Eger is one of Hungary’s most renowned historical wine regions. The wine region is named for the town of Eger, with its beautiful old city center. Overlooked by a castle, this is the site of many stories and legends, and it plays a major role in the story of how Egri Bikavér got its name. Eger is best known for this legendary wine, which is otherwise known in the Anglo-Saxon world as Bull’s Blood.
But Eger is one of the few regions that produces both excellent reds and whites. In fact, it was better known for its white wines in the past, even though it is now increasingly dominated by reds. The region is also sometimes compared to Burgundy since its wines possess great poise, elegance, and acidity. And like Burgundy, Eger’s wines reflect individual vineyard terroirs.
Eger lies in the northeast of Hungary in the foothills of the Bükk mountains. Most of its 5,618 hectares of vineyards are located around 160 to 180 meters above sea level on gentle plateaus and sunny south, west and east-facing slopes. However. The magnificent Nagy Eged Hill to the north of the town of Eger boasts vines at 500 meters high, the highest in Hungary. The region is divided into two zones: Eger and Debrő.
Climate and Soil
Eger’s climate is relatively cool compared to the rest of the country. Its lengthy winters and late springs give it a rather short growing season. But it does boast warm summers and sunny autumns enabling the grapes to ripen fully. The Mátra and Bükk Mountains protect the region from cold north winds in the winter, but also ensure cooling breezes on hot summer days. The region therefore has a temperate continental climate. But an uneven pattern of rainfall means that vineyards sometimes suffer from damaging heavy rains. This temperate northern climate and its higher location mean that wines are elegant and balanced, with fresh acidity and bright fruit.
The region’s bedrocks and soils are diverse, rather like a patchwork quilt in some places. In the north, notably in Nagy Eged, the bedrock is predominantly limestone overlain with various brown forest soils. The southern part of the region is rather characterized by volcanic rhyolite tuff, which is perfect for carving the region’s numerous cellars and their networks of underground passageways kilometers long into the rock. Soils are mostly brown forest soils, as well as loess, loam, rendzina, and nyirok.
Eger has been connected with viticulture and winemaking since the founding of the Eger diocese and chapter in 1004. Moreover, King Stephen’s bestowal of wine tithe incomes on the church during this century also aided the development of winemaking. Cellars were built to store this tithe wine, including the huge, bishopric labyrinth of a cellar system running under the city.
The Mongol invasion decimated the population, but like elsewhere, the region was soon repopulated by new settlers, such as the French, German, Flemish, and Walloons. The region then benefitted from French viticultural traditions and Walloon cooperage skills. The winemakers embraced the use of wooden barrels for wine storage instead of the previously used water skins.
The church continued to play an important role in the region’s wine history. One of Hungary’s largest bishoprics had its seat in the castle, and required wine for ceremonial use. Cistercian monks arriving in the area were able to supply its needs and other demand for wine from the vines planted on the slopes around the city. Viticulture flourished and wine sales helped finance the defense of the Eger castle against the Ottomans. The city defended the castle against the Ottomans for 91 years, but they finally took the city in 1596. Interestingly, although Muslim, they appreciated the income from the vineyards, so they spared the vines.
White varieties dominated until the 17th century until the Serbs arrived with their Kadarka and their red wine culture. Black varieties began to replace the local white varieties. Wine production increased steadily until the end of the 18th century, with the share of white wines falling to less than 20 percent. There were two categories of wine–a light red, almost like Siller–called vinum subrubum–and a true red wine, called vinum rubum, which was much rarer. Indeed, most growers blended their white and red wines together. This tradition of blending laid the foundations for Bikavér –which appeared far later than the events which supposedly spawned its name took place.
In the late 19th century, the region was adversely affected by severe soil erosion, with many vineyards being abandoned. Phylloxera arrived and destroyed around 95 percent of vines, which was more than anywhere else in the country. After vineyard reconstruction, Bikavér became one of Hungary’s most respected and best-known wines, until its image was destroyed by the thin wines of the Communist era. Its success was due to efficient marketing, unique terroir and, in part, the Kadarka variety, which constituted around 70 percent of the blend, along with some Kékfrankos and Menoire.
The mass-produced, industrial wines churned out under Communism succeeded in destroying the region’s reputation for quality wine. Fortunately, since the 1990s, when vineyards began to come back into the hands of small and mid-sized wineries, the region has been working on redefining itself and rebuilding its quality image. One of the first steps was when the local wine community adopted a strict Bikavér code in 1997, followed later by the introduction of the new higher levels of Superior and Grand Superior. Eger is also another good example of winemakers cooperating to promote the region’s quality image. Egri Borműhely, a cooperation of ten quality winemakers, was founded for the purpose of addressing the region’s issues together. They have also just launched a special Eger bottle, inspired by old-style bottles used for Bikavér in the 1930s.
Styles of Egri Bikavér
Eger is known for its blends and is synonymous with Egri Bikavér, which has been a Hungarikum since 2017. This spicy, fruity, full-bodied red wine with restrained, velvety tannins is now sold in three quality levels–Classicus, Superior, and Grand Superior. Its backbone is no longer Kadarka, but rather Kékfrankos, which must contribute 30 to 60 percent of the blend, along with other authorized varieties. Wines will always have their own personality due to the flexibility of the blend, but they all share a spicy, fruity character.
- Classicus Bikavér must contain at least four varieties and spend at least six months in oak.
- Superior Bikavér must contain at least five varieties and must age for twelve months in oak.
- This also applies to Grand Superior, which must be a single-vineyard wine, thus reflecting its individual terroir.
Other Wine Styles
- Egri Csillag, a blend of Carpathian Basin varieties and other Hungarian crossings was created in 2010 as a white partner to Bikavér. It’s a lively fruity wine with some floral notes, depending on the specific blend, which also comes in Classicus, Superior and Grand Superior levels. The first two are not aged in oak, but the latter has to spend six months in oak.
- As well as blends, the region produces attractive Syrah and Pinot Noir. Much of the Kadarka has been replaced by Kékfrankos, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is starting to make a comeback.
- There are also several other traditional white specialties; Egri Leányka, an aromatic white that is particularly at home in Eger and often contains a little residual sugar; Egerszólati Olaszrizling, which, as its name suggests, comes from around the small town of Egerszólat; and Debrői Hárslevelű, which boasts its own PDO. These latter PDO wines display the classic delicate linden flowers, honeyed notes and oily texture which characterize the variety, while the Superior versions are riper, more full-bodied and range from dry to sweet.
Read all about Egri Csillag here!
Whites: Bouvier, Csaba Gyöngye, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Ezerfürtű, Furmint, Gyöngyrizling, Hamburg Muscat, Hárslevelű, Irsai Olivér, Juhfark, Kabar, Kerner, Királyleányka, Mátrai Muskotály, Mézes, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat Ottonel, Olaszrizling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sárga Muskotály, Traminer, Viognier, Zefir, Zenit, Zengő, Zöld Veltelini
Reds: Alibernet, Biborkadarka, Blauburger, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Csókaszőlő, Kadarka, Kármin, Kékfrankos, Menoire, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Portugieser, Syrah, Turán, Zweigelt
Bolyki, Böjt, Havas & Timár, Bukolyi, Gajdos, Lajos Gál, Tibor Gál, Gróf Buttler, Juhász Testvérek, Nimród Kovács, Ostorosbor, Petrény, St. Andrea, Thummerer, Ferenc Tóth
Many wines from Eger are available for sale at The Tasting Table Budapest. We offer free delivery in Budapest and shipping all over the EU.
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