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An ode to that infamous bottom-shelf Bull’s Blood, and all the others that followed

11 minutes read

My first bottle of Hungarian wine was an Egervin Bull’s Blood that I found by accident on the bottom shelf of my corner convenience store in Washington DC. I had to stoop down to pick the bottle up from the dusty shelf. The label was bright red and black with a bull on it. At 21 years old, I was not an experienced wine buyer (or drinker), and there was nothing about the cheap-looking label that should have made me pick this wine instead of the more cheerful looking bottles from Australia, California, and Chile. As a college student with a job waiting tables, I did appreciate the $3.99 price.

 In 1997 when I so happily bought this bottle—and had my very first taste of Hungarian wine—I knew next to nothing about Hungarian wine, or wine in general. But I was dating a Hungarian guy named Gábor, so I thought that stumbling across that bottle was perfect. That warm spring night we drank the bottle together in the backyard. It was the only Hungarian wine available in the area at that time. Not even my neighborhood wine shop had any, and it was (and still is) one of DC’s oldest and most venerable wine shops.

We bought several more bottles over the next few months—not because it was a great wine (it wasn’t), but because it was from Hungary. Gábor was missing his homeland. And I was eager to get to know more about Hungary. I couldn’t tell you now how that wine tasted (watch this video to get an idea). But those cheap bottles of Bull’s Blood hit the spot at that moment. It was the first time I really understood the power that wine had to bring people together, and to take them places. For $3.99 this wine was my entrance to Hungary. And at that moment there’s no way we could ever have imagined the lifelong path that Hungarian wine would take us down in the future. 

When I tasted my first Bull’s Blood—which is called Bikavér in Hungarian (bika means bull and vér means blood)—I didn’t know that It was one of Hungary’s historically important wine styles. The blend has been made for at least 150 years in Eger, a semi-volcanic, cooler-climate region in northeastern Hungary. Bikavér has protected designation of origin status in Eger (and also in the southern region of Szekszárd), so there are winemaking regulations. It’s made in three quality levels in Eger: Classicus, Superior, and Grand Superior. Kékfrankos must be the dominant grape (comprising 30 to 35 percent of the blend), and up to 13 total grapes can be included for Classicus and 12 for Superior and Grand Superior. Only four grapes are required to be included in the blend. Classicus needs six months of oak aging, and Superior and Grand Superior need 12 months. There are also rules regarding alcohol content, period of skin contact, and vineyard yields. Bikavér has pretty high acidity, medium tannins, and oakiness that doesn’t dominate. Regulations vary slightly in Szekszárd.

Read More About Bikavér

That summer I visited Hungary for the first time and promptly fell in love with Hungarian food and wine. There were long family lunches prepared masterfully by Gábor’s mom under the chestnut trees, starting with húsleves and ending with aranygaluska. She made something different every day, and I reveled in tasting all of it. Gábor’s dad favored the mineralic wines of Somló so there was always a bottle of Somlói Furmint or Juhfark on the table. My first wine region visits were to Eger and Badacsony. That summer of eating and drinking European style convinced me that good food and wine are meant to go together, and it kick-started my interest in learning about wine.

When I bought that first bottle of Bull’s Blood, I had no idea that it was probably Hungary’s most infamous wine. “Bikavér used to be the pride of the two regions. Then, during Hungary’s Communist era, the government limited use of the Bikavér label to producers in Eger and instituted mass-production techniques that led to the creation of vast quantities of cheap, sour Egri Bikavér,” wrote Darrel Joseph in an article called “The Revival of Hungary’s Bull’s Blood” in Wine Spectator in 2000. “Most of this ended up on bottom supermarket shelves and ruined the image of Bikavér in Hungary as well as abroad.”

The very bottle of Bull’s Blood that was my entrée into Hungarian is the wine that did considerable harm to the reputation of Hungarian wine. Wineries are still trying to recover from this, and to distance themselves from these wines. “If you consider Bikavér as a brand, and you are not able to keep its quality and style solid, then it is not a proper brand. It is useless, and cannot transmit any values, so consumers will get confused,’ Péter Vida Jr. told me. He works with his family’s winery, Vida Borbirtok, in Szekszárd. His father—Péter Vida Sr. won the prestigious “winemaker of the year” award in 2011, and we sell their wines in our Budapest shop and import some of them to the US. “As far as I know there are still millions of bottles of the low-quality Bikavér being produced in Eger, and only around a million bottles of the high-quality Bikavérs from Eger and Szekszard together. If this does not change, you cannot expect this brand work properly.” Of course it’s great to see that more and more high quality Bikavér is being made and recognized internationally, Péter said. But it’s a curvy road to success without fixing the quality issue. 

