian wine inspires you to taste some new wines from Hungary … and perhaps to visit Hungary’s vineyards and wine cellars! You’ll be rewarded with some delicious surprises—great value wines with loads of authenticity, wine styles galore, volcanic regions making delicious mineralic wines, intriguing native grapes varieties with hard-to-pronounce names, obscure wine regions, winemaking methods that go back hundreds of years, and amazing food-matching possibilities. Just to name a few (we could go on)!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUNGARIAN WINE
Hungary is firmly, and proudly, a wine-drinking country. Wine was made here when the Romans were here, and when the nomadic Magyars arrived at the end of the ninth century, they were already making wine. Wine has flavored Hungary’s history, right from the beginning. When the Pannonhalma Abbey, which was the first Christian community in Hungary, was consecrated in 1002 by King István, grapes were mentioned as a tithe.
Hungarian wine culture was strong enough to survive even the many setbacks. First there was the 150 years of Ottoman occupation. Then the phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century destroyed 60 percent of the country’s grape vines. Next was World War One and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, followed by World War Two and the deportation of many talented and prominent Jewish wine merchants and winemakers was devastating, particularly in the Tokaj region.
The most recent blow was the five decades of Communist rule which brought bureaucratic policies that favored quantity over quality, the destruction of family businesses, and complete transformation of the wine industry. During this time state farms, which were essentially wine factories, took their direction from the government’s notorious five-year plans. Almost everything was nationalized, and most large vineyards were seized and broken up into tiny plots. There were severe limits on the amount of vineyards people could own (which varied from region to region, and from year to year), so some were able to keep tiny family plots of land. However, they were required to hand over most of their wine to the cooperatives. During these decades many of the vineyards planted with native grape varieties were torn out and replaced by varieties that were easy to grow, yielded large quantities, and were generally more suitable for mass production.
Ever since the government “changes” in 1989, the Hungarian wine industry has been attempting to re-build itself, to recreate an international image for Hungarian wine, and to restore its good reputation in the world. These days, some winemakers are replanting the varieties which were once more widespread, and also re-discovering even older native varieties from the depths of the gene banks. Things have changed in a big way since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. As soon as they could, winemakers—some whose families had vineyards taken away, and some who never had the chance to work for themselves—started buying up vineyards, piece by piece, and building modern wineries. What Hungarians dub their “new generation” of winemakers has brought a renewed passion in Hungary for wine culture—drinking wine, learning about it, and, of course, making it.
6 HUNGARIAN WINE REGIONS TO KNOW
Hungary has 22 wine regions spread across the country. Like elsewhere in Europe, Hungary also uses an origin-based classification system. There are 31 PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) areas in Hungary (which is the highest category) and six PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) areas. All of the 22 wine regions have PDO status. The reason there are more PDOs than wine regions is because some of them are sub regions. Read more about Hungarian wine classification here.
Tokaj is undoubtedly Hungary’s most famous region, and it has been for hundreds of years! The region, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located in northeastern Hungary, at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers. It is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Budapest. A small portion of the wine region also falls on the Slovak side of the border. While many Hungarian regions emphasize vineyard origin, it is most important in Tokaj, where grand cru vineyards have been classified since 1737 (dűlő on the label indicates a specific vineyard).
Tokaj is the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú, which is an amazingly complex sweet wine made from the region’s local varieties (Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárga Muskotály, Kövérszőlő, Zéta, and Kabar). Aszú is an extremely concentrated wine, high in both natural sugar and acidity, with more flavors than you could imagine possible in one wine. Making Aszú starts with the harvest, which only happens when the grapes have achieved botrytis (also known as ‘noble rot’). Botrytis is an essential concept to know to understand Tokaj. It occurs only when the climate is right, and it dries and shrivels the over-ripe grapes, turning them into the raisin-like “Aszú berries.” This concentrates their flavors and sugars, giving the wine distinct complex flavors, a honeyed character, and high amounts of residual sugar. For Aszú wine, grapes are selectively harvested—one at a time, by hand—multiple times.
