A Beginner's Guide To Szekszárd Wines

Szekszárd is a historic red wine region in southern Hungary with plenty of wineries and several points of attraction to keep you engaged for a weekend.

What is Szekszárd and what happens there?

Szekszárd is a historic red wine region in southern Hungary, located an hour and a half from Budapest by car. The city of Szekszárd anchors the wine region, which consists of 15 nearby towns and villages and a total of 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) of planted vines. The vineyards lie on softly rolling hills that face the Danube and the dramatic flat expanse of eastern Hungary (Alföld) that sets off here. For centuries, Szekszárd has been known for its charming and spicy red wines made from the kadarka grape; Franz Liszt, for example, was a great admirer and visited the region several times.

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What should I know about the history of Szekszárd wines?

Viticulture in Szekszárd goes back to the Romans who ruled the area since the 1st century AD. In fact, one of the most impressive Roman-era artifacts in all of Hungary, a white marble sarcophagus adorned with wine grapes, was unearthed near Szekszárd (today it’s exhibited in Budapest’s National Museum). Hungarian tribes took the land in the 9th century and continued to make wine as had the Pannonian Avar people before them. Life ground to a halt in the 16th century when the Ottoman Empire invaded southern Hungary, including Szekszárd. The muslim Ottomans permitted winemaking to continue, some of them even made wine themselves, but in the face of high taxes and constant skirmishes most locals fled the area. By the end of the Ottoman period in the late 17th century, Szekszárd had only 65 residents left.

The revival came in the 18th and 19th centuries, in part thanks to industrious German peasants who settled in the region in large numbers and improved the quality and the reputation of Szekszárd wines. Sadly, the Europe-wide phylloxera epidemic appeared in 1886 and destroyed most vineyards by the end of the century. It took decades to rebuild the wine region.

During the communist period (1948-1989), especially from 1959, state-owned cooperatives planted new vineyards on low-lying (and lower quality) sites that could be cultivated by machines. In the meantime, many family winemakers abandoned their hillside plots due to the economic and political headwinds. The result was mediocre wines in mass quantities. This was also when kékfrankos (blaufränkisch) and other more resistant varieties like merlot and cabernet sauvignon replaced kadarka, Szekszárd’s flagship grape. From 1990, state-owned cooperatives were privatized and the capitalist era unleashed a revival of family wineries who are hard at work to put Szekszárd back on the global wine map.

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

The wine region has a mild continental climate meaning that summers are longer and the winters less harsh than usual in Hungary, factors that help the grapes ripen. Szekszárd’s vineyards sit on a silt soil (also known as loess) and stretch out on gentle hillsides along a 30 kilometer north-south axis, facing the vast flatland of eastern Hungary. Given the soil composition, the wines of Szekszárd tend to be smooth and round with a relatively low acidity.

What kinds of wines are made in Szekszárd?

Szekszárd is a red wine region. Today, by far the most planted grape is kékfrankos (blaufränkisch), accounting for 30 percent of the total, followed by three Bordeaux varieties — merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc. The Bordeaux grapes are often used in blends to round out and layer kékfrankos-forward wines. Kadarka, once the dominant grape, comprises only five percent of the vineyards today.

What should I know about kadarka, Szekszárd’s most famous grape?

Balkan settlers fleeing the Ottomans introduced the kadarka grape in the 16th century (prior to that, Szekszárd was mainly a white wine region). Yielding light-bodied wines with captivating spice flavors, kadarka became the dominant grape of Szekszárd and also spread to other wine regions. But kadarka is troublesome — its thin skin is prone to rot and it ripens late — so winemakers replaced it with the more resistant kékfrankos (blaufränkisch) in the 20th century. Today, there’s less than 100 hectares (250 acres) of it, five percent of the total in Szekszárd.

Recently, though, many wineries have started to plant kadarka again to capitalize on the global wine trend that treasures little-known local grapes. Some winemakers like Heimann are experimenting with different clones of kadarka to improve the grape’s resistance. Apart from Hungary, kadarka also appears in Bulgaria where it’s known as gamza.

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

Bull’s Blood, or Bikavér, is a designation-protected Hungarian wine made from a blend of red grapes. Two wine regions — Szekszárd and Eger — are permitted to use the label and there’s a dispute about which one can lay greater claim to it (the term “bikavér” first appeared in a 19th century poem referring to the wines of Szekszárd). Unfortunately, Bikavér acquired a bad reputation during the communist era when Eger flooded the international markets with truly awful wines under the Bull’s Blood moniker. “A bad joke and a watery insult to bulls everywhere,” wrote a critic.

Today, Szekszárd winemakers are split over the future of Bikavér. Some of them, like Zoltán Heimann Jr., believe that the burden of the legacy is too great, while others, like Sebestyén, see the Bikavér as a uniquely Hungarian brand ready for a revival.

Today, the Bikavér of Szekszárd is made from at least four grape varieties in which at least 45 percent comes from kékfrankos (blaufränkisch), 5 percent from kadarka, and the remainder from Bordeaux varieties such as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. Before release, the wines are aged for at least a year in oak barrels.

Who owns the wineries in Szekszárd?

For most of Szekszárd’s history, the local Benedictine monastery was in charge of the vineyards. In the 18th century, Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa confiscated the monastery’s estate, including the vineyards, donating it to Hungary’s main university endowment. Other feudal landlords, like the Apponyis, and family wineries also owned plots. A post-WWII land reform nationalized all sizable vineyards and by 1960 the majority belonged to state-run cooperatives. Hundreds of small family wineries reappeared after the privatizations of 1990. At present, the biggest wineries of Szekszárd include Mészáros, Takler, and Tűzkő.

What should I know about the German settlers of Szekszárd?

The Ottoman occupation left southern Hungary deserted — by the end of the 17th century, more than ninety percent of Tolna county’s villages were abandoned. To repopulate the land, the feudal landlords invited tens of thousands of German families to the region. These newcomers from southern Germany earned a reputation for hard work; they cultivated the land and improved winemaking. Tragically, after World War II, about half of them were expelled from Hungary and deported to Germany for being “collectively guilty” of German war crimes. In the vast majority of cases their culpability consisted of identifying themselves as German in the 1941 census.

But the legacy of the German settlers is still palpable in Szekszárd. For example, some native foods like the stifolder and szajmóka cold cuts have spread into the Hungarian mainstream and many of Szekszárd’s top winemakers have German ancestry, including Heimann, Takler, Vesztergomi, and Dúzsi.

Is the wine region worth visiting?

Absolutely. Szekszárd has a close-knit community of family winemakers which means that the wine tastings tend to be more personal than elsewhere. It’s also interesting to observe the generational shift currently taking place at many wineries, noting similarities and differences in approach. Apart from wines, the Gemenc National Park and the diverse cultural history of Szekszárd marked by Hungarian, German, and Serbian influences can make this an especially well-rounded trip.

Which wineries should I visit?

Szekszárd has hundreds of wineries and you’re unlikely to be disappointed by any of them. Based on personal visits and talking to leading Hungarian sommeliers and other wine professionals, I highlighted some of my favorites. I’ve included a short profile of each, to help you decide which ones seem most interesting to you.

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