Unlike beer, wine has been essential all throughout Hungary's history, being a chief export and a vital sustenance available to rich and poor alike. Today, still, Hungary is a major wine producer globally with a total of 22 wine regions and 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of planted vines. Most of the country's vineyards are considered to be cool-climate and occupy the northeastern segment of Europe's wine-growing region. The most famous wines come from Tokaj, home to the world's oldest classified wine region.
A little wine history
Winemaking in Hungary goes back to the Romans — likely even to the Celts, the previous occupants of the land — who planted grapevines around the scenic Lake Balaton in what's western Hungary today. This means that vineyards had long existed before the Magyar tribes conquered the area in the 9th century. Initially, medieval Hungarian kings entrusted the Benedictine order with viticulture, relying on the monasteries' long tradition of winemaking.
In the 12-13th centuries, German, French, and Italian settlers brought improved craftsmanship to many regions. Things came to a grinding halt when Ottoman Turkey invaded southern Hungary in the 16th century: people gave up their vineyards, the population declined, years passed without a harvest. This was when new winemaking centers formed in the unoccupied north, most notably in Sopron and Tokaj.
Soon, Tokaj became well-known across Europe: By the late 17th century, popes, emperors, and Russian czars were among the admirers of the golden-hued sweet aszú wines. They were used even for political favors: Francis II Rákóczi sent shipments of Tokaj to the Palace of Versailles in an effort to coerce Louis XIV into funding his war of independence against the Habsburgs.
Hungary's wine industry flourished after the Austro Hungarian Empire was formed in 1867. Thanks to better techniques and access to a bigger market, by 1875 Hungary was the second largest wine producer in Europe behind France. Tragically, as in other European wine regions, the phylloxera plague wiped out two-thirds of the vineyards by the end of the century. Many winemakers suddenly lost their livelihoods and, in despair, emigrated to the United States. Others started life anew on the sandy vineyards of middle Hungary: the deadly insects couldn't survive in sand so people planted wine grapes on huge swaths of land there.
It was also around this time that local vintners replaced native Hungarian grapes like gohér and járdovány with foreign varieties that were considered to be better and more resistant to diseases. This is partly why grapes like riesling and gewürztraminer abound in Hungary today. Some of them, like cabernet franc, went on to thrive in Hungary’s sun-drenched southern soil.
During the four decades of communism, between 1948 and 1989, state-owned cooperatives nationalized most vineyards and planted new grapes on low-lying lands that were suitable to harvesting machines. Quantity trumped quality, but the mass-produced stuff found plenty of eager customers within the Eastern Bloc. In the meantime, many family winemakers abandoned their high-quality sites on the hillsides in the face of economic and political headwinds.
The current day
After the fall of communism, local vintners had to start with a clean slate and improve the standards. From the 1990s, the capitalist era set off a revival: locals turned to Hungarian wines with renewed interest while small family wineries sprung up at a head-spinning pace.
Mirroring global trends, burly, powerful wines with a pronounced taste of new oak barrels were fashionable in the early aughts. Since then, the pendulum has swung back; today, less intrusive techniques leave more room for the soil and grapes to shine through. In fact, natural and orange wines appear on many Budapest wine menus these days.
Internationally, Hungary has found it difficult to carve out a niche for itself and most of its wines remain unknown outside the country. How come? Sweet wines are no longer fashionable so Tokaj has lost some of its market (few people realize that Tokaj also makes excellent dry wines). And foreign varieties struggle to convey a sense of place — people don't get excited about a Hungarian cabernet franc, no matter how good it is.
But this may be just fine. Hungary's wine consumption per capita is one of the highest in the world, and locals happily drink away most of what’s produced.
Hungary's labyrinthine wine classification system doesn't make things easy for a novice. What complicates things further is that the wine regions aren't indicative of specific grapes types, unlike in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Tuscany for example. Case in point: both Tokaj, in eastern Hungary, and Somló, in the west, produce wines from the furmint grape. You’re best off seeking out specific winemakers or regions. Below, I included wine recommendations for each of Hungary's main grapes.
4 major wine regions
There are 22 official wine regions in Hungary but most top wines come out of a handful of areas.
Tokaj: Hungary's best-known wine region consists of a group of 27 villages in northeastern Hungary. Two native grapes, the volcanic soil, and a unique microclimate influenced by humidity-producing rivers and a long and dry fall make the wines here special. It was the sweet aszú that made Tokaj famous in the 17th century, but today the region, which is well worth visiting, is increasingly pivoting to dry wines.