Additionally, there are many other wine styles—both sweet and dry—in this white wine region with volcanic soil. You cannot get any sweeter than eszencia, which is actually not strictly a wine due to its high sugar content, which causes it to ferment extremely slowly, never reaching more than four to six percent alcohol. Szamorodni is another important traditional wine style in Tokaj. Whole clusters of grapes, which contain a mixture of both botrytized and healthy grapes, are harvested late (without the individual berry selection as in Aszú). The resulting wine can be either dry or sweet depending on the sugar content of the grapes.
Tokaj’s dry wines, particularly Furmint, are the region’s latest big success. Since the labor-intensive sweet wines are increasingly harder to sell for most wineries, many winemakers see dry wine production as a key to their future success. Tokaj’s dry wines are characterized as having high acidity, often a bit of residual sugar, lots of minerality, and great potential for pairing with food.
The Eger region is Hungary’s northernmost red-wine-producing region, located in northeastern Hungary in the foothills of the Bükk mountains (about an hour-and-a-half drive from Budapest). One of Hungary’s most historic wine regions, the town of Eger has a charming city center, a castle (which is associated with the legend of Bull’s Blood), and remnants from the period of Ottoman occupation (a minaret and a Turkish bath house).
The wine most associated with this region is the Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”) blend, which brought the region fame. But the mass-produced Bikavérs of questionable quality produced under Communism also brought the region shame, and greatly damaged its reputation. There are great high-quality wines coming from Eger these days, but the region still struggles to overcome its negative legacy associated with the flood of cheap industrially produced Bikavér.
Egri Bikavér is a fruity and spicy blend, which comes in three quality levels—Classicus, Superior, and Grand Superior. The backbone of the wine is Kékfrankos, and the rest is comprised of other authorized varieties from the region. The higher quality levels require more oak ageing (a minimum of 12 months, compared with six months for the Classicus), and progressively lower maximum yields per hectare.
Bikavér is not the only blend produced in the region. In 2010 producers created the Egri Csillag blend as a white complement to Bikavér. Csillag also comes in different quality levels, and is designed to be a lively, fruity, floral wine made mostly from the Carpathian-basin varieties, such as Olaszrizling, Hárslevelű, Leanyka, Királyleányka, Zengő, Zenit, and others. Other wines to seek out from the Eger region are reds like Pinot Noir, Kékfrankos, and Syrah.
Villány is Hungary’s southernmost wine region, located near the Croatian border (about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Budapest). Because it is the warmest of Hungary’s wine regions, it is often called the “Mediterranean of Hungary.” Villány’s winemakers have been deeply inspired by Bordeaux, which is evident in the region’s robust, bold reds made from the Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc), both as blends and single varietal versions. Villány’s wines are typically characterized by their ripe tannins, high alcohol, full body, and oak. However, reliance on heavy oak has eased over the years, and winemakers are also making fresher, lighter, and fruitier styles.
Villány was one Hungary’s first regions to really take off after the fall of Communism, when small wineries and families began bottling their own high quality wines again, opening guesthouses to accommodate the curious wine tourists, and building state-of-the-art wineries. The quaint village of Villány has a strong Swabian influence, which is evident in its main drag lined with traditional whitewashed wine cellars. With many wineries operating tasting cellars on this street, it’s a perfect place for wine travelers to settle in for a weekend red wine tasting jaunt.
Villány’s winemakers were among the first to realize the importance of having a protection of origin designation, and they created their own in 2006. Villány origin protected wines (DHC) come in three quality levels—Classic, Premium and Super Premium, which require different periods of ageing. The category of Super Premium is reserved for single varietal Cabernet Franc which has been aged for at least two years.
