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Viticulture in Hungary

Winemaking in Hungary has a long tradition. For centuries Hungarian wines were among the most sought-after in Europe. Along with its famous Tokaji wines, nowadays Hungary also produces interesting red and white quality wines. Despite being very good value for money, they are not very well known internationally. It's well worth giving them a try.

History of winegrowing in Hungary

Hungary is another country where winemaking was founded by the Greeks and Romans. Most of the vineyards were destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1241. Afterwards King Béla IV ordered the replanting of the damaged vineyards so it did not take long for winegrowing to recover in Hungary. It even managed to survive invasions by Tartars, Huns and Vandals in subsequent centuries. And despite the fact that alcohol was forbidden, winemaking was tolerated by the Ottoman Turks during the 150 years they ruled Hungary. As in many other European empires, it was the monasteries that helped to develop the cultivation of a wide range of grape varieties. The wines produced in the Eger and Sopron regions were already famous in the 13th century. In the 16th century merchants began to trade what is still the most popular Hungarian wine, the Tokaji Aszú. In those days this wine was an essential accompaniment to the richly laden tables of the royal courts of Europe.
After the phylloxera plague also swept through Hungary in the 19th century, wine production waned for a while. During the period of communist rule, the focus was squarely on mass-produced wine. The state-owned wineries supplied large quantities of this inferior wine to the USSR. During this period there was little scope for making the speciality wines for which Hungary had once enjoyed such a great reputation. Following the transition to democracy in 1989 and the withdrawal of state subsidies, a winemaking association was formed. International investors also recognized the potential and stepped in to assist Hungarian vintners. They began to focus on producing quality wines again. The Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since June 2002.

Geography and climate

A pronounced continental climate with hot summers and cold winters prevails in Hungary. Its inland location and the surrounding mountains make it very dry. The eastern part of the country has the lowest rainfall. Large rivers like the Danube or lakes such as Lake Balaton and Lake Neusiedl on the border with Austria even out the large temperature differences and regulate humidity levels.
Thanks to this climate, white wines develop a lively acidity and red grapes ripen well. Vineyards in the Hungarian wine region are situated either on the plains or in the foothills of the mountains. While the plains are ideal for white varieties, red grapes thrive mainly in the more hilly parts.
The Hungarian winegrowing region exhibits a wide variety of soil types such as sandy, volcanic rock, clay and loess soils.

Winegrowing regions in Hungary

Hungary is divided into four main regions and there are 22 subregions within these.
The Danube splits the country into two halves. On the western side is the Transdanubia region which is geographically very diverse. It encompasses Lake Balaton and the flat plains as well as hilly terrain. The region is ideal for dry and medium-dry whites and slightly sparkling wines. Among the gently rolling hills, on the other hand, red varieties such as Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) and Furmint grow. There are four winegrowing areas in Transdanubia: Balaton, Észak, Pannon and Sopron. These are further subdivided into several smaller zones.
In the Balaton region, the large expanses of water minimize temperature differences and ensure a balanced water supply. The diverse soil types create crisp white wines from Olasz and premium off-dry Pinot gris wines with complex aromas. The large wineries in the Balatonboglár subregion supply Germany's traditional Sekt producers with still wine to produce crisp sparkling wines. The famous Villány winegrowing area lies in the Pannon region. Along with Eger, this is the main centre for red wine production in Hungary. The international varieties Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grown in the foothills of the limestone mountains produce full-bodied wines with a high tannin content that are aged for many years in barrels before they are sold. The Duna region lies in the southeast of the country at the confluence of the Danube and Tisza rivers. These steppe-like lowlands with their sandy soil are only suited to grape varieties that can tolerate very dry conditions and frost. Nevertheless, this region brings in about half of Hungary's total winemaking revenues. It is known for both its dry and sweet white wines as well as simple red wines. The north of the country close to the Mátra mountain range and the Slovakian border is very important for Hungary's wine industry. This area includes the winegrowing regions of Eger and Tokaj-Hegyalja. Eger produces the world-famous red wine Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood). This very muscular cuvée primarily consists of Kékfrankos, blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Kékoportó (Blauer Portugieser) and Merlot grapes. These grapes are also used to create premium single-varietal red wines. By contrast, the slopes of the northeastern part of the area are mostly planted with white Muscat varieties. The most famous Hungarian wine region is Tokaj-Hegyalja lying at the foot of the Tokaj mountain range. As well as grapes from the Muscat family, the native varieties Furmint and Hárslevelü are the dominant plantings. The climatic conditions close to the river promote the concentration of sugars necessary to produce sweet wines. In the autumn they encourage the formation of noble rot and the drying out of the grapes left hanging on the vine. Volcanic soils intensify the aroma. The sweet wines from Tokaj-Hegyalja are comparable to the noble sweet wines from the Sauternes wine region in Bordeaux. The traditional Tokaji Aszú sweet wine that Hungarians even praise in their national anthem is world-famous. The broad aromatic spectrum of this most sought-after Hungarian speciality has entranced wine lovers for centuries. The botrytized and raisined grapes imbue the wine with a pleasant sweetness. For the second fermentation, the Tokaji Aszú is kept for at least three years in oak casks so that aromas reminiscent of honey, sultanas and plums are able to develop fully.

Wines from the winegrowing regions in Hungary

Of all the winegrowing nations of the former socialist Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary shows the least inclination to emulate French wines. On the contrary, its winemakers are protecting the character of their native wines. Hungary produces mainly full-bodied and powerful, sweet or medium dry wines. White varieties predominate, accounting for around 70% of Hungary's wine output. The most famous of these are Tokaji wines made from botrytized Furmint grapes. The red wine that made Eger famous throughout the world is Egri Bikavér, or Bull's Blood. This tannin-rich blend acquired its name during the Ottoman occupation in the 17th century when practising Muslims were forbidden to drink alcohol.

Hungarian grape varieties

The most common varieties used in Hungarian winemaking are its native grapes Kékfrankos, Olasz (variant of Riesling) and Furmint. Another important variety is Szürkebarát, the Hungarian equivalent of Pinot gris. Olasz is the predominant planting in Duna, the biggest winegrowing region. In the red wine district of Eger, a dry white wine is also produced from the local variety Leányka. Further varieties grown are Hárslevelü, Kadarka, Kékoporto (Blauer Portugieser), Nagyburgundi (Pinot noir), Médoc Noir (Merlot) and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Hungarian wine laws

The quality classifications for wine are precisely defined in Hungary: "Különleges minöségi bor" designates the highest quality wines and is indicated by the "Állami Ellenörzöjegy" official seal. This wine must be produced from fully ripe or botrytized grapes. The minimum alcohol level is 13%. "Minöségi bor" is also a quality wine, with a minimum alcohol level of 10%. "Muzeális bor" (museum wines) are very superior wines that must be aged for at least five years. "Asztali bor" is table wine.

Vineyard area and production volume

83 000 hectares, around 3.5 million hectolitres per year.

Popular wines from Hungary