Balaton Uplands & Somló: The main pull of this panoramic wine region in western Hungary is the breathtaking vistas over Lake Balaton and the adorable medieval villages dotting it. The vineyards here are planted with white grapes, especially olaszrizling (welschriesling), and scattered across softly rolling valleys and volcanic hills. Somló, a bit away from the lake, is swarming with winemakers on tiny plots.
Villány & Szekszárd: Many red wines come from the warmer regions in southern Hungary. Best-known is Villány, just a stone’s throw away from the Croatian border, with big, bulky, and often beautiful reds. Not far from here is Szekszárd, home to the kadarka grape. Franz Liszt was so fond of the light and delicate kadarka wines that he regularly visited Szekszárd.
Eger & Mátra: A high concentration of volcanic mountain ranges in the northern part of Hungary produce wonderfully rich wines, both red and white. Most prominent is the area around Eger, home to the Bull's Blood (Bikavér) blend. Just to the west is Mátra, usually eclipsed by the historic Eger despite spawning many young and talented winemarkers.
Historically, Hungary has been a white-wine country as meaningful red wines only appeared in the 17th century with the kadarka grape. Many of Hungary's native grapes vanished in the 19th century when foreign varieties proved to be better and less vulnerable to diseases (furmint and hárslevelű are notable exceptions). Today, two-thirds of the wine grapes are white by volume, but whites and reds are about equally represented within the premium segment.
4 major white grapes
Furmint: Hungary's top grape according to many wine experts. Furmint's natural home is Tokaj where it makes both sweet aszús and dry, minerally wines with a racy acidity. Some people find dry furmints most approachable with a touch of residual sugar. The Somló region also produces furmint wines and it can be interesting to compare those to the ones from Tokaj. My favorites: Bott Pince, Homonna, Kaláka (Kreinbacher winery in Somló puts out good Champagne-style bubbles from furmint).
Hárslevelű: The other classic Tokaj grape that often serves as the yin to furmint’s yang — these two traditionally partner in Tokaj blends, both sweet and dry, where the hárslevelű’s lighter notes can beautifully round out the bright acidity of furmint. With floral and honey flavors, hárslevelűs are often compared to chenin blancs. My favorites: Kikelet Pince, Gizella Pince, Bott Frigyes.
Olaszrizling (welschriesling): Despite its moniker, olaszrizling has nothing to do with the riesling from the Rhine region; instead, it's a regional grape that became popular in the 19th century in Hungary, Croatia, where it’s known as grasevina, and Austria. With medium acidity and notes of almond, it can make beguiling wines. The best ones tend to come from northern Balaton and Somló. Recently, olaszrizling has also lent itself to good orange wines. My favorites: Figula Pincészet, Jásdi Pince, Borbély Családi Pincészet.
Juhfark: The name of this grape means “sheep’s tail” in Hungarian because that's what its long, elongated grape clusters resemble. Today, juhfark is only planted in Somló, where it's one of the few native grapes still around. Juhfark wines have a deeply minerally, salty character and a bit of aging and residual sugar can nicely take their edge off. My favorites: Barcza Pincészet, Kolonics Pincészet, Fekete Pince.
3 major red grapes
Kadarka: Serbian merchants fleeing from Ottoman Turkey introduced it in the 17th century. Kadarka makes a light, approachable red wine with good acidity, spicy flavors, and fruity notes. It's often compared to a pinot noir, although it doesn’t age so well. Some of the best kadarkas come from Szekszárd and Eger. My favorites: Heimann, Orsolya Pince, Vida Péter.
Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch): Hungary’s most planted red grape appears in many wine regions. Better known as blaufränkisch, it’s also prevalent in Austria and Slovenia. At its best, kékfrankos is fresh and medium-bodied with hints of cherry and spices; to Máte Horváth, one of Hungary’s top sommeliers, a good kékfrankos falls between a pinot noir and a barbera, delivering the elegance of the former and the homey rusticity of the latter. My favorites: Karner Gábor, Weninger, Homola Pincészet.
Bikavér (blend): Also known as Bull's Blood, this blend rightfully had a bad reputation during the communist era — a critic once called it “a watery insult to bulls everywhere.” But today, complex and layered medium-bodied bikavérs come out of wineries in Szekszárd and Eger. Kékfrankos, its main grape, lends fruity notes, kadarka adds spices, and a traditional Bordeaux grape like cabernet sauvignon rounds it out with structure and heft. My favorites: Sebestyén, Böjt Pincészet, St. Andrea.
Tokaj’s sweet wines
Louis XIV of France should be credited with crafting the most enduring advertising slogan in the history of Hungarian wines by calling Tokaj "the wine of kings and the king of wines." But what's all this fuss about Tokaj? Starting in the 16th century, local winemakers enlisted the help of a benign fungus called botrytis cinerea, known as the “noble rot,” which can attack some of the grapes, extract their liquid, and leave behind shriveled raisins with a naturally intensified, sweet-tart flavor (the dry falls are important to limit the infection). Grapes so infected are called aszú, and aszú wines are the heart of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Apart from making the grapes more concentrated, the botrytis mold also produces a range of new aroma compounds and glycerol, which imparts a signature taste and a dense body.
Part of the reason aszús are expensive is that harvesting them is hard: laborers need to individually pick aszú grapes off the bunch. On an average day, they may pick eight kilos of aszú compared to 300 kilos of regular grapes by the cluster.
Despite containing a minimum of 12 percent residual sugar, there is a balance between sweetness and acidity so sugar isn’t the first thing you notice. Other famous sweet wines like Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in Germany also rely on the botrytis mold to work its magic. (The harvesting process in Tokaj is actually a bit more nuanced as workers individually inspect and hand-pick the botrytis-infected grapes rather than picking whole grape clusters with a combination of shriveled and regular grapes as in Sauternes.)
Traditionally, an aszú wine pairs with foie gras, blue cheese, and desserts, or stands on its own as an after-dinner treat. You’re most likely to encounter the below three types of sweet Tokaj wine in Budapest restaurants, going from the cheapest to the most expensive.
Szamorodni: Szamorodni translates to “as it comes,” referring to how the wine clusters are picked as a whole, so a blend of regular and botrytis-infected aszú grapes make it into the wine, similar to how a Sauternes is made. Its name comes from Polish as people of Poland, not far from Tokaj, were especially fond of this style of wine in the 19th century. Szamorodnis lack the complexity of an aszú, but not by a huge margin. The minimum residual sugar content of a szamorodni is 4.5 percent.
Aszú: Winemakers soak hand-picked aszús grapes in a fermenting base wine of the same crop. They measure the aszú grapes carefully in puttony, named after a traditional carrying basket; five and six-puttony aszú wines are made commercially today. What emerges after years of barrel aging is a deeply aromatic and layered wine of which a small 500 ml bottle can easily run a few hundred euros in restaurants. The minimum residual sugar content of an aszú wine is 12 percent.
Esszencia: Also known as "nectar," esszencia is the rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich syrup that naturally trickles from a pile of aszú berries, without the addition of a base wine. The result is a honeyed elixir with a level of concentration so high that upscale restaurants often serve it with a spoon. Its fermentation takes years because of all the sugar, which also prevents alcohol to reach higher than 4-5 percent. Esszencia wines command top prices, offering a playground for deep-pocketed wine collectors. The minimum residual sugar content of an esszencia is 45 percent.
The old tradition of mixing wine and water has disappeared in most parts of the world, but not so in Hungary, where fröccs is the name of the local water-and-wine combo. A fröccs consists of a fresh rosé or white wine and sparkling water; traditionally, people have used a siphon dispenser to add the carbonated water and hence the drink's name ("fröccsen" means to "splash" in Hungarian). Thanks to its hydrating effect, fröccs is a popular summer drink, consumed at homes, cafés, and bars.
The classic fröccs calls for two parts wine and one part water, but many permutations have sprouted up, ranging from light (sport fröccs: one part wine, four parts water) to near-deadly versions (Krúdy-fröccs: nine parts wine, one part water).
This article is partly based on interviews I conducted with local wine professionals, including head sommeliers Péter Blazsovszky (Babel), János Gervai (Stand), Máté Horváth (Sommelier of the Year in 2017 and 2018), Krisztián Juhász (Borkonyha), and Péter Pongrácz (Costes Downtown), and also Ádám Hébenstreit, owner of Drop Shop wine bar. If you're in Budapest, check out the city's top wine bars to try the local wines.
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