Villány has had such good success with Cabernet Franc that this Bordeaux variety has become the region’s specialty over the past 20 years, and the wine most associated with Villány. Villány even has its own quality category for wines single varietal Cabernet Franc, Villányi Franc. The late wine writer Michael Broadbent is credited with making the statement that confirmed to Villány winemakers that they were on the right path: “Cabernet Franc has found its natural home in Villány,” he wrote in Decanter in 2000. From then, there was no looking back from Villány’s dedication to Cabernet Franc. Historically, Portugieser has been (and still is) a mainstay in Villány. Kékfrankos is increasing in importance in Villány, where it makes a delicious juicy, fruity wine. Some whites, such as Olaszrizling, Chardonnay, and Hárslevelű can be found in the region’s cooler areas.
Szekszárd is located in southern Hungary, about 70 kilometers north of Villány. Both are premier red wine regions of about the same size. But Szekszárd has a much lower profile than Villány, its neighbor to the south. Viticulture here also dates back to Roman times. Szekszárd is best known for its gorgeous landscape of vineyard-filled valleys, and as the other Hungarian region which is allowed to use the name Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) for its signature red wine blend. In fact, the first time the name Bikavér was mentioned was in an 1846 poem in connection with Szekszárd, a few years before the name Egri Bikavér was first documented.
Szekszárd’s version of Bikavér differs from Eger’s in a few ways. Both are Kékfrankos dominated blends (however Szekszárd’s requires a minimum of 45% Kékfrankos, while Eger specifies a minimum of 30%). Szekszárd also requires five percent of Kadarka in the blend. In Szekszárd there are two quality levels, both of which require a minimum of 12 months of oak aging. The main difference between the two levels is that the premium Bikavér specifies a lower yield in the vineyard. The best Szekszárdi Bikavérs are full-bodied and complex, with lively acidity. Kékfrankos and Kadarka are the grapes that Szekszárd is most known for, but there is also plenty of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
Lake Balaton, located in western Hungary, is the largest lake in Central Europe, and a big tourist destination. Grapes are grown all around the 78 kilometer-long lake, which encompasses several wine regions and PDOs. Badacsony, located on the northern shore, is one of the most interesting regions to explore—for the travel as well as the wine. Badacsony is an iconic Hungarian region—in terms of its appearance and its winemaking history. Balaton’s entire northern shore is dominated by hills of different shapes and sizes—an unusual landscape, which was formed by volcanoes millions of years ago. Mount Badacsony stands out among these hills for its flat top, and being the highest point on the landscape (438 meters high). The Badacsony region comprises several hills, the names of which were traditionally included on the wine labels, since each hill has its own character. The best-known hill is Szent György Hill, where several wineries make really unique wines. Head across the lake to the southern side to best admire this stunning view!
Badacsony’s wines are unique, and memorable for their concentration, minerality, and full-body. They also often have a characteristic saltiness, which comes from the varied volcanic soil. The grapes grown here are primarily white, and Olaszrizling is the most planted variety. Winemakers in Badacsony produce, arguably, the country’s finest versions of Olaszrizling. Badacsony is also known as the primary home of Kékneylű, an obscure variety which was once widely planted in the region. Kéknyelű is another one of those special local varieties which fell out of favor because of the heavy vineyard work it requires. Kéknyelű is also unique in that it needs another variety, often Budai Zöld, to help it fertilize (since it only has female flowers). Kéknyelű was almost extinct until a few winemakers began reviving it. It’s a wonderful wine, and a must-taste in order to understand the Badacsony terroir.
Somló is one of the country’s smallest—yet most exciting—wine regions. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in its unique and powerful wines. Somló is located in northwestern Hungary, just north of Lake Balaton. It’s known for its dramatic landscape, mineral-rich terroir, indigenous varieties, and patchwork of tiny vineyards and producers. Somló—which has less than 600 hectares of vineyards, and comprises three volcanic hills—is one of Hungary’s most historically renowned regions. Winemaking at a Benedictine convent founded by St. István in Somló has been documented from 1135. Its fans have included the Habsburgs, Eszterházys, Maria Theresa, and Queen Victoria.
