A Beginner's Guide To Villány Wines

Hiding near the Croatian border, Hungary's most popular red wine region has a rich history and excellent wines.

What is Villány and what happens there?

Known for its hefty red wines and nearly Meditarranean climate, Villány is a historic wine region in southern Hungary, a little more than two hours away from Budapest by car. The wine region consists of 17 towns and villages — Villány itself being the main one — and a total of 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) of planted vines. The vineyards lie on softly rolling hills along an east-west axis facing the Croatian border to the south. Winemaking in Villány owes much to German farmers who settled here in large numbers in the 18th century. Today, Villány is one of, if not the most popular wine regions in Hungary.

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What should I know about the history of Villány wines?

Winemaking in Villány, like in the rest of Transdanubia, goes back to the Romans who ruled the area since the 1st century CE. The Magyar tribes continued to produce wine after conquering the land in the 10th century, as did the Pannonian Avar and Slavic people who had been there. In 1526, it was in nearby Mohács that the Ottoman Empire annihilated the Hungarian army and began their century-and-a-half occupation of middle Hungary, including Villány.

Facing harsh treatments and high taxes, many Hungarians fled the area while Serbian people emigrated from the south, bringing their own grapes and wine traditions. After the Ottoman reign, which ended in 1687, the Habsburg kings and the feudal landlords — Eugene Savoy, the Batthyány family, and members of the Habsburg family itself — recruited thousands of German farmers to repopulate southern Hungary. Interestingly, in 1880, Hungarians only accounted for nine percent of Villány’s population. Using better techniques and imported grape varieties like blauer portugieser and blaufränkisch, the German settlers revived winemaking. By the 19th century, Villány wines were exported to everywhere from the United States and Brazil to Vienna, Prague, and Budapest.

The Europe-wide phylloxera epidemic destroyed Villány’s vineyards and many winemakers lost their livelihood. The solution to phylloxera was to graft the local grapevines onto American rootstock, which was immune to the bug. A key figure in this initiative was Zsigmond Teleki, who experimented with and identified the most resistant hybrids on his model farm in Villány. Teleki’s became one of the biggest such farms in Central Europe, rescuing thousands of winemakers ruined by phylloxera.

In 1944, Jewish people from Villány were deported to the concentration camp in Auschwitz where most of them died. A couple of years later, many German families were expelled from Hungary for being “collectively guilty” of German war crimes. Apart from the sheer tragedy of these events, Villány lost plenty of its essential winemakers and wine merchants as a result.

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. The result was mediocre wines in mass quantities. Bizarrely, grapes in the Kopár vineyard, one of the best in Villány, were given up in favor of green pea cultivation.

From 1990, the state-owned cooperatives were privatized and the capitalist era unleashed a revival of family wineries. Villány winemakers won national awards and the region was developing rapidly. Villány became an exemplary model for other wine regions to follow in their transition to the free market.

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

Villány’s vineyards stretch across a 25-kilometer (16-mile) east-west axis near Hungary’s southern border with Croatia. Alone in Hungary, the south-facing vineyards enjoy an almost Meditarranean climate with long and hot summers (though winters do get cold), which helps the grapes ripen. The grapevines sit on a limestone bedrock overlaid with loess and clay, factors that boost the grapes’ acidity level. 

What kinds of wines are made in Villány?

Villány is a red-wine region, although white wines are also made in the middle and western areas. The production of red wines, which accounts for 85 percent of the total, is centered in and around the town of Villány. The region is best known for three Bordeaux grapes — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot — that are made both as blends and single-varietal wines (Villány’s latitude and soil composition is comparable to the Bordeaux wine region, especially St. Emilion and Pomerol). Cabernet franc in particular produces notably excellent wines here. As with other bolder red wines, Villány winemakers recommend at least five years of aging before the wines show their best selves.

Wines from two red grapes that German settlers brought along long time ago, blauer portugieser (kékoportó) and blaufränkisch (kékfrankos), are also produced in large quantities. Unfortunately kadarka, which was Villány’s main grape for centuries, has almost entirely disappeared decades ago because it’s a troublesome grape.

What’s the style of Villány’s red wines?

This one is difficult to answer since each winemaker has a different approach to his or her craft. In the 1990s and early aughts, in-line with global trends, Villány made hefty, high-alcohol and high-tannin red wines with a pronounced taste of small oak barrels. The last decade brought a slight shift in approach: people use oak barrels more moderately — for example aging wines in used or bigger barrels — and emphasize acidity and freshness. This often translates to a lower alcohol content and less of the oak-induced vanilla flavors. However, Villány is the warmest wine region in the country where high-tannin grapes like cabernet sauvignon are most prevalent, so big wines still tend to be the norm. Finally, Villány is also behind much of the rosés consumed across Hungary.

What should I know about the blauer portugieser (kékoportó) grape?

Despite its moniker, blauer portugieser (kékoportó) is native to Central Europe and was first introduced in Hungary by German settlers in the 18th century. It’s planted on 330 hectares (800 acres), accounting for nearly twenty percent of Villány’s red grapes. Blauer portugieser makes a light, approachable, silky wine with an appealing dark-red hue. Some people dismiss it as indistinct and lacking character and hence it often ends up in blends or consumed unaged as a simple table wine. But there also exist winemakers, for example Hummel, who give it serious attention and their blauer portugieser is worth trying.

What are the top vineyards of Villány?

Most winemakers believe that Siralomvölgy (Jammertal), Kopár, Csillagvölgy, Konkoly, and Fekete-hegy are among the most prized plots. Interestingly, Siralomvölgy, which translates to Valley of Mourning, acquired its moniker from the brutal battle that took place there between the Ottoman and the European allied army in 1687, with thousands of casualties on both sides.

Who owns the wineries in Villány?

Historically, thousands of German farmers and wine merchants, as well as a few feudal landlords — Eugene Savoy, and the Habsburg, Batthyány, and Montenuovo families — owned most vineyards. The Communist regime confiscated their land in 1945 and established wine collectives centered on the former estates of the aristocracy. Since the 1990s, small family wineries are once again the backbone of Villány. There are also several large-scale producers that formed when the wine collectives were privatized (for example Csányi Pincészet).

What should I know about the German settlers of Villány?

The Ottoman occupation left southern Hungary deserted — by the end of the 17th century, almost all Hungarians fled Villány and the neighboring villages. To repopulate the land, the feudal landlords attracted tens of thousands of German families to the region. These newcomers 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. The situation was very similar in nearby wine regions like Szekszárd, also with a sizable German population.

But the legacy of the German settlers is still palpable in Villány. For example, the densely built, gleaming white, centuries-old winery buildings lining the roads of Villány, Villánykövesd, and Palkonya belonged to German vintners. Also, some native foods like the stifolder and szajmóka cold cuts have spread into the Hungarian mainstream and many of Villány’s top winemakers have German ancestry, including Tiffán and Bock.

How is Villány different from Szekszárd, a seemingly similar red wine region nearby?

The key difference lies in the types of wines made in each. Kékfrankos (blaufränkisch), a regional grape variety, accounts for by far the most wines in Szekszárd whereas Villány is centered on the so-called Bordeaux grapes, especially cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Also, Villány’s limestone soil tends to add a layer of complexity, whereas Szekszárd often charms with its more approachable wines.

The two wine regions have a similar history. Both of them flourished under German settlers who came in the 18th century and improved the local agriculture and winemaking. The importance of the wine industry today is more visible in and around the village of Villány, which heavily relies on wine tourism compared with the 35,000 resident city of Szekszárd.

Is the wine region worth visiting?

Absolutely. Apart from excellent wines, Villány has an unusually rich cultural legacy thanks to the history German winemakers and the proximity of the Croatian border. Also, unlike say Tokaj, Villány is a relatively small wine region mainly concentrated in the village of Villány and the points of attraction are easily accessible by car. The service sector — restaurants, hotels — is more developed than in most Hungarian wine regions meaning that visitors can expect an all-around fulfilling experience.

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