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Sparkling Hungary, Where the Pezsgő Flows

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At the beginning of the 20th century Hungary was second only to France in sparkling wine production. And it wasn’t only the Hungarians who were drinking it since Hungarian pezsgő was exported far and wide. Before World War One, Hungarian sparkling wine (produced then by about twenty wineries) was enjoyed throughout Europe to the tune of six to eight million bottles a year.

Pezsgő is the Hungarian name for the sparkling wine in which the second fermentation takes place in the bottle rather than in a tank. It has been produced in Hungary since the first half of the 19th century, with centers of production then being in both Pozsony (which is now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia) and in Budafok, which is just outside of Budapest. Budafok is still where the big guns of the modern Hungarian sparkling wine industry are located, and two important sparkling wine facilities were established there at the end of the 19th century.

József Törley was the first to open after moving his sparkling wine production from Reims in Champagne to Budafok in 1882. He bought vineyards in nearby Etyek after seeing the quality of the base wines he had been sourcing there for his business in Reims. Incidentally, Etyek-Buda is considered the Hungarian region with climate and soils most closely resembling those of Champagne. A few years later, his former French cellar master, Louis François, also founded his own winery nearby. Törley had realized that Hungarian aristocrats loved Champagne and his own locally produced version quickly became popular with the rising middle classes. Törley wines were known throughout the world by the early 1900s, with an annual production of two million bottles.

Naturally, nationalization and the Communist planned economy put an end to quality sparkling wine production for decades, with no cellars in private hands after 1950. Sparkling wine was still produced on a massive scale by state-run sparkling giants like Hungarovin and the winery in Balatonboglár. But quality was no longer a concern, only uniformity and volume.

This latter name will be familiar to anyone who has purchased the cheap BB fizz, which is still available in practically every grocery store. After Communism ended, Hungarovin-Balatonboglár ended up in the hands of the German firm Henkell-Söhnlein. The company started to label their sparkling wine Törley once again, and their premium range was labeled François Prestige, in honor of Törley’s former cellar master.

Happily, the last few decades have seen great advances in Hungarian sparkling wine, and many wineries are now producing their own top-quality pezsgő to fill the increasing consumer thirst. Initially, tight regulations meant that wines were given their fizz only by dedicated sparkling wine houses. But the rules have been relaxed and now decent peszgő is made in practically every region in Hungary.

Törley is still the market leader with more than 50 percent of the market, producing a wide range of bubbles from cheap and cheerful habzó wine (produced by the tank method) to top-quality traditional-method pezsgő from a variety of grapes and in a wide range of styles and sweetness levels. You can also visit their museum in Budafok, which was once a wine-growing village but has now been swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Budapest. Another large sparkling wine producer worth noting is Garamvári.

Budaőrs-based József Szentesi, sometimes likened to a mad professor, is renowned for his skill with sparkling wine and has put the fizz into base wines from numerous other wineries. He is also a champion of local grapes and is researching which of the many long-forgotten Hungarian varieties are suitable for pezsgő production, since Hungarian pezsgő was traditionally made only from local varieties.

The increase in demand for quality sparkling wines means that many existing wineries now also produce their own pezsgő. Many wineries in Tokaj are making sparklers from Furmint, which is well-suited to sparkling wine production since it produces a relatively neutral wine with high acidity. Sauska, based in both Tokaj and Villány, produces a range of relatively international styles while other producers, such as Zoltán Demeter, are aiming to make wines that characterize Tokaj more closely.

However, the jewel in Hungary’s pezsgő crown has to be Kreinbacher on volcanic Somló Hill, whose peszgő was first launched in 2014. It is generally acknowledged to produce the best and most consistent pezsgő in Hungary. This is in part thanks to its consulting winemaker from Champagne, who has won numerous awards for their wines. Their wines are primarily made from Furmint and produced on basalt soils, showing that you don’t need limestone, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir to make fabulous fizz. Any serious sparkling wine fan should not miss tasting their wines!