Somló Hill is dubbed “Witness Mountain,” for the unique shape of the hill. As it rises from the earth, it appears as if it is standing watch over the flat farmlands below. Another distinctive characteristic is the black basalt bedrock, which retains heat from the sunlight and radiates it back to keep the vines warm. Winemaking in Somló is dominated by small-scale wineries, with terraced vineyard plots covering the hills on all sides. The joke on Somló is that if you buy a vineyard it comes with an abandoned house. So as winemakers acquire more vineyard land, they also collect more old, abandoned houses.
Practically only white varieties are grown in Somló, and the region is synonymous with Juhfark. Furmint, Olaszrizling, and Hárslevelű are the other most important varieties. These days some of Hungary’s finest sparkling wine also comes from the region, from the Kreinbacher Estate, which is one of the few large wineries in the region. Somlói wines are mostly single varietal, characterized by their minerality, really high acidity, saltiness, and complexity. They often have stony and smokey flavors. They are very age-worthy. Typically aged in large, old oak casks, they usually even need a few years to open up. Somló is a perfect region to spend a few days hiking, wandering the hilly vineyards, and tasting wines.
7 ESSENTIAL WINE EXPERIENCES IN HUNGARY
The wonderful thing about wine is that it is a subject that never ends. It will perpetually surprise you, and keep you learning! Hungary is an ideal place to explore in person through its wine. Travelers will be delighted at the small scale of most wineries, which means that visiting them can be a very personally-tailored experience.
- Explore the ancient cellars in the Tokaj region—One of the really unique things about the Tokaj region is its extensive system of underground cellars, which provide the precise microclimate needed to perfectly age Tokaj wine. Carved into the volcanic tuff, these long narrow cellars are covered with a special puffy black mould (Cladosporium cellare) which feeds on the alcohol which evaporates from the wine. Despite all of the mould, the cellars smell fresh, clean, and alive. Many of these cellars have been hand-carved, starting in the 15th century. One of the most famous is the historic Rákoczi Pince, a one kilometer-long cellar in the center of Tokaj, where János Szapolyai was secretly crowned King of Hungary in the 16th century.
- Visit a cooper to see how oak barrels are made—Not all wine-producing countries also produce their own barrels, but Hungary has been producing high-quality barrels for centuries. Hungarian oak barrels have their own flavor profile, and are valued by many wineries around the world. Most Hungarian oak comes from the Zemplén forest (which surrounds the Tokaj region) and the Mecsek forest (surrounding the Szekszárd and Villány regions). Visit a cooper in the Tokaj region to learn more about this important aspect of winemaking!
- Discover an unknown region—In this guide I’ve discussed Hungary’s most important wine regions, but one of the joys of wine travel in Hungary is actually getting to know the smaller, more obscure regions. Hungary has 22 wine regions (and 37 protected geographic areas). You’ll encounter winemaking on a very small scale and personal level once you visit some of the lesser-known regions (although this can be true about most wine regions in Hungary). If you enjoy hiking, perhaps explore the Mátra or Bükk regions and add some hikes with your wine tasting. Want to check out Hungary’s Great Plain? Then you can also add a visit to the Kunság wine region. The Zala wine region lies in one of the most gorgeous regions of the country, perfect furniture lover’s to explore. Or, just visit a wine bar in Budapest to sample wines from these regions!
- Hike and picnic in a vineyard—Visiting wineries is fun and interesting, but the vineyards are where the wines are born! Put on your hiking shoes, pack a picnic (with a bottle of wine), and spend a few hours exploring the vineyards and their vistas. Hungary has countless gorgeous vineyards, across the country, where you can easily spend a half a day (or longer) exploring. Some of the areas I’ve most enjoyed doing this in are Szent György-hegy in Badacsony, the entire Somló hill, Káli Medence, and all over Tokaj.
