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Exploring Hungary: around the wine regions

In partnership with Wines of Hungary

Hungary’s wine regions (and names) can be a challenge for wine lovers to get to know. Caroline Gilby MW has been visiting the country for more than two decades, and here gives a full introduction to its five key regions, along with a snapshot view of others worth going the extra mile for. Local wine writer Dániel Ercsey shares insider knowledge on where to stay, eat and visit

Hungary is a complicated country – to give it context, there are more than 62,000ha under vine, which is approximately half of the planted area of Bordeaux. There are six wine zones divided into 22 wine regions, five protected geographical indications (PGIs) and 33 OEMs (the Hungarian equivalent term for PDO: protected designation of origin), including the new Soltvadkerti, registered in November 2020. Some of these cover regions, while others are for specific wines, such as Bikavér. Not every region is commercially important, so here we focus on the more significant ones in terms of availability of wines in export markets.

Tokaj

Arriving in Tokaj feels like stepping into another world. This UNESCO World Heritage site is less than three hours from Budapest, yet it feels so remote and otherworldly, almost a Tolkienesque scene of small villages atop a subterranean landscape of tunnels laboriously dug into the rock. Extinct volcanoes shape the landscape – hundreds of them providing the volcanic bedrock and dramatic slopes that make this terroir unique.

Tokaj (Tokaj is the place, Tokaji the wine) has several claims to status among wine royalty: it became the first region to classify vineyard, circa 1730, and was the second-ever controlled appellation, too. In 1737, a royal decree defined which villages were allowed to use the Tokaji wine name. Today, Tokaj covers 5,478ha with about 190 wine producers. It’s an undeveloped region with little alternative employment, so wine and wine tourism are hugely important to life here.

In world terms, Tokaj is a small wine region, and its greatest strength is its terroir. Its reputation may have been built on sweet wines at a time when sugar was hard to come by, but a new generation is showcasing these dramatic vineyards through exciting dry wines and, recently, fine bottle-fermented sparklers, too. There’s a real, passionate buzz in the region – especially among small family-owned wineries, each with its own very personal story.

Travel tips: Drive two-and-a-half hours from Budapest or take a direct train. Visit Disznókő for beautiful views and excellent wines. Stay at a winery B&B, such as Paulay Borház or Karádi- Berger, or hotels like Gróf Degenfeld or Botrytis. Eat at Percze restaurant for a modern take on Hungarian cuisine and a selection of Szepsy wines, or at LaBor bistro in Tokaj. Other highlights: boat trips on the Bodrog river, cycling, 4×4 tours and horse riding. Visit the synagogue in Mád. DE


Bolyki winery

Bolyki winery

Eger

One of the first things people think about in the context of Hungarian wine is Bull’s Blood, though producers prefer the Hungarian translation, Bikavér. The name is linked to a famous battle against the Turks in Eger in 1552, in which the city’s castle was besieged. The Hungarian defenders drank copious amounts of local red wine to gain strength to fight, and the invaders believed it to be the blood of bulls.

Whether or not the story has any truth, a wine called Bikavér has existed since the early 19th century. Under communism it became a cheap, rustic red blend of whatever wasn’t good enough to become varietal wine. Today, though, it is being reinvented as Hungary’s flagship red blend. Bikavér has protected designation of origin status in two regions – Eger in the northeast and Szekszárd in the south. Egri Bikavér (‘Bikavér from Eger’) is always a blend of at least four varieties, with restricted yields and based on Kékfrankos. There are increasingly strict regulations for the Superior and Grand Superior categories (for single vineyards). Since 2010, there’s been a white equivalent called Egri Csillag, also based on local grapes.

There’s more to Eger than Bikavér though – it lies close in latitude to southern Burgundy and the northern Rhône, so both reds and whites do well. Good Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah can be found, as well a raft of local grapes. As in so much of Hungary, the bedrock here is volcanic, but the steep Nagy-Eged hill is a limestone outcrop with Hungary’s highest vineyards at 501m.

