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: wine 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 in Hungary 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 Hungarian tribes conquered the area in the 9th century CE. 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, which are made with the help of a benign fungus, were used even to curry 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, Hungary became the second largest wine producer in Europe behind France.

Tragically, as elsewhere in Europe, the phylloxera plague wiped out two-thirds of Hungary's vineyards by the end of the century. Many winemakers 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. 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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A Tokaj vineyard in Mezőzombor. Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

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 prominent 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 aren't currently fashionable so Tokaj has lost some of its market (few people 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 (this page will help you get started).

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A laborer during the 2021 harvest in Tokaj. Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

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 historic 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: Volcanic mountain ranges in northern Hungary produce wonderfully savory wines, both red and white. Most prominent is the area around Eger, home to the Bull's Blood (Bikavér) blend.

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Scenes from the 2021 harvest in Tokaj. Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

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. Its crispy, acid-forward flavor profile is often compared to a chenin blanc. 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 Tokajis.

  • 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 and floral notes round out the bright acidity of furmint.

  • 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 medium acidity and hints of almond notes, it can make charming wines. The best ones tend to come from northern Balaton.

  • 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.

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Barrels lining the wall of a winery in Tokaj. Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

3 major red grapes

  • Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch): Hungary’s most planted grape accounts for forty 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's Burgenland and in Slovenia. At its best, kékfrankos is 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. The top kékfrankos come from Eger, Sopron, and Szekszárd.

  • 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 Eger and Szekszárd. Kékfrankos, its main grape, lends it structure, kadarka adds fruity notes, and a traditional Bordeaux grape like cabernet sauvignon rounds it out with heft.

  • Kadarka: Balkan settlers fleeing the Ottomans introduced the grape in southern Hungary in the 16th century. Kadarka makes a light red wine with low tannins and fruity, sometimes spicy notes. It doesn’t age too well and 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.

Tokaj’s aszú 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 friendly fungus called botrytis cinerea, known as the “noble rot,” which can attack the grapes and leave behind shriveled berries with a naturally intensified, sweet-tart flavor. While munching away, the fungi create a host of new flavors and intense aromas — apricot, orange, honey — that make their way into the wines. Grapes so infected are called aszú, and aszú wines are the heart of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Other well-known sweet wines that rely on this mold include Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) in Germany.

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A grape bunch in Tokaj with a mix of aszú and regular grapes. Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

Harvesting aszús is hard: laborers need to pick the aszú grapes individually off the bunch. On an average day, they may pick eight kilos of aszú compared to 500 kilos of regular grapes by the cluster. Despite the natural fruit sugar present in these wines (residuals that didn't ferment into alcohol), aszú wines have high acidity so they don't feel cloying. “Sweetness so balanced and held in check by the sharp-tasting furmint that they leave your mouth whistle-clean,” Hugh Johnson, the famous wine writer wrote.

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Bottles of aszú lining the cellar of Disznókő winery in Tokaj. Photo: Barna Szász for Offbeat

There are three main categories of sweet Tokaj wines:

  • Szamorodni (Late Harvest): 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 are lighter, fruitier, and more approachable than an aszú. Wines labeled as "Late Harvest" are nearly identical to a szamorodni.

  • Aszú: The finest expression of Tokaj's sweet wines. Winemakers soak hand-picked aszú grapes in a fermenting base wine for a couple of days, then press the flavor-rich juice. What emerges after a few years in the barrel is a deeply aromatic and layered wine with signature notes of dried peach, orange, and honey. Aszús tend to get better over time, showing their most complex sides after many years and even decades of aging.

  • Esszencia: Also known as "nectar," esszencia is the rarest type of Tokaj, made purely from the rich free-run 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. Esszencia wines command top prices, offering a playground for deep-pocketed wine collectors.

The classic combination with an aszú wine is foie gras, blue cheese like Gorgonzola and Roquefort, and desserts. Aszús also go with sweet-saline seafood like shrimp or work as an aperitif or a post-meal treat on its own, in place of a dessert. I also drink aszús and szamorodnis with spicy and savory dishes, Thai curries for example.

Are you intrigued by Tokaj? Learn more about Tokaj wines or the top winemakers of the 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.

If you're in Budapest, check out the city's top wine bars to try the local wines.