Bikavér is probably still Hungary’s best-known red wine, despite the indignities it suffered during the second part of the 20th century. But most wine drinkers, even Hungarian ones, have no idea what it actually is. Bikavér (from bika meaning bull and vér meaning blood), or Bull’s Blood, is a red blend that is made in both Szekszárd, in the south of Hungary, and Eger, in the northeast. The blend has been made for at least 150 years, with certain rules that must be followed (which vary slightly in Szekszárd and Eger). In both regions Kékfrankos is the most important grape in the blend, and the blend is made at different levels of quality.
Bikavér is one of Hungary’s most famous (or infamous?) red wines, and there are several legends explaining the origin of the name. The most commonly told story is that when the Ottomans invaded Eger’s castle in 1552, the general in charge of protecting it had the bright idea to give red wine to the soldiers to make them braver and stronger. And it worked! The Hungarians became fearless defenders of their castle. The Ottoman soldiers saw red all over the Hungarian mustaches and clothes. Since they didn’t drink alcohol, they didn’t associate this with with wine, and they thought the Hungarians had been drinking blood from bulls. Nobody knows if this legend is true or not, and most likely it isn’t.
During the Communist era, winemaking in Hungary’s state-owned wine companies was characterized by mass production. During the 1970s and 1980s (and even still today), very low quality Bikavér wines were exported. Those bottom-shelf-wines were diluted, oxidized, and just plain bad examples of Hungarian wine. They harmed the reputation of the Bikavér style both abroad, and also within Hungary. Today wineries in Eger and Szekszárd are still trying to recover from the mass-production mess and rebuild their images.
Many of high-quality producers are still hesitant to advertise their blends as Bikavér, so you’ll often find the word “Bikavér” added in small print on the back label. But today’s Bikavérs can be high quality wines which are elegant, complex, and quite easy drinking … definitely worthy of being (re)discovered and given a second chance. One piece of advice: stay away from those Bull’s Bloods with big bull images on the labels (and which are still frequently found in the US). Those are the tourist traps, and embody the image that quality winemakers today are trying so hard to reverse.
The Two Regions
Eger and Szekszárd are the only two regions allowed to use the name Bikavér. So, why is Bikavér made in two regions which are relatively far apart from each other? The first famous bull’s blood producer was Jenő Gröber, a winemaker/merchant who began by buying various types wines from winemakers in Eger, blending and aging them, and then very successfully selling the product under his own label. Meanwhile, in Szekszárd a local poet first mentioned the name Bikavér for a wine in 1850. So, there was probably no actual relation between the Bikavérs of the two regions. But, the names stuck.
As you can imagine, there have been long discussions about which region did it first and who makes the best examples. It has been said that Eger makes both the best and the worst Bikavérs, and that Szekszárd is more consistent in its quality. Also, the basic Szekszád Bikavérs are usually a bit lighter and fresher because of a higher proportion of Kadarka grape on the blend. Of course these are just some generalizations about the wines. The real differences depend more on the quality of the winery and the blending grapes it uses.
Eger: a semi-volcanic region in northeastern Hungary
Located mid-way between Budapest and Tokaj, it is the meeting point of the North Hungarian Highlands (Északi-középhegység) and the great plain. The average altitude of the vineyards is somewhere between 160 and 180 meters, with the 500 meter hill of Nagy Eged being the highest point. The whole region is about 5,160 hectares (12,750 acres). Apart from the limestone-based Nagy Eged hill, the most predominant soil types are the volcanic rhyolite and andesite tuff. The region is famous for its network of cellars, most of which are dug out of these soft tuff soils. Eger’s most important varietals are Kékfrankos (Blaufrankisch), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Blauburger, Zweigelt, Portugieser, and Pinot Noir
Szekszárd: a hilly region in southern Hungary
This region is influenced by the Szekszárd and Geresdi highlands and the Danube River, which forms its eastern frontier. The region’s highest point is a 680-meter peak. Szekszárd’s climate is a combination of continental and Mediterranean. It’s warmer here than in Eger, so the ripening season is longer, allowing late-ripening grapes like Kadarka, Cabernet Sauvignon, Olaszrizling, and Riesling to do very well. Other important grapes include Kékfrankos, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Zweigelt. Some winemakers are also experimenting with obscure grape varieties like Sagrantino, Tannat, and Malbec. Szekszárd is thought to be Hungary’s most important region for Kadarka, which is also known as “Hungarian Pinot Noir” since both are prone to disease, give a light red-colored wine with savory notes, and require lots of attention and care in the vineyard. The whole region is about 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres), with mostly loess soil that allows the roots of the vines to dig deeply in their search for water.
Similarities in Egri and Szekszárdi Bikavér
- A minimum of four grape varietals must be included
- Kékfrankos must be the dominant grape
- Other grape varieties are usually Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot) and regional/local ones (Zweigelt, Turán, Kadarka, etc)
- There’s a minimum oak ageing requirement, but the oak flavor should never dominate the style of the wine
- They have fairly high acidity, and medium tannins
Differences between Egri and Szekszárdi Bikavér
- Eger has three categories: Classicus, Superior, and Grand Superior
- Szekszárd has two categories: Regular and Premium
- Oak ageing requirements for the basic Bikavérs vary: 6 months in Eger, 12 months for Szekszárd. (The higher categories of both regions require 12 months.)
- Permitted grape varieties vary: Eger allows 13 varieties for the Classicus and 12 for the Superior and Grand Superior. Szekszárd allows 18 for the regular and 10 for the Premium.
- Including Kadarka is a requirement in Szekszárd, but not in Eger.
- Minimum alcohol levels vary: Eger requires a 11.5 percent minimum for Classicus and 12 percent for Superior and Grand Superior. Szekszárd requires 12 percent for both of its styles.
Want to taste Hungarian wine straight from the source? Taste Hungary has daily small-group wine tours featuring the Tokaj, Villány, Balaton & Somló, and Eger regions. We also offer daily private tours to all regions.