- Attend a wine festival—In normal times, there’s a full calendar of vinous events to choose from all over Hungary, all year round. Wine festivals are a great place to taste many different wines from different regions in one go … to figure out what you like. The biggest festival is the annual Budapest Wine Festival which takes place in the Buda Castle in the fall. But all wine regions have their own festivals. Some of the best include The Mád Furmint Festival (usually in August); Bor, mámor, Bénye (in August); the Villány Red Wine Festival (in October); and the Ördögkatlan Festival (in August, more of an arts festival, but it takes place in the Villány region and many concerts are held at wineries).
- Spend the night at a winery hotel or bed and breakfast—I was hooked on winery accommodation from my first stay at a winery guest house in Villány when the winemaker’s wife served us wine as part of the homemade breakfast spread. There’s a range of winery accommodation available in Hungary, from high-end places to more family-style apartments at small cellars. Best are the ones which are situated right in the vineyards.
- Sommelier-led tasting at The Tasting Table—At our wine cellar in Budapest’s Palace District we offer twice daily wine tastings, paired with fantastic local artisan cheese. Let us introduce you to Hungarian wine through our curated tastings and stories of the regions, winemakers, and wines.
Taste and Learn Hungarian Wine With Us!
Join our sommelier-led tasting experiences, featuring 5 or 8 fine Hungarian wines, paired with some of the country’s best artisan cheese and charcuterie.
Taste and Learn Hungarian Wine With Us!
Join our sommelier-led tasting experiences, featuring 5 or 8 fine Hungarian wines, paired with some of the country’s best artisan cheese and charcuterie.
8 IMPORTANT GRAPE VARIETIES IN HUNGARY
Hungarian wine has so many things going for it, including its great variety! There are many more fascinating (and delicious) indigenous grapes to discover, as well as international varieties. These are just a few of the most important local/regional grape varieties …
It’s pretty safe to say that Furmint is Hungary’s flagship grape. It is scattered around the country in several regions, but nowhere is it more important than in Tokaj, where it has been planted since the 17th century. It is also one of the stars of the Somló region. Furmint can produce incredibly complex wines, and is the main ingredient in Tokaj Aszú. It’s often blended with Hárslevelű. Because it is a late-ripening variety with high acidity and sugar, Furmint is highly susceptible to botrytis, which is why it is so important in Tokaj. Furmint is highly reflective of its terroir, and winemakers in Tokaj love showcasing the different vineyards through single vineyard Furmints. One of the joys of Furmint is that it can be made in a range of styles—from fresh, crisp, and fruity to more serious barrel-aged wines with great body, complexity, and aging potential. Younger Furmints can have lots of green apple, lemon, lime, pear, and grapefruit flavors. While older wines might have peach, quince, citrus. It is a joy to experience different styles of Furmint.
Hárslevelű (pronounced harsh-level-oo) is named so for the shape of its leaves, which resemble those of a Linden tree. Hárslevelű is a white Hungarian grape, and is the 10th most planted variety in Hungary. It’s planted in many regions, but produces the best results in Tokaj (where about 65 percent of it is planted) and Somló. DNA testing has shown that Hárslevelű is the offspring of Furmint, which also often overshadows it. But Hárslevelű makes a wonderful wine, with a good backbone, and flavors of linden honey, fresh blossoms, chestnut, cloves, pear, quince, and elderflower. It can make a dry or sweet wine.
Juhfark is a Hungarian variety which is mostly found in Somló, one of Hungary’s smallest wine regions. Juhfark is so important in Somló that it is synonymous with this volcanic region. Somló is an important grape in Hungary, historically and culturally. In the past it was actually sold at pharmacies, as it was believed to be medicinal. It’s also known as the “wedding night wine.” since legend has it that consuming it on your wedding night will lead to a male heir. It has been enjoyed by aristocrats and royalty for centuries. The name Juhfark means “sheep’s tail” (it’s named so for the shape of its bunch), and it’s quite a distinctive wine—with lots of acidity and minerality. It’s a perfect match for many of Hungary’s paprika-spiced dishes, and a wine you will remember.
Olaszrizling is the country’s most widely planted grape. It’s a Central European variety which is found in many other countries under different names. Though the direct English translation is “Italian Riesling,” it is neither Italian, nor Riesling (in English it’s known as Welschriesling). Olaszrizling is widely grown almost everywhere in Hungary, which means it can be found in many styles and levels of quality. While it’s often the low-end wine that you’ll find in pubs and used in the beloved fröccs (spritzer), Olaszrizling in the right hands and the right region is also capable of making great wine. Easy-drinking Olaszrizling can be enjoyable (and found especially around Lake Balaton), but look to the volcanic regions of Badacsony and Somló for the best Olaszrizling.
While Cabernet Sauvignon may be one of the world’s best-known grapes, its lesser-known relative, Cabernet Franc, is the one worth seeking out in Hungary. It’s unusual to find single varietal Cabernet Franc outside of the Loire Valley, but pure 100 percent Cab Franc is something that Hungary has been becoming known for in recent years. The Villány region takes Cabernet Franc the most seriously, and the Cab Francs produced there are some of the best in the world. Villány also has its own quality category specifically for premium 100 percent Cabernet Franc, called Villányi Franc, which has two quality levels (Premium and Super Premium). Fine Cabernet Franc also comes from Eger and Szekszárd.
“Kadarka is the grape I want to love,” my husband, Gábor, likes to say. “But it doesn’t let me.” He’s not the only one who finds Kadarka divisive. Kadarka is a little-known grape, which is thought to have originated in the Balkans. It’s also one of those grapes that has a rough past to make amends with, as much poor-quality Kadarka was previously produced. One of Kadarka’s problems is that, like Pinot Noir, it’s not an easy grape to work with in the vineyard. But in the hands of a talented winegrower and winemaker, Kadarka can make an excellent wine, and a good Kadarka is a revelation. It can be a vibrant and elegant wine, with a lively acidity and nice sour cherry and cranberry notes. Look to Szekszárd and Eger for some nice examples.
Kékfrankos is an important grape variety in this part of the world, and it is best known as Blaufrankisch in the Burgenland region of neighboring Austria. Kékfrankos is Hungary’s most planted red grape variety by a long shot, and it is planted in nearly all regions (except those that only grow white grapes). As you’d expect, this means that it comes in a range of quality levels. But Kékfrankos is a grape that is being taken increasingly seriously by winemakers in regions like Villány, Szekszárd, Eger, Mátra, and Sopron (known as the Capital of Kékfrankos, and situated just across the border from Burgenland). Styles can vary between the cooler climate regions, like Eger, to the warmer southern regions. It is a grape that expresses terroir well, and many winemakers take advantage of this by making single vineyard versions of Kékfrankos. Some of Hungary’s best reds these days are made with Kékfrankos. The best ones are elegant, complex, and balanced with fresh acidity and fruit flavors such as blackberry, sour cherry, and raspberry. The more serious versions often get some oak aging.
Portugieser (formerly known as Kékoportó, until a name change was forced by EU law) is planted widely around Central Europe. In Hungary it is one of the flagships of Villány. It is mostly produced as an easy-drinking wine for early consumption (in the same vein as Beaujolais Nouveau), and is typically released as the new wine in November for St. Martin’s Day. Portugieser is typically a fruity and spicy light-bodied. However, some winemakers, especially in Villány, do produce more serious versions.
