A Beginner's Guide To Eger Wines

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

What is the Eger wine region 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 charming, 50,000-resident Baroque city of Eger anchors the wine region, which is one of the largest in Hungary with 5,600 hectares (14,000 acres) of planted vines. Eger makes both reds and whites and is known as the home of blended wines: the dark-colored Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) and the white Egri Csillagok.

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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 local bishop and 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 in 1596 it too was captured. Winemaking didn’t rebound until the 18th century, when Eger once again became an important producer, also exporting wines to Poland. Starting in 1884, the Europe-wide phylloxera epidemic destroyed much of the vineyards. The reconstruction works were barely completed when the next tragedy befell the wine region: the city’s Jewish population perished 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 cultivated 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 first-class 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 in France for instance, tend to make white wines only because in most years the weather is too cold for red grapes to ripen.

But here, the Bükk Mountains protect the vineyards from the cold winds, creating a warmer microclimate. 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?

Given its unique microclimate (see above), Eger has been able to make both white and red wines 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 grape became prominent. 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. There's a charming myth that during the 16th-century siege of Eger, the Hungarian soldiers fortified themselves generously with the local wine and the sight of their beards dripping with the blood-like, dark-red juice was so intimidating to the Ottoman troops that they decided to retreat at once. Of course none of this is true, and the Bikavér's first mention is only from mid-19th century, when people used it to refer as such to wines with an attractive deep-red color.

Along with Tokaji, the Bikavér became the most prominent Hungarian wine at home and abroad by the early 20th century. But during the Communist era, especially in the 1970s and ‘80s, 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 a 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, especially from the 1960s onwards. 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 main differences among the three are the period the wines spend aging in oak barrels and the yield control winemakers need to practice.

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. In practice, Eger is better known for its Bull’s Blood.

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

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 that shape 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 spicy and fruity with firm but not too rough tannins, where no single variety stands out from the blend.

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. While kékfrankos (blaufränkisch) varietal wines dominate in Szekszárd and Bordeaux grapes (cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) in Villány, individual grapes play a smaller role in Eger, where the focus is on the Bikavér blends. The soils also matter: Villány’s limestone bedrock tends to impart good acidity, Szekszárd’s loess yields more nimble and approachable wines, while Eger’s volcanic ash and cool climate translate to its own character.

Is the wine region worth visiting?

Absolutely. Apart from excellent wines, Eger is an adorable Baroque city worth exploring for a couple of days. Unlike most other wine regions in Hungary that are hidden in the countryside, Eger’s presence means that excellent cafés, restaurants, and hotels abound, offering visitors an all-around fulfilling experience.