Travel tips: Eger is less than two hours from Budapest, so it’s an ideal stop en route to Tokaj. Explore the city’s historic centre with its stone-paved streets, castle ramparts and baroque cathedral, stroll around the cellars of wineries in the Valley of the Beautiful Women and enjoy a spa visit. Visit Kovács Nimród to enjoy a traditional cellar setting, or Bolyki’s dramatic winery built into a quarry (above). Stay at Imola, just below the castle. Eat at Macok Bisztró for hearty local food with a wide selection of Eger wines. DE


Bodri winery

Bodri winery, hotel and spa

Szekszárd

Szekszárd is a southern wine region with a charm all of its own and a wine history dating back to Roman times. It covers 2,220ha, with about 20-25 commercial producers, most fairly small and like-minded family wineries, often with the younger generation contributing fresh ideas. The landscape is a complex layout of low hills up to 250m and vineyards facing every which way in its five main valleys. It’s Hungary’s warmest region, featuring plenty of autumn sunshine and soils of fine silt called loess, with limestone deposits left behind by the prehistoric Pannonian sea. In places, patches of red clay are especially valued for their water retention.

Szekszárd is largely a red wine region, and in the early days of the new era, it was big reds from Bordeaux varieties that held sway, impressing with power and ripeness. Today, producers are increasingly seeing the difference between territory and terroir and focusing on the authenticity, freshness and elegance of their local grapes, especially Kékfrankos and Kadarka, and the signature local blend, Bikavér. These can all be sold in the region’s embossed bottle, provided that they are approved by a tasting panel – giving a real guarantee of quality.

Ferenc Takler was possibly the first to encourage producers in the region to stop using the infamous Bull’s Blood as a catch-all blend to use up poor wines, taking Bikavér upmarket as a premium flagship wine that can uniquely represent the region. The English translation can’t be used for this protected designation wine – which must include at least four grape varieties. It is based on Kékfrankos (45% minimum) and must be at least 5% Kadarka, which gives a silky, spicy note. It also spends a year in oak to harmonise.

Travel tips: This region is two hours south of Budapest, where the loess hills along the Danube boast the unmissable sights of the Orthodox Grábóc monastery and the primordial wilderness of the Gemenc forest. Stay at a local hotel such as Merops or Takler Kúria, or nearby in the spa hotel, Donautica, whose restaurant offers the best cuisine in the region. Visit the Bodri Wine Tourism Complex, the Heimann family estate or Tamás Dúzsi’s family winery to taste Tamás’s famous rosés. DE


Sauska winery

Wine tasting at Sauska winery

Villány

Villány is a proud wine region with a rich history in wine that stretches back at least to Roman times and has been influenced by waves of immigrants, including Serbs, who brought the Kadarka grape, and Germans, who arrived with Portugieser. It was arguably the first region to commit to quality and developing wine culture in the new era – founding the country’s first wine tourism route in 1994 – and still gives a warm welcome to visitors.

Villány is Hungary’s southernmost wine region, close to the Croatian border. It has a continental climate with a Mediterranean influence. Vineyards grow on hills running east to west, built of carbonate bedrock with loess or clay soil – it’s a surprise to visitors that the conical Szársomlyó hill isn’t a volcano. It is home to the protected wild crocus – the symbol of the region’s DHC (Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus), a distinctive sub-category of protected denomination.

Villány is a warm, sunny region where red wines do best (red varieties account for 1,899ha of the 2,390ha under vine in the region). Bordeaux varieties lead the way, and it is one of the few wine regions in the world in which Cabernet Franc marks the pinnacle, rather than its famous offspring. This is recognised in the region’s Villányi Franc classification, of which there are three quality levels (Classicus, Premium and Super Premium) with tiered yield and ageing restrictions.

A new generation of daughters and sons is coming into the industry, bringing fresh ideas about refinement and drinkability. One example is the recent launch of RedY – a community project established by young Villány winemakers focused on juicy, easy-drinking blends based on the Portugieser grape.