9 IMPORTANT WINE WORDS IN HUNGARIAN
The Hungarian language is a notoriously difficult language for foreigners to learn, and Hungarians are usually thrilled—and often amused—when foreigners make an effort. Unlike most European languages, which are Indo-European, Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, which is related only to Finnish, Estonian, and a few languages spoken by small groups of people around the Urals. Here are a few important words to get you started …
- Bor / Wine
- Vörös / Red
- Fehér / White
- Pezsgő / Sparkling wine
- Pince / Cellar or winery
- Egészségedre / Cheers
- Édes / Sweet
- Száraz / Dry
- Dűlő / Vineyard (on the label, this indicates it comes from a single vineyard)
10 MUST-TRY HUNGARIAN WINES
- Dry Szamorodni—One of Tokaj’s most unique wines, this wine is fermented to dryness, aged under flor (a veil of type of yeast which is unique to Tokaj’s cellars), and then oak-aged for at least six months. Though no fortification is allowed, dry Szamorodni is reminiscent of sherry.
- Tokaji Essencia—Tokaji Eszencia is the world’s sweetest wine. It is so rich and sweet (and expensive) that it is typically served not in a glass, but in a specially-made crystal spoon. Eszencia is only made in stellar vintages, and can reach more than 800 gram per liter of residual sugar. Eszencia is the free-run juice of Aszú berries, and even after fermenting for years, it is so sweet that it cannot reach more than a few percent alcohol level. A taste of this thick, honey-like wine is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which you can do in Tokaj.
- Tokaji Aszú—The pride and joy of Hungary, Aszú is made from hand-harvested botrytized grapes, which are selected berry by berry. It’s an incredibly labor-intensive wine to make, and is only produced in vintages when the weather is just right for botrytis to occur. This sweet wine is unbelievably complex, with a long finish that may even linger into your dreams.
- Single varietal Cabernet Franc—Hungary excels at pure Cabernet Franc in a way that no other country in the world does. This grape often doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but Villány winemakers are devoted to Cab Franc. Try some different single vineyard Cab Francs from Villány and Szekszárd to see how wonderful this grape variety can be.
- Dry Furmint—Wonderful dry Furmint is produced in a few regions, most notably Tokaj, Somló, and Balatonfüred. In Tokaj winemakers take this style especially seriously, and use it to emphasize the really varying terroirs in the region by making single vineyard Furmints. Furmint comes in so many different styles, and I highly recommend tasting as many as you can!
- Olaszrizling from a volcanic region—While you may be offered a basic version of Olaszrizling in your fröccs (which is fine), definitely seek out an Olaszrizling from Badacsony, perhaps the region that does it best. You’ll get a wine that is mineraly, fruity, and creamy. Olaszrizling from Somló is also an excellent choice. You won’t even recognize these wines as being from the same grape as that basic version.
- Kékfrankos—The most widely planted red grape in Hungary, there are so many delicious versions to sample—from a structured, fresh, and elegant single vineyard Kékfrankos from Szekszárd, to a fruity, silky version from Eger.
- As many obscure native grapes as you can—The best thing about exploring new wine regions is tasting the indigenous grapes that are only found there. Hungary has many of these special grapes, some of which teetered on the edge of extinction, only to be saved by a curious winegrower. Ones to look out for include Fekete Járdovány and Csókaszőlő.
- Rosé and Siller—Rosé is very popular in Hungary, and Hungarian rosés are beautifully crisp, fresh, and fruity. Rosé is made in all regions of the country, and from all varieties, particularly the local varieties of Kadarka, Kékfrankos, and Portugieser. If you love rosé, also try Siller—a local wine that is like rosé, but with a deeper color and fuller body which comes from a longer period of skin contact.
- Bull’s Blood (Bikavér) from Eger AND Szekszárd—Bikavér is Hungary’s best-known blended wine, and it’s made not just in the northern Eger region, but also in the southern Szekszárd region. The blend has been made for at least 150 years, and the two regions have different rules regarding the winemaking, components, aging, and yield. Kékfrankos is the backbone of both blends, but a small amount of Kadarka is required in the Szekszárd version. Taste them both next to each other to see the difference!