Apart from Tokaj's word-class wines, there are a number of local varietals that are worth your attention even if they fly totally under the radar internationally.
Few people realize that Hungary is a major wine producer globally with a diverse terroir consisting of 22 wine regions. The most famous Hungarian wine region is Tokaj, in northeastern Hungary. Tokaj is often many wine drinkers’ first entry point into Hungarian wine. There, the microclimate, influenced by the Carpathian foothills and the humidity-producing Bodrog and Tisza Rivers, gives rise to some of the world’s finest sweet wines. But there’s more to Hungarian wines than just Tokaj.
An unusually high concentration of volcanic mountain ranges in the northern part of the country can produce wonderfully mineral-rich wines in places like Eger, Mátra, and the area near Lake Balaton. Somló is especially intriguing. This teeny-tiny mountain swarms with more than 700 family-owned wineries, many without running water or electricity. Yet they put out distinct white wines—much of it from juhfark, a local varietal with good acidity—on vineyards that are less than one acre on average. The warmest wine region is the rolling hills of Villány in the south, just a stone’s throw away from the Croatian border, home to big, bulky, and in some cases beautiful reds.
Hungary’s millennia-long wine history dates back at least to the Romans—likely even to the Celts, the previous occupants of the land—who in the 1st century A.D. began to leverage the area’s wine-friendly weather conditions. This meant that vineyards had long existed before the Magyar tribes arrived in the late 9th century from Central Asia. The luscious, amber-hued wines of Tokaj were a favorite of czars, emperors, and presidents in the 17th and 18th centuries—the most expensive wine President Thomas Jefferson ever bought was a Tokaj. As in the rest of Europe, the phylloxera plague in the late 19th century wiped out most of the vineyards in Hungary. After this catastrophe, in the 1890s, local winegrowers decided to abandon most of the indigenous wine grapes and replace them by more resistant foreign varietals. 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.
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 entirely shed its bottom-shelf status despite being a serious wine today. After the fall of communism, local vintners had to start with a clean slate, relearning best practices and adopting modern techniques after two “lost” generations.
From the 1990s, the capitalist era set off a revival as locals turned to Hungarian wines with renewed interest; small, family-owned wineries sprung up at a head-spinning pace. In the late ’90s and early aughts, burly, powerful wines with a pronounced taste of new oak barrels were fashionable, mirroring trends in other parts of the wine world. Since then, the pendulum has swung back; now, less intrusive techniques that leave more room for the soil and subtle flavors to shine through are gaining traction. In fact, natural and orange wines appear on many wine menus these days in Budapest. Overall, two-thirds of Hungary’s wine grapes are white by volume, but reds are better represented within the premium segment.
Internationally, Hungary has found it difficult to carve out a niche for itself among discerning wine drinkers. Why? Although world-class, Tokajis are not in vogue in a world that’s increasingly cautious about sugar. Some dry wines can stand up to international competition, but they remain virtually unknown outside the country, and wines from foreign varietals struggle to convey a sense of place—few foreigners get excited about a Hungarian cabernet franc, no matter how good it is. But this may be just fine. The country’s wine consumption per capita is one of the highest in the world, and Hungarians happily drink away most of what’s produced locally.
How to choose?
Specific grape varietals aren’t emblematic of certain Hungarian wine regions, as with sangiovese in Chianti or chardonnay in Chablis. Yes, Tokaj makes only whites mainly of furmint and hárslevelű grapes, but other wine regions feature a kaleidoscope of varietals. Also note that there can be meaningful differences between wines made in the same area, same year, and of the same grape, because vintners follow their own rules rather than some predetermined requirements that would ensure a common flavor profile (this is causing headaches for marketers internationally because it's impossible to pigeonhole Hungarian wines).
So, rather than going by region or relying on Hungary’s elementary appellation system, you’re better off seeking out specific wineries or asking a specialist—see more on that below.
A few major white grapes
#1 - Furmint: Although best known as the main grape of the sweet Tokaji aszu, furmint now stands on its own as a dry wine, too. What makes it special is its ability to exhibit the rich and creamy texture and apricot and nutty flavors its sweet version is known for, while also being crisp, refreshing, and devoid of sugar (or off-dry). Furmint also makes good wines on the volcanic hills near Lake Balaton. Our favorites: Balassa, Bott Pince, Királyudvar Winery. Bonus: Hungary is far from a sparkling wine nation, but Kreinbacher winery puts out seriously good Champagne-style bubbles from furmint.
