Unlike beer, wine has been essential all throughout Hungary's history: almost every province of the country made wine, which was a chief export and a vital sustenance available to rich and poor alike. Hungary's vineyards occupy the northeastern segment of Europe's wine-growing region and today, still, the country is a major wine producer globally with a total of 22 wine regions. The most famous is Tokaj, in northeastern Hungary, home to 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 — likely even to the Celts, the previous occupants of the land — who planted grapewines around the scenic Lake Balaton in what's western Hungary today. This means that vineyards had long existed before the Magyar tribes arrived from the east in the 9th century. Initially, the medieval Hungarian kings entrusted the Benedictine and Cistercian orders to cultivate grapewines, relying on the monasteries' long tradition of winemaking.
In the 12-13th centuries, German, French, and Italian settlers brought new grape varieties and improved winemaking techniques to wine regions like Sopron, Somló, and Tokaj. When Ottoman Turkey invaded 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 golden-hued aszú wines (the most expensive wine U.S. President Thomas Jefferson ever bought was also 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.
Hungary's wine industry flourished after the formation of the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1867 thanks to improved techniques and access to a larger market. By 1875, Hungary was the second largest wine producer in Europe behind France. Unfortunately, as in other European wine regions, the phylloxera plague wiped out two-thirds of the vineyards by the end of the century.
After this tragic event, local winegrowers abandoned many of the indigenous grapes and replaced them by more resistant foreign varieties. This is partly why grapes like riesling, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot abound in Hungary today. Some of them, like cabernet franc, went on to flourish in Hungary’s sun-drenched southern soil. Another legacy of the phylloxera is the sandy vineyards of middle Hungary: the insects couldn't survive in sand so people planted vine grapes on huge swaths of land there.
During the four decades of communism, between 1948 and 1989, quantity trumped quality. State-owned cooperatives nationalized most vineyards and planted new grapes on low-lying lands that were easy to harvest by machine regardless of the lower quality soil. 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. 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 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? Since sweet wines are currently unfashionable, Tokaj has lost some of its glory (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 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 grapes, unlike in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chianti for example. Case in point: both Tokaj, in eastern Hungary, and Somló, in the west, 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, you’re best 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 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 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. Somló, a bit away 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 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 of 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.
Historically, Hungary has been a white wine country with a great variety of indigenous grapes. Unfortunately, much of them disappeared after the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s, when the government replanted vineyards with fewer and more resistant varieties.
Red wines only appeared in the 17th century with the kadarka grape, especially in Eger, Szekszárd, and Villány. Since then, the kékfrankos (blaufränkisch) also became widespread. Today, two-thirds of wine grapes in Hungary 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 professionals. Furmint's natural home is the volcanic hills of Tokaj where it makes minerally 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. It became widespread in Hungary only after the phylloxera plague. Although unlikely to knock your socks off, its medium acidity, floral aromas, and almond finish can be beguiling. The best ones come 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. Today, juhfark is only planted in Somló Hill in northwestern Hungary, where its one of the few native grapes that survived the phylloxera epidemic. Juhfark wines are known to have a deeply minerally, steely, salty character; 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 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 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 held a lowly 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 even all this fuss about Tokaj? In the 16th century, Tokaj vintners enlisted the help of a benign fungus called botrytis cinerea, known as the “noble rot,” which is responsible for Tokaj’s golden wines: at a right mix of humidity and sunlight, the fungus attacks mature grapes, absorbs their water, and leaves behind shriveled grapes called aszú with a naturally intensified flavor and new aroma compounds.
Despite what it may sound like, aszú wines aren’t cloying. Tokaj’s two main grapes, furmint and hárslevelű, have high acidity which balances out the sugar, so what you taste is an intensely complex drink layered with notes from oak aging. Tokaj's aszú wines are often compared to Sauternes, the better-known delicacy from Bordeaux also made with the help of the botrytis fungus. (The production process in Tokaj is actually a bit more nuanced as during harvest the 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.)
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. You’re most likely to encounter the below three categories of sweet Tokaj wines in Budapest restaurants, going from the cheapest to the most expensive.
Szamorodni: Its name comes from Polish as people of Poland, just north of Tokaj, were especially fond of this style of wine in the past. Szamorodni translates to “as it comes,” referring to how the wine clusters are picked as a whole, so a blend of regular and aszú grapes make it into the wine, similar to how a Sauternes is made. Szamorodnis lack the complexity of an aszú, but not by a huge margin.
Aszú: The pinnacle of Tokaj. Winemakers add hand-picked aszús grapes to a fermenting dry base wine made from regular grapes 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.
Esszencia: The rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich syrupy nectar 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 4-5 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, where fröccs is the name of the local water-and-wine combo. A fröccs consists of 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 widely 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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