Imagine a landscape with numerous giant volcanoes spewing out lava and ash and a receding, bubbling inland sea. This was Hungary ten or fifteen million years ago.
Hungary no longer has any active volcanoes, but around the time when dinosaurs walked the earth, the country was a hotbed of volcanic activity. The bubbling mineral springs and numerous thermal baths dotted throughout Hungary are evidence of this volcanic activity. This volcanic activity also shaped the landscape of some of the country’s historic and most renowned wine regions. The diverse mineral-laden soils of these iconic landscapes have also given rise to some of the world’s most unique and prized wines. Perhaps they are a bit less famous now, but they historically graced the tables of European royalty. Now they are enjoying a renaissance among wine lovers.
Anyone who has visited the stunning northern shores of Lake Balaton—or simply admired the hulk of Mount Badacsony from the southern side of the lake—must wonder how this unusual landscape was formed. Badacsony’s twin, the volcanic butte of Somló, rises dramatically from the surrounding farmland. Approaching it, you have to ask yourself how this huge, black hill with its fringe of verdant vineyards ended up plonked in the middle of a totally flat plain.
What are now the Tapolca and Káli Basins lay on the edge of the receding Pannonian Sea. More than fifty volcanoes were documented in the area, with their violent eruptions and explosive magma being cooled by the sea’s marshy shores. Huge tuff rings surrounded massive craters, which were later filled with lava lakes. Once the volcanic activity ended, erosion stripped away the lighter ash and tuff rings leaving the solidified basalt within. These are the basalt hills we know today as Badacsony, Szent György-hegy, Csobánc, and Szigetliget, to name but a few.
Further to the north, Somló and its neighboring hills share the same ancestry. Nowadays, the curious formations are skirted with terraced green vineyards and picturesque white press houses. Badacsony, Balaton-felvidék, and Somló’s exceptional terroirs produce some of Europe’s most distinctive white wines. The white workhorse grape, Olaszrizling, shines in the whole area. While Badacsony and Somló boast their own local varieties–kéknyelű and juhfark respectively. These varieties now only have limited acreage, but growers are increasingly aware of their potential as unique selling points for their regions. Both had substantial fame in the past as quality varieties.
In Tokaj, the hills and valleys of Hungary’s most prestigious wine region are also the result of volcanic activity, with miles of picturesque twisting black-mold-coated cellars carved out of the soft volcanic tuff. The Tokaj-Eperjes range of mountains boasts a full spectrum of volcanic rocks and soils which differ from one side of a hill to another. On one side there’s a vineyard with dusky red nyirok soil, and on another black basalt and then white soils glint in the bright sunshine.
The diversity of Tokaj’s famous vineyards—first classified in the 18th century—are perfectly translated into wines by its flagship white variety furmint, followed by its stablemate hárslevelű. Just like in Burgundy, another region with greatly diverse soils, many wineries cultivate vines in a wide range of different vineyards. Tokaj is the birthplace of world-famous sweet botrytized wines, Tokaji Aszú, which are made by soaking hand-picked individual berries in fresh wine or fermenting must. The region was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002 thanks to its traditional viticultural landscape and historic wine cellars.
One of Hungary’s red wine bastions, Eger, the home of Bikavér (aka Bull’s Blood), also boasts a diverse geological make-up which includes rhyolite tuff. Historic vineyards planted on these volcanic rocks make some of the biggest, fieriest wines in the region. As in Tokaj, this tuff lends itself perfectly to the carving of cellars. It hosts 99 percent of Eger’s cellars, including networks of passages dozens of miles long and the famous cellars under the city’s fortified castle. Although historically a white wine land like its volcanic counterparts, red varieties displaced the whites and finally after the blight of phylloxera, Eger’s famed red blend attained a worldwide reputation at the start of the 20th century. At the start of the 21st century, it gained a white partner, Egri Csillag.
Nearby Mátra is less well known, but is garnering increasing attention for its fresh, aromatic whites. It has a band of young producers raising the bar on its wines, and also boasts a similar volcanic heritage. Vineyards around Gyöngyös have been documented since the thirteenth century. Although predominantly white wine country, crunchy reds from the region’s relatively cool climate are also gaining ground. Incidentally, it’s the only region in Hungary apart from Tokaj where the thick noble black mould cladosporium cellare thrives in the cellar.
With such a diverse range of volcanic terroirs and wines, Hungary is well-placed to take advantage of the current trend for volcanic wines. Seek out a furmint from Tokaj, an Olaszrizling from Badacsony, or a juhfark from Somló to experience millions of years of Hungary’s volcanic history in a glass.
Want to taste volcanic wine from Hungary? Visit The Tasting Table Budapest. Order from our menu, or book one of our daily tastings: Wine, Cheese, & Charcuterie Tasting and Essentials of Hungarian Wine Tasting).