A Beginner's Guide To Eger Wines

Answers to all your questions about the home of the Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood) wines.

A tasting at Szent Andrea Winery in Eger with the winery's founder, György Lőrincz. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

What's Eger and what happens there?

Eger is a historic winegrowing area in northeastern Hungary, about an hour and a half away from Budapest by car. The culturally rich 50,000-resident city of Eger anchors the wine region, which is one of the largest in Hungary with 5,500 hectares (14,000 acres) of planted vines. Eger makes both reds and whites and is known as the home of blended wines: the Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) and the Egri Csillagok.

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Is the wine region worth visiting?

Absolutely. Unlike most other wine regions in Hungary that are hidden in the countryside, Eger is a historic city with an adorable Baroque center. The fact that it has been the seat of an Archbishop and has its own university means there's culture to explore. Excellent cafés, restaurants, and hotels abound, so you can easily spend an event-packed couple of days here.

What should I know about the history of Eger wines?

Winemaking in Eger goes back to the 11th century, to the early days of the Hungarian Kingdom when King Stephen founded the Diocese of Eger. Most vineyards belonged to the Archbishop and to the Cistercian monastery. After the Mongolian Invasion ravaged the country in the 13th century, French settlers came to Eger, bringing with them more advanced winemaking techniques. By the 16th century, wine was the main source of income for most of Eger’s residents.

For decades, Eger was able to fend off the attacks of Ottoman Turkey but it too was captured in 1596. Winemaking didn’t rebound until the 18th century, when Eger exported meaningful quantities of wine to Poland. Starting in 1884, the Europe-wide phylloxera epidemic destroyed much of the vineyards. The reconstruction works were barely finished when the next tragedy befell the region: the city’s Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust in 1944, including its wine merchants.

During the Communist period (1948-1989), especially from 1959, state-owned wine conglomerates planted new vineyards on low-lying (and lower quality) sites that could be harvested by machines. The result was mediocre wines in mass quantities. From 1990, the state-owned cooperatives were privatized and the capitalist era unleashed a revival of family wineries, a growing number of which are putting out excellent wines, both reds and whites.

What’s the climate and the soil composition of Eger’s vineyards?

Located in northeastern Hungary, Eger is one of the coolest wine regions in Hungary. Other wine-growing areas that occupy the same latitude as Eger (47.9°), Chablis for example, tend to make white wines only because in most years the weather is too cold for red grapes to ripen. In Eger, the Bükk Mountains protect the vineyards from the cold winds, creating a warmer microclimate (this is becoming less relevant these days with a warming climate).

Most of Eger’s vines stretch across the south-facing hills of the Bükk Mountains and sit on a bedrock of soft volcanic rock called tuff. The notable exception is the 500-meter tall Nagy-Eged Hill, whose limestone soil yields wines with a racy acidity.

What kinds of wines are made in Eger?

Eger has been making both whites and reds and historically the focus has shifted between the two. For example, it started out being a white wine region, but by the 17th century the red kadarka was dominant. After the phylloxera destroyed the vines in the late 19th century, white grapes were more common again. Since then, there’s been a gradual shift back to red grapes, although kékfrankos (blaufränkisch), merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc replaced the kadarka. Today, reds comprise about two-thirds of Eger’s wines.

What's the story with Bull’s Blood (Bikavér)?

Bull’s Blood, or Bikavér, is a designation-protected Hungarian wine made from a blend of red grapes. The charming myth is that during the 1552 siege of Eger, the Hungarian soldiers fortified themselves generously with the local wine and the sight of their beards dripping with the blood-like crimson juice so much intimidated the Ottoman troops that they retreated at once. Of course none of this is true, and the Bikavér's first mention dates to the mid-19th century, when people referred as such to wines with an appealing dark-red color.

Along with Tokaji, the Bikavér became the most famous Hungarian wine at home and abroad by the early 20th century. But during the Communist era, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, Eger flooded the international markets with truly awful wines under the Bull’s Blood moniker and Bikavér became synonymous with bad wine. “A bad joke and a watery insult to bulls everywhere,” wrote a critic. Today, Eger winemakers are hard at work to restore the reputation of the Bikavér.

What kind of wine is the Bull's Blood (Bikavér)?

For a long time, kadarka was the main grape of the blend, but the more resistant kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) has gradually replaced it from the 1960s onward. Today, Eger’s Bikavér wines must contain at least four grape varieties. Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) is the main one, accounting for between 30 to 65 percent, with the remainder usually coming from a mix of Bordeaux grapes such as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot.

There are three categories: classic, superior, and grand superior. The key difference is the level of yield control and the required length of aging in oak barrels. For example, no more than 35 hl (3,500 liter) of wine can be produced from a hectare of vineyard to qualify for a Bull's Blood grand superior, which is about 4,400 bottles. The wine must also spend at least twelve months in oak barrels.

Two Hungarian wine regions – Eger and Szekszárd – are permitted to using the Bull’s Blood label because there’s a dispute about which one can lay greater claim to the name. Eger is generally better known for its Bull’s Blood than Szekszárd.

What should I know about Egri Csillag, Eger’s white blend?

To give a more recognizable character to Eger’s myriad white wines, in 2010 the wine region launched its official white blend called Egri Csillag. The designation origin criteria require that the blend contain at least four grape varieties with a minimum of fifty percent coming from grapes considered to be local, such as olaszrizling, hárslevelű, and leányka.

What’s the style of Eger’s wines?

It’s hard to generalize, but the key factors shaping Eger’s wines are the volcanic soil, the cool climate, and the combination of local and international grape varieties that make up the blends. White wines tend to be crispy and vibrant with good acidity, while a well-made Bikavér is fruity with firm but not too rough tannins, where no single variety stands out from the blend.

Who are some of Eger's winemakers?

Over the years, I've visited many, though not all, of Eger's winemakers and wrote a short profile on my favorites. These producers specialize in the upper segment of the market with truly excellent wines. Some of them offer wine tastings, but be sure to schedule an appointment in advance (details on the link above).

How are Eger’s red wines different from those of Villány and Szekszárd, Hungary’s other main red wine regions?

Again, it’s not easy to generalize but there are a few notable differences. In Szekszárd, kékfrankos (blaufränkisch) varietal wines dominate; in Villány, the Bordeaux grapes (cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc); in Eger, individual grapes play a smaller role and the focus is often on the Bikavér blends. The soils also matter: Szekszárd’s loess yields more nimble wines, Villány’s limestone impart good acidity, while Eger’s volcanic ash and cool climate translate to its own character.