Look south to Szekszárd for some of Hungary’s most elegant and spicy red wines. The region is one of the strongholds of Kékfrankos and Kadarka. Along with Eger, it is also the only place in the country that may use the name Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) to describe its full-bodied red blends. It is said to have coined the use of this name before its rival in the north. In 2014 winemakers in Szekszárd introduced a special bottle that may only be used for premium wines, which have passed a tasting panel, in these three flagship styles. The Szekszárd winemakers are a great example of a Hungarian wine region collaborating to develop a common style and vision for the future.
The Szekszárd PDO is located in the south of Hungary, in the southeastern corner of Tolna County, and is part of the Pannon wine region. It stretches over the Szekszárd Hills and the northeastern fringes of the Geresdi Hills. It lies between the Mecsek Hills to the west and the Danube and its floodplain to the east. The region is characterized by rolling hills, and is crisscrossed by erosional valleys, thus creating a range of distinct microclimates. The best wines are grown on south and southeast-facing slopes. Szekszárd has many named historic vineyards among its 2,187 hectares of planted vineyards. These include Remete, Iván-völgy, Bakta, and Gesztenyes.
Climate and Soil
Szekszárd’s climate is shaped by a variety of influences. Atlantic and Mediterranean both have decisive impacts, while continental factors and the Danube’s tempering effect also play roles. Summers are generally long and hot and are often followed by a warm Indian summer, meaning that even late-ripening red varieties can reach full ripeness in Szekszárd’s benevolent climate. Spring and autumn frosts are relatively infrequent, which is important for sensitive varieties like Kadarka and Merlot. This southerly region boasts one of the longest growing seasons in Hungary.
Szekszárd is characterized by a thick layer of loess, generally a couple of meters’ thick, but which can reach up to an incredible 30 meters in some places. The soils, however, are not homogenous; there are brown forest soils and erosional loess soil. The areas with terra rossa—iron-rich, red clay subsoil—are the best vineyards for red wine.
Loess soils and areas with high loess walls are easily eroded. So the vineyards here are terraced, and other measures are in place to fight the constant threat of erosion, such as the tarmacked roads on the hillsides doubling as conduits for the rainwater.
Viticulture in the region goes back to Roman times with vines cultivated on trade routes and around fortresses protecting the borders. Like elsewhere in the country, during the Middle Ages, vineyards generally belonged to the church and were planted predominantly with white varieties. Monks used the latest cultivation methods and built an enormous sandstone cellar, which was the predecessor of the modern cellar which lies under Garay tér in today’s town center.
Viticulture continued until the Turkish occupation when Szekszárd was turned into an administrative center called sanjak. Interestingly, many Muslims also acquired vineyards since ownership proved more profitable than simply levying taxes on wine. The area, however, was later depopulated by the Ottomans, with families only venturing back at the end of the 17th century. Tax breaks were given to local growers to stimulate viticulture and encourage ethnic Germans to settle in the area. Serbian refugees brought Kadarka to the region, while German settlers contributed their red winemaking knowledge.
The region was already flourishing under the Habsburgs, and many famous cellars, the abbey cellar system, and press houses had already sprung up by the 18th century, with vineyards growing a wide range of varieties. Kadarka took over as the region’s leading variety in the 19th century and is said to have inspired some of Franz Liszt’s music. The variety was also celebrated by poet János Garay, who is credited with dubbing the deeply colored local red wine ‘Bikavér’ in one of his poems. However, the region’s varietal diversity was lost after phylloxera when many high-yielding whites were eradicated and replaced by reds such as Kadarka, Kékfrankos, Portugieser, and the Cabernets.
Despite the planned economy, viticulture in the region remained relatively successful after World War Two and is now characterized by small wineries and family estates, many of which have Swabian German origins.
Styles of Wine
The region is now dominated by red varieties such as Kékfrankos, Kadarka, and the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon). Szekszárd’s wines are generally full bodied yet elegant, with plenty of lively acidity.
Szekszárdi Bikavér is a spicy Kékfrankos-led blend, which also includes a touch of Kadarka as well as up to a total of 40 percent Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. It must contain at least four varieties and be aged in oak for at least one year. It is fruity yet elegant, with silky tannins and a juicy full body. The premium version requires a year of further aging in oak and a further 12 months in bottle. These are harmonious, full-bodied wines with great complexity and freshness.
Kadarka yields a light, gently aromatic, cherry-flavored, spicy wine with a beautiful ruby color, while Szekszárdi Kékfrankos demonstrates a rich, fruity style with plenty of sour cherry, spice and refreshing acidity.
Many wineries also boast powerful, and often somewhat alcoholic, Bordeaux blends, Cabernet Francs, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Merlots among their top wines. The blends often contain a splash of Kékfrankos to add a touch of Szekszárd character.
Rosés are also made in Szekszárd and indeed, Hungary’s king of rosé, Tamás Dúzsi, is located here. His rosé wines have scooped up numerous international awards.
Szekszárd also boasts two more, somewhat unusual, styles—Siller and Fuxli. These are refreshing light wines that can be compared to a dark, more tannic rosé. Fuxli was historically made from briefly processed black grapes, sometimes with some white blended in, while Siller is slightly darker and is a fresh, fruity wine that resembles a very light red wine (or a dark rosé). It is made by macerating the must on the skins for 24 to 48 hours, before being transferred to a cask to complete the fermentation.
White wines play a less important role in the region, and are characterized by soft acidity and often high alcohol.
Whites: Chardonnay, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Ezerfürtű, Hárslevelű, Irsai Olivér, Királyleányka, Leányka, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat Ottonel, Olaszrizling, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sárgamuskotály, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Traminer, Viognier, Zefír, Zenit, Zöld Szagos, Zöld Szilvani, Zöldveltelini
Reds: Alibernet, Biborkadarka, Blauburger, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kadarka, Kékfrankos, Menoire, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Portugieser, Sagrantino, Syrah, Turán, Tannat, Zweigelt
Heimann Family Estate, Tamás Dúzsi, Takler, Vida Wine Estate, Vesztergombi Winery, Csaba Sebestyén, Bodri, Eszterbauer Winery, Fekete Winery, János Németh Winery, Pastor Winery, Pósta Winery, Shieber Winery, Szeleshát Winery, János Márkvárt, János Németh, Merfelsz, Mészáros, Tüske
Many wines from Szekszárd are available for sale at The Tasting Table Budapest
Want to taste and learn about Hungarian wines? 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).