Wine is essential to Hungary: for centuries, it was one of the country's chief exports and a vital sustenance widely available to rich and poor alike. Today, still, Hungary is a major wine producer globally with a total of 22 wine regions across the country. The most famous is Tokaj, in northeastern Hungary, home of the world's oldest classified wine region, dating back to 1737. But Hungary's diverse soil offers more than just Tokaj wines.
A little wine history
Winemaking in Hungary goes back to the Romans — perhaps even to the Celts, the previous occupants of the land — who in the 3rd century A.D. began to plant grapewines around the scenic Lake Balaton in what's western Hungary today. This means that most vineyards had long existed before the Magyar tribes arrived from the east in the 9th century. Initially, the Hungarian kings entrusted Benedictine monasteries to cultivate grapewines, relying on their long tradition of winemaking.
After the Mongols decimated Hungary in the 13th century, Italian and French settlers not only helped rebuild the country but also brought new grape varieties and winemaking techniques to regions like Tokaj. When Ottoman Turkey invaded much of southern Hungary in the 16th century, new winemaking centers formed in the unoccupied north, most notably in Sopron and Tokaj. Soon, Tokaj became well-known across Europe: By the 17th century, popes, emperors, and Russian czars were among the admirers of its amber-hued sweet wines (the most expensive wine U.S. President Thomas Jefferson ever bought was a Tokaj). Knowing this, 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.
Thanks to improved winemaking practices and access to a larger market, Hungary's wine industry began to flourish after the formation of the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1867. Hungary became the third largest wine producer in Europe behind Italy and France. However, as in so many other countries, the phylloxera plague in the late 19th century wiped out the majority of the vineyards.
After this catastrophe, in the 1890s, local winegrowers abandoned many of the indigenous wine grapes and replaced them by more resistant and often foreign varieties. This is partly why grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay abound in Hungary today. Some of them, especially cabernet franc, went on to flourish in Hungary’s sun-drenched southern soil. Another legacy of the phylloxera is that vine grapes were planted on huge swaths of sandy soil in middle-Hungary because phylloxera aphids couldn't survive in sand.
During the four decades of communism, between 1949 and 1989, quantity trumped quality. State-owned cooperatives churned out cheap, unpleasant wines, but the mass-produced plonk found plenty of eager customers within the Eastern Bloc. The reputational damage is still felt today — just think of Bull’s Blood, a red blend mainly from the Eger region that still, three decades hence, hasn’t shed its bottom-shelf status despite being a serious wine today.
The current day
After the fall of communism, local vintners had to start with a clean slate, relearning the craft and adopting modern techniques after two “lost” generations. From the 1990s, the capitalist era set off a revival: locals turned to Hungarian wines with renewed interest while small, family-owned 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 wine menus these days in Budapest.
Internationally, Hungary has found it difficult to carve out a niche for itself and most of its wines remain unknown outside the country. Why? Since sweet wines are currently not fashionable, Tokaj has lost some of its glory (few people realize that Tokaj also produces 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.
Traditionally, Hungary is regarded as a white-wine nation, although whites and reds are about equally represented within the premium segment (by volume, two-thirds of wine grapes are white).
Hungary's chaotic and regionally changing wine classification system doesn't make things easy for a novice. What complicates things further is that Hungarian wine regions aren't emblematic of specific grape varieties, unlike in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chianti for example. Case in point: both Tokaj, in eastern Hungary, and Somló, in western Hungary, produce wines from the furmint grape.
In addition, there can be meaningful differences between wines made in the same area, same year, and of the same grape, because vintners simply follow their own vision, rather than some predetermined criteria that would ensure a common flavor profile (this is causing headaches for marketers abroad because it's hard to pigeonhole Hungarian wines).
So, rather than relying on Hungary’s elementary wine designation system, you’re better off seeking out specific wine regions or grape varieties. Below, I included wine recommendations for each of Hungary's main native grapes.
4 major wine regions
There are almost two dozen official wine regions in Hungary, but the majority of 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. What makes the wines here special is the combination of the volcanic soil and the microclimate influenced by the Carpathian foothills and humidity-producing rivers. Although planted in other parts of Hungary too, furmint and hárslevelű, two native white grapes, are synonymous with Tokaj. It was the sweet aszú wine that made Tokaj famous, but today the region, which is well worth visiting, is increasingly pivoting to dry wines.
Lake Balaton & Somló: The main pull of these panoramic wine regions in western Hungary is the breathtaking vista over Lake Balaton. The vineyards here are planted with white grapes, especially olaszrizling, and scattered across steep hillsides that are separated by a flat plane. Somló Hill, a bit to the north from the lake, is especially intriguing. This teeny-tiny mountain swarms with more than a thousand family-owned wineries, many without running water or electricity. Yet they put out distinct white wines — much of it from juhfark, a local variety — on vineyards that are less than one acre on average.
Villány & Szekszárd: Many red wines come from the warmer regions in southern Hungary. Best known are the rolling hills of Villány, just a stone’s throw away from the Croatian border, home to 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 aromatic wines made from kadarka that he regularly visited Szekszárd.
Eger & Mátra: A high concentration of volcanic mountain ranges in the northern part of Hungary produce wonderfully mineral-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 some of Hungary's most talented contemporary winemarkers.
4 major white grapes
Furmint: Hungary's top grape according to most people. Its natural home is the volcanic hills of Tokaj, where it makes mineral-rich wines with a crisp, racy acidity. Some people find it more approachable with a little residual sugar (or off-dry). Furmint also produces good wines on the volcanic hills around Lake Balaton, especially Somló. My favorites: Bott Pince, Homonna, Kaláka (and Kreinbacher winery in Somló puts out good Champagne-style bubbles from furmint).
Hárslevelű: An indigenous Hungarian grape that often serves as the yin to furmint’s yang — these two traditionally partner in Tokaj blends, where the hárslevelű’s lighter notes can beautifully round out the acidity of furmint. With floral and honey flavors, it’s often compared to a chenin blanc. My favorites: Kikelet Pince, Gizella Pince, Bott Frigyes.
Olaszrizling (welshriesling): Despite its moniker, olaszrizling has nothing to do with riesling from the Rhine region. Instead, this is a regional grape that’s also popular in Croatia, where it’s known as grasevina, and Austria. Olaszrizling is a medium-bodied white with good acidity, floral aromas, and an almond finish. Although unlikely to knock your socks off, it makes for a pleasant summer drink, especially the ones from Csopak, near Lake Balaton. Recently, it has also lent itself to good orange wines. My favorites: Jásdi Pince, Figula Pincészet, Laposa.
Juhfark: In Hungarian, the name of this grape means “sheep’s tail,” a gesture to its long, elongated clusters. Juhfark is synonymous with Somló Hill in northwestern Hungary where legend holds that if newlyweds drink it before their wedding night, then they'll be graced with a son. The wine’s deeply minerally, steely, and “masculine” features might have spawned this legend. A bit of aging and residual sugar can nicely take its edge off. My favorites: Somlói Apátsági Pince, Kolonics Pincészet, Spiegelberg.
3 major red grapes
Kadarka: Kadarka likely arrived in Hungary in the early 18th century from the Balkans via Serbian merchants who were fleeing from Ottoman Turkey. 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 kadarka wines come from Szekszárd and Eger. My favorites: Heimann, Orsolya Pince, Vida Péter.
Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch): Kékfrankos is Hungary’s most planted red grape and thus appears in many wine regions. Better known as Blaufränkisch, it’s also a signature grape 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 held a lowly reputation during the communist era — a critic 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 called Tokaj's golden-hued liquids "the wine of kings and the king of wines." It was in the 17th century that Tokaj vintners first documented their unique method of winemaking that enlisted the help of a fungus called botrytis cinerea. Because it’s actually a benign fungus, known as the “noble rot,” that’s responsible for Tokaj’s magic: at a certain level of humidity, the fungus attacks mature grapes, absorbs their water, and leaves behind shriveled grapes called aszú that burst with sugar.
But, despite what it sounds like, the resulting wines aren’t cloying. Tokaj’s two main grapes, furmint and hárslevelű, have high acidity to balance out the sugar, so what you actually taste is an intensely complex drink with spicy notes from oak aging.
Tokaj's sweet wines are often compared to Sauternes, the better known delicacy from Bordeaux also made with the help of botrytis. Few people know that aszú wines actually predate Sauternes and they require more labor: during harvest, workers in Tokaj need to individually inspect and hand-pick the botrytis-infected grapes, rather than just use whole grape clusters as in Sauternes.
Given their richness, people usually order sweet Tokaj wines by a small glass. Traditionally, aszú wines pair with foie gras, blue cheese, and desserts, or stand on their own as an after-dinner treat. The ones with less sugar work as an aperitif wine, too. You’re most likely to encounter the below four categories in Budapest restaurants, going from the cheapest to the most expensive (price points indicate how much a 8 cl / 2.7 oz glass — the standard serving size — costs at Budapest’s leading restaurants).
Late harvest: The entry level. Packing less sugar and being lighter and fruitier than the longer-aged varieties, late harvest wines could be your first foray into the world of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Besides being the most wallet-friendly option (€8-10 per glass), they work both as a pre- and post-meal drink.
Szamorodni: Its name comes from Polish and means “as it comes.” This refers to how the wine clusters are picked as a whole, rather than individually, so a blend of regular and botrytis grapes make it into the must, similar to how a Sauternes is made. They lack the complexity of an aszú, but not by a huge margin (€11-13).
Aszú: The pinnacle of Tokaj. Winemakers add hand-picked, raisin-like sweet aszús to a fermenting dry base wine made from regular grapes of the same crop. They measure the proportions carefully in puttony, named after a traditional carrying basket. What emerges after barrel aging is a deeply aromatic and layered wine (€16-20).
Esszencia: The rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich juice that naturally trickles from 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 to 5 percent. Esszencia wines command top prices, offering a playground for deep-pocketed wine collectors.
The old tradition of mixing wine with water has disappeared in most parts of the world, but not so in Hungary. Fröccs is the name of the local water-and-wine combo made by adding sparkling water to a fresh rosé or white wine. 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 in cafés, bars, and homes. Fröccs is normally made with unaged, affordable wines.
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 we 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 sample local wines.
If you've found this useful, please consider supporting Offbeat. Our content is free, so your contributions go a long way toward maintaining and growing the website.