Twelve months ago if someone had asked me my opinion on Hungarian wines, I would have responded with a blank stare. However, having since visited Hungary on vacation last summer, I have become smitten, not just with the wines, but with the country itself.
A century ago Hungary was one of the most important wine producers in Europe. However since then, Hungary grape vines were attacked by the phylloxera aphid which resulted in devastating losses. After that, Hungary itself was attacked during the two world wars, followed by a Communist occupation that lasted until 1991.
The g0od news is Hungary is making a comeback. There are now a multitude of small estates producing tasty wines, using a combination of traditional practices and modern sensibility.
With Hungary being situated between the 46th and 49th parallel, it is in the same latitude range as many of France’s top wine regions from Northern Rhône to Champagne. Hungary’s rolling hills are rich in volcanic soils and limestone–idyllic soil types for fine winemaking.
There are 22 wine regions in Hungary which has been highly criticised given the size of the country. However, this has not deterred the Hungarians as they feel the regions are well known and understood by their people. Each region is unique based on the climate, soil composition, and the grape varietals grown.
The climate ranges from having a small amount of rain, dry, extreme summer, cold winter to moderate, sub Mediterranean to cool, small amount of rain, long winter; to cool, rainy, windy and warm winter, dry summer, extreme amount of sunshine. As a result there is a large range in grape varietals grown from one region to the next.
Grape varietals being grown in Hungary include,
- Arany Sárfehér
- Budai Zöld
- Cserszegi Fűszeres
- Irsai Olivér
- Muscat Ottonel
- Rhine Riesling
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Tramini (Gewürztraminer)
- Zöld Veltelini (Grüner Veltliner)
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
Hungary produces not only red and white wine, but Rosé, Sparkling, and Sweet wine as well.
Here is an interesting fact. Hungarian wine producers use Hungarian oak to temper their intense wines. Hungarian oak barrels can also be found in many wineries in Europe and North America. Expect more delicate effects from Hungarian oak than from its French and American counterparts, and soft, creamy, toasted flavors and aromas.
Hungarian wine regions and local styles are as alluring as they are diverse. If a wine shop were organized by flavor profile, Hungarian wines would all belong in different corners of the store. Yet all the wines reflect something of their shared history.
There is one wine that is unique to Hungary – Tokaji, which is pronounced as “Toe-Kye”. To receive the Tokaji denotation, dry or sweet, a wine can only contain the 6 native varieties of Furmint (“foor-meent”), Hárslevelü (“harsh-level-ooo”), Kabar (“kah-bar”), Kövérszölö (“kuh-vaer-sue-lou”), Zéta (“zay-tuh”), and Sárgamuskotály (“shar-guh-moose-koh-tie”). The wine is made from individually picked botrytized grapes that are then mashed and soaked in dry wine or must. The resulting wine, after aging, is golden, extremely sweet (120-180 grams per liter) and has the potential to age indefinitely when properly stored.
This treasured wine often has the flavour of candied tangerines and apricots, cinnamon and cloves, with sweetness somewhere between honey and nectar. Its bright acidity balances out the extreme sugar content. In Hungary, the classic pairing is foie gras, but you can drink it with creamy cheeses, lemon tarts, or simply on its own. A bottle could easily set you back in excess of $60.
In spite of all of the wonderful Hungarian offerings, there is one to avoid, that being Bikavér. These are mass-produced wines dating back to the communist regime. Your local wine retailer should be able to assist you in avoiding these wines.
Hungarian wines are one of the wine world’s under publicised and best kept secrets. Unfortunately they are not as prominent in this country as many of their other European cousins. If you come across Hungarian wines in your local wine store, I recommend trying one. I don’t think you will be disappointed.