Read More About Szekszárd

Two years after my first visit, I moved to Budapest with just a suitcase, a fresh journalism degree, and a plan to discover the country as a freelance writer. This naturally included countless wine and food adventures since I especially sought out  food and wine stories. Later I got a culinary school degree, and embarked on more wine studies and WSET certifications. Once you get hooked on wine, you can spend the rest of your life studying it—from the science and the geography of it, to its history and culture. At our wedding, Gábor and I served wine from the Mátra region, after having visited the winery and fallen in love with its wines. When I tasted that first $3.99 Bull’s Blood, I had no idea how rewarding and exciting it would be to explore Hungary’s developing wine culture firsthand. It is a small (but mighty) winemaking country, which at that time had just started to rebuild its wine industry and imagine what its future could be. That these wines were so hard to find outside of Hungary (it is somewhat easier now) was like being let in on a secret. If you wanted to taste Hungary’s best and most unique wines, you had to be there!

Our Guide to Hungarian Wine

Since then, I’ve only been immersing myself further into the depths of Hungarian wine—from writing and tourism, to retailing and importing. In 2008 I published a book on Hungarian food and wine, Food Wine Budapest (Little Bookroom). Gábor and I subsequently launched a food and wine tour company, Taste Hungary. That was before food tours were a thing: ours was Budapest’s first. In 2014 we opened a wine cellar in Budapest, where we could host our customers for wine tastings and dinners. But once they returned home, our guests still couldn’t easily find high-quality Hungarian wines. So, in 2019 we started a company in the US to give wine-lover’s there access to better quality, more unique Hungarian wines than we could find way back when our only option was that cheap Bull’s Blood. We directly import Hungarian wine, and sell it in our online shop and through our Hungarian wine club. Our warehouse is just 2.5 miles from the shop where I bought that bottle of Egervin Bull’s Blood. When Covid hit and our wine cellar in Budapest temporarily closed, we pivoted to the local market and opened a wine and cheese shop across the street. Naturally, we sell exclusively Hungarian wine. 

Can all of this be traced back to that bottom-shelf bottle of Bull’s Blood? Probably not. But maybe? That wine was undoubtedly a spark, which has been burning ever since. 

Our Wine Importing Journey
Eger's Nagy-Eged hill

Bikavér gets its name from a historic 1552 battle against the Ottomans in Eger’s castle. According to the legend, the Hungarian defenders drank lots of red wine to fortify themselves against the invaders, who thought they were drinking the blood of bulls. Bikavér wine has been produced since the early 19th century. So it’s a wine with a long history, which once brought Eger fame. But then it brought shame. Now winemakers are trying to re-invent it as Hungary’s flagship blend. But they are still so desperate to disassociate themselves from the image of the cheap, mass-produced Bull’s Blood, that many are hesitant to label their first-class Bikavér blends as Bikavér. Often they’ll use invented names, just so they are not put in the same category abroad. Today’s Bikavérs can be truly wonderful and complex wines. In a recent issue of Decanter (UK edition) dedicated to Hungarian wine, four Bikavérs were singled out: St. Andrea Merengő Egri Bikavér Grand Superior (95 points), St. Andrea Aldás Bikavér Superior (93 points), Bolyki Bikavér (91 points), and from Szekszárd, Sebestyén Iván-Völgy Bikavér (93 points). There are definitely many others worth seeking out.

Read More About Eger
A collection of the Bikavérs in our Budapest shop

These days that $3.99 Egervin Bull’s Blood—my introduction to the world of Hungarian wine—would be one of the last wines I’d reach for. Wine doesn’t need to be expensive for it to take you places. Many of my favorite wine memories are more about where I drank the wine, who I drank it with, what we were doing, and how that wine made me feel. Meeting wines that told great stories—stories of the people who made them, the history of their place, and their terroir—is what got me hooked on wine. Those are the wines that have kept me excited to keep studying, exploring, and tasting new wines. And also to build my career (and my own business) around Hungarian wine. 

Egervin makes wine in huge quantities. It grew out of a former Communist-era cooperative, and had one of the largest acreage vineyards in the country. It’s not exactly the type of wine that would excite someone who wants to get to know what is unique about Hungary, or to place a face to the wine. Had I not had a specific reason to seek out Hungarian wine, I may not have continued with it after that first unremarkable bottle. This wine has probably tarnished many wine-drinkers’ opinions on Hungarian wine, which is what worries the region’s winemakers so much. 

Read About Our Wine Club

These days I have plenty of other Bikavérs to turn to, such as the Classicus Egri Bilavér from the Böjt Winery, a family operation run by a brother and sister pair, Gergő and Boglárka. It’s a lively wine, and its high acidity makes it great with many types of food. Or, from St. Andrea Winery I love the Aldás Bikavér Superior and “Hangács” Egri Bikavér Grand Superior. St. Andrea is run by the father-son winemaking team, György Lőrincz Sr. and Jr. Founded in 2002, it’s one of Eger’s top wineries and several of their wines are now iconic labels in Hungary. These are all really delicious wines, but what feels best when I drink them is knowing that Gábor and I import these wines to America, which is not an easy undertaking (we also sell them in our Budapest shop). Hopefully one of these fine Bikavérs will be somebody’s first bottle of Hungarian wine. And perhaps it will take them on a journey as exciting as the one I’ve been on.

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