Travel tips: About two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Budapest, Villány is a region with a wealth of excellent cellars, good restaurants, and numerous hotels and guesthouses. There are also plenty of organised events and tastings, spas, churches, art festivals and concerts. Stay in the heart of Villány at Crocus Gere Resort & Wine Spa or Bock Hotel Ermitage, or choose Hotel Castello in Siklós, close to the castle, with its thermal spa. Eat at Sauska 48 for gourmet country cooking and visit the terrace at the Vylyan winery for a good barbecue with local wines. DE


Mount Badacsony

Mount Badacsony

Balaton

Balaton is a catch-all zone covering six diverse regions that surround Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake. Lake Balaton is a popular holiday spot, and the lake also moderates the climate. Its northern shore is home to three particularly important wine regions. Balatonfüred-Csopak lies to the northeast, and vineyards vie with holiday homes for space. It has a mix of soils over red sandstone or Jurassic limestone, is particularly proud of its most important grape, Olaszrizling (aka Welschriesling), and has established a trademark, Csopak Codex, for its best wines from specified sites. Though focused on whites, reds also appear – for instance, in the scenic vineyards of the Tihany peninsula.

To the west is Badacsony, where viticulture has flourished for at least 2,000 years. It is named after the unmissable central volcano, but also covers several other volcanic hills. Basalt organ pipe formations overlook the vineyards in places and give a clue to the degraded basalt soils. Wines are mostly white and often have a stony, mineral character to them. Rare Kéknyelű is perhaps most famous, but Szürkebarát (literally ‘grey monk’ – the local name for Pinot Grigio) can be powerful and long-lived.

Nagy-Somló, more often simply called Somló, lies a little to the north. It’s a stark, long-extinct volcanic cone rising from the flat plains, sometimes described as ‘the place God forgot his hat’. The volcanic bedrock tends to give full-bodied, powerful and long-lived whites with a certain fiery steeliness to them – renowned for a millennium, and famous as wedding night wines to guarantee an heir.

Travel tips: In summer, Lake Balaton’s beaches are full, with yachts and kayaks dotting the water. The lake area not only boasts hillside vineyards, hilltop viewpoints, restaurants and bars among the vines and 1,000-year-old churches, but also festivals and concerts in the summer. Visit the volcanic hills of Badacsony or Somló, and wineries such as Figula, Istvándy, Konyári or Somlói Apátsági Pincészet. Stay at the boutique hotel Kreinbacher in Somló or Villa Pátzay Borhotel in Badacsony. Eat at Hableány, Kistücsök, Petrányi Borterasz or Zelna Borbár. DE


Around the regions: Hungary’s fascinating smaller regions

Upper Hungary

  • Bükk The volcanic slopes of the Bükk mountains give lighter wines than those of neighbouring Eger
  • Mátra Reliable region for commercial reds and whites, especially Pinot Grigio

Danube

  • Hajós-Baja Loess and sand give fruity, medium-bodied reds and whites
  • Csongrád Warm sandy soils but few wines are bottled
  • Kunság The biggest region on the sandy Great Plain, producing fruity, easy-drinking wines such as Cserszegi Fűszeres, Generosa and Kékfrankos

Pannon (South)

  • Pécs Warm slopes around a historic city, noted for Pinot and rare Cirfandli
  • Tolna Hungary’s youngest region, with rolling hills; most famous for Traminer, Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnay, but with fine reds, too

Upper Pannon (North)

  • Etyek-Buda Rolling limestone hills produce fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and vibrant Sauvignon
  • Neszmély Loess hills overlooking the Danube; best for fragrant, lively whites
  • Pannonhalma Famed for its thousand-year-old Benedictine abbey and fine, Alsace-like reds and whites
  • Mór A small, cool region on limestone hills, noted for its local Ezerjó and crisp Chardonnay
  • Sopron Degraded slate slopes close to the Austrian border and Lake Fertő; reds, mainly Kékfrankos, do well here

Balaton

  • Balatonboglár South of the lake and famous for well-made, good-value wines produced from international grapes; also home to a handful of high-quality estates
  • Balaton-felvidék Balaton uplands to the north of the lake, best-known for producing full-bodied whites with fine acids
  • Zala Hilly region to the west of the lake, best known for full-bodied whites with good acidity

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