Before 1990, only a few Soviet aparatchiks had access to fine Hungarian wines. Now, 15 years after “liberation” of the socialist economic order, wine quality has immensely improved, as did packaging and marketing efforts.
The wine potential of Hungary is immense, and hardworking entrepreneurs will make it possible to achieve optimal results within the next decade.
Hungary’s winemaking history spans over ten centuries, to the founding of the kingdom on the eve of Christmas 1000. Historians determined that between the different Turkic and Caucasian tribes, the Magyars brought with them vitiviniculture to the Carpathian basin. The fledgling industry soon emerged as an important contributor to the economy, particularly after German, Walloon, and Italian settlers arrived.
By the beginning of the 16th century, Hungary ranked among the largest wine-exporting countries of Central Europe.
A period of decline followed when the Ottoman army defeated Hungary at the battle of Mohacs in 1526, thereby ushering a period of domination that lasted over a century and a half. The subsequent eviction of the Ottoman rule by the Austrian army at the turn of the century left Hungary yet again under foreign rule, culture, and economy. Although ruled by the Austrian crown, Swabians, Romans, Slovaks and Slavs were allowed to immigrate, and ultimately improved the vitiviniculture.
Phylloxera vastatrix dealt a blow to the industry in (1870’s), and by 1891 Hungary, once an exporter of wine, was forced to import to satisfy internal demand.
Soviet rule also had devastating effects. Collectivisation of vineyards into huge State Farms ended up covering 15 percent, whereas co-operatives received 60 percent, and the remaining 25 percent was left to individuals.
State owned organizations like Hungarovin, Egervin, and Pannonvin looked after internal distribution; Monimpex was responsible for exports.
The entire Soviet system encouraged quantity over quality; including the flagship wine of Tokaj.
Since the liberalization of the Hungarian economy, members of small family-owned wineries embarked upon an ambitious replanting program, purchased modern equipment, and travelled to Germany, France, and Italy in an attempt to learn modern techniques to improve quality. Concomitantly, western wineries bought vineyards and wineries, injecting millions into the process of revitalization.
Presently there are 22 wine regions recognized to produce superior quality. Of those, the most important are: Badascon, Balaton-Fured, Csopak around Lake Balaton; Mor, Sopron and Samlo, all west of Budapest; Eger, Miskolc and Tokaj northeast of the capital.
The towns of Szekszard and Pecs, a few hundred kilometres south of Budapest, are now becoming important contributors to both quality and quantity.
Hungarian winemakers, so far, have refrained from planting “world varieties” (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir) on a large scale. There are experimental plots and some winemakers blend local grapes with “newcomers” to improve them. This is now becoming, more widespread.
Quality has improved so much that many small wineries win regularly awards in European wine competitions.
The traditional red grape varieties of the country are: Kadarka, Kekoporto, Kekfrankos, Nagyburgundi, and Zweigelt. For white wines, growers prefer Keknyelu, Sarfeher, Juhfark, Ezerjo, Furmint, Harslelvelu (linden leaf), Rajnai Rizling (Rhineriesling), Olaszrizling (Welschriesling), Leanyka (a k a Feteaska in Romania), Zoldveltlini (Gruener Veltliner), Cirfandler (Zierfandler). Gewurztraminer, Moscat-Ottonel, Muller-Thurgau, Szurkebarat (Pinot Gris), Serge Muscotaly (Muscat de,Lunel), and Muskotaly (Muscat a Petit Grains).
The alluvial and volcanic soils along with the relatively mild climate of Hungary yield fully ripe and flavourful grapes.
Hungary’s climate is continental and central European involving predictable cold winters and hot summers. Annual sunshine hours are never less than 2000 hours, ensuring proper ripening.
Prolonged, sunny fall seasons favour the development of noble rot particularly in Tokaj Hegyalja where the world-famous Tokaji wines originate.
In the Great Plain (Alfold) the soil is sandy; Transdanubia (around Lake Balaton) mixed sand and loess; in northern Massif around the Matra Mountains volcanic; to the east around Eger clay with pebbles and in Tokay Hegyalja loess and soils of volcanic origin.
Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) is one of Hungary’s most famous red wines originating in the town of Eger.
Szekszard also produces a Bull’s Blood that is dark and tannic, and meant for long cellaring.
Now modern wineries are making efforts to market varietal wines using famous grape varieties. Some believe in blending small amounts of local wine; others still use old techniques but favour low yields to improve concentration.
During a recent tasting, Szekszardi Bikaver 2000, Merlot 2000 and Turul Cuvee (Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend) from the Vesztergombi winery, showed potential, although rough texturally because of youth.
Considering the old-style oxidized wines that were, and are still being produced by co-operatives, these wines are an immense improvement.
Kopar Cuvee 1999 from Gere (a small winery), was fruity, well structured, with chocolaty hints and smoky.
Hungary’s white wines Badasconyi Szurkebarat, Balatonfured, and Rajnai Rizling, from around Lake Balaton, stand out. Some Chardonnays are also planted with satisfactory results.
Of course Tokaj is a class all of its own and deserves a separate article. Hungary’s winemakers such as Sarolta Bardos, Jozsef Bock, Tibor Gal, Attila Gere, Zoltan Polgar, and Vilmos Thummerer have been recognized through reputable international awards like Vinexpo, Bordeaux; Expovina, Zurich, Mundus Vