A Beginner's Guide to Hungarian Wines And The 7 Must-try Varieties

Apart from Tokaj, some other Hungarian wines are also worth the attention despite flying under the radar internationally.

Unlike beer, wine has been essential all throughout Hungary's history: It was a key 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 63,000 hectares (156,000 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 ground to a halt when Ottoman Turkey invaded southern Hungary in the 16th century: people left 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. The golden-hued sweet aszú wines were used even to win political favors: Francis II Rákóczi sent shipments of Tokaj to the Palace of Versailles 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 elsewhere in Europe, 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 Communist rule (1948-89), 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.

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An old winery in the Somló An old winery in the [Somló](https://www.offbeatbudapest.com/budapest-city-guide/somlo-wine-region/) wine region. Photo: Gulyas Attila / Turista magazin

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 (people don't usually know that Tokaj also makes excellent dry wines). And foreign varieties struggle to convey a sense of place — it's hard to 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.

Classifications

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.

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A man with a puttony, a carrying basket traditionally used during harvest. Photo: Disznókő Winery

4 major wine regions

There are 22 official wine regions in Hungary but most top wines come out of a handful of areas.

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  • 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 lining it. The vineyards 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 family 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 there is Szekszárd, home to the kadarka grape. Franz Liszt was so fond of the delicate and spicy kadarka wines that he visited Szekszárd several times.

  • Eger & Mátra: Volcanic mountain ranges in northern Hungary produce wonderfully rich wines, both red and white. Most prominent is the area around Eger, home to the Bull's Blood (Bikavér) blend. To its west lies Mátra, usually eclipsed by the historic Eger despite spawning many young and talented winemarkers.

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View from the Balaton wine region. Photo: Balaton-felvidéki Nemzeti Park

Grape varieties

Historically, Hungary has been a white-wine country as meaningful amounts of 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 Hungary's wines are white by volume, but whites and reds are about equally represented within the premium segment.

4 major white grapes

  • Furmint: 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 furmints 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 round out the bright acidity of furmint. With floral and honey flavors, the hárslevelű is often compared to a chenin blanc. 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 a medium acidity and notes of almond, it can make charming wines. The best ones tend to come from northern Balaton. 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 clusters resemble. Today, juhfark is only planted in Somló, where it's one of the few native grapes that survived the phylloxera. Juhfark has a deeply minerally, salty character and a bit of aging and residual sugar can nicely take its edge off. My favorites: Barcza Pincészet, Kolonics Pincészet, Fekete Pince.

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Photo: Royal Tokaji.

3 major red grapes

  • Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch): Hungary’s most planted grape accounts for 40 percent of all red grapes in the country and hence 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: Weninger, Homola Pincészet, Szeleshát.

  • Kadarka: Balkan settlers fleeing the Ottomans introduced the grape in southern Hungary in the 16th century. Similar to a pinot noir, kadarka makes a light red wine with spicy flavors and fruity notes although it doesn’t age as well. It's a troublesome grape — its thin skin is prone to rot and it ripens late — so much of it disappeared from Hungary in the 20th century. Today, some of the best kadarkas come from Szekszárd and Eger. My favorites: Márkvárt, Heimann, Orsolya Pince.

  • 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 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. Grapes so infected are called aszú, and aszú wines are the heart of Tokaj’s sweet wines. The botrytis mold not only concentrates the grapes but also produces a range of new aroma compounds and glycerol, which impart a signature taste and a dense body.

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Bottles of aszú wine lining a Tokaj cellar. Photo: Disznókő Winery

Part of the reason aszú wines 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, aszú wines balance sweetness with acidity so they aren't cloying. 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.

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The progression from a regular to an aszú grape. Photo: Royal Tokaji

Traditionally, 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 wines in Budapest restaurants.

  • 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 aszú 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.

My favorite sweet wines from Tokaj: Barta, Királyudvar Winery, Disznókő.

Are you intrigued by Tokaj? Learn more about Tokaj wines or plan your visit to the wine region.

Fröccs culture

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.

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Photo: István Huszti

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).

My content is free and I never accept money in exchange for coverage. But this also means I have to rely on readers to maintain and grow the website. If you're enjoying this article, please consider supporting Offbeat.

This article is partly based on my interviews with local wine professionals, including sommeliers Péter Blazsovszky, János Gervai, Máté Horváth (Sommelier of the Year in 2017 and 2018), Krisztián Juhász, and Péter Pongrácz, 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.