#2 - Hárslevelű: An indigenous Hungarian grape that often serves as the yang to furmint’s yin—these two traditionally partner in Tokaj blends, where the Hárslevelű’s layered nuance beautifully rounds out the aggressive acidity of furmint. With floral and honey flavors, it’s often compared to a chenin blanc. Our favorites: Kikelet Pince, Gizella Pince, Bott Frigyes.
#3 - Olaszrizling (welshriesling): Despite its moniker, this varietal has nothing to do with riesling. Instead, it’s a regional grape that’s also popular in Croatia, where it’s known as grasevina, and Austria. It’s a medium-bodied white packing good acidity, floral aromas, and an almond finish. Although unlikely to knock your socks off, olaszrizling makes for a pleasant summer drink, especially the ones from Csopak, near Lake Balaton. Recently, it’s also lent itself to good orange wines. Our favorites: Jásdi Pince, Figula Pincészet, Laposa.
#4 - Juhfark: In Hungarian, the name of this grape means “sheep’s tail,” a gesture to its long, elongated clusters. Juhfark is synonymous with Somló mountain in northwestern Hungary where legend holds that if newlyweds drink it before their wedding night, then they will be graced with a son. The wine’s deeply mineral, “masculine” features, amplified by the volcanic soil, might have spawned this legend. A bit of aging and residual sugar can wonderfully round out the grape’s high acidity and earthy flavors. Our favorites: Somlói Apátsági Pince, Kolonics Pincészet, Spiegelberg.
A few major red grapes
#1 - Kadarka: This grape likely arrived in Hungary from the Balkans via Serbian merchants who settled here after they fled from the Ottomans in the early 18th century. Kadarka makes a light and delicate red wine that’s often compared to a pinot noir, although it doesn’t age well. With 12 to 13 percent alcohol, spicy flavors, and fruity notes, it’s a soft, approachable wine with excellent acidity. Some of the best ones are made in Szekszárd, and also in Eger. Our favorites: Heimann, Orsolya Pince, Vida Péter.
#2 - Kékfrankos: Kékfrankos is Hungary’s most planted red grape and thus appears in many wine regions. Better known as Blaufränkisch, it’s a signature grape in the Carpathian Basin that’s popular in Hungary, Austria, and Slovenia. At its best, kékfrankos is fresh and medium-bodied with hints of cherry and spices; to Máte Horváth, Hungary’s sommelier of the year in 2017 and 2018, a good kékfrankos falls between a pinot noir and a barbera, delivering the elegance of the former and the homey rusticity of the latter. Our favorites: Karner Gábor, Weninger, Homola Pincészet.
#3 - 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. Our favorites: Sebestyén, Böjt Pincészet, St. Andrea.
Tokaj’s magical elixirs
The history of these lavish, golden-hued liquids, which Louis XIV of France described as "the wine of kings and the king of wines," goes back to the 17th century, when Tokaj vintners first documented their wine-making method that enlisted the help of the botrytis fungus. It’s actually a benign fungus, also known as the “noble rot” that’s responsible for Tokaj’s magic: at a certain level of humidity, it attacks mature grapes, absorbs their water, and leaves behind shriveled grapes, called aszu, that burst with sugar. But, despite what it sounds like, the resulting wines aren’t cloying. Both of Tokaj’s two main grapes, furmint and hárslevelű, have high acidity, which balances out the sugar, so what you actually taste is an intensely complex drink with spicy notes from oak aging.
Tokaj is often compared to Sauternes, the better known delicacy from Bordeaux, but few people know that aszu wines predate Sauternes. They also require a more meticulous production process: during harvest, workers need to individually inspect and hand-pick the botrytis-infected grapes, rather than just use whole grape clusters as in the case of Sauternes.
Given their richness, people usually order Tokaj wines by a small glass. Historically, they pair with foie gras, but they also go well with desserts and 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’s 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—of each of these 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 wines. Besides being the most wallet-friendly option (€8-10), it works 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 aszu, but not by a huge margin (€11-13).
Aszu: The most famous type. Winemakers add hand-picked, raisin-like sweet aszus to a 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, incredibly layered wine (€16-20).
Esszencia: The rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich juice that naturally trickles from aszu 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.
Wine bars and wine pairings
Budapest’s best wine bars offer chances to try an array of local wines, both by the bottle and by the glass. Kadarka bar is known for its lively atmosphere, and Drop Shop serves the most sophisticated—and pricey—options from smaller, under-the-radar wineries. You will also be in good hands with the sommeliers at Budapest’s fine dining restaurants, who can competently recommend wines based on your preferences. And if you opt for a tasting menu, you can fully experience how local wines pair with foods as part of the measured progress of a multi-course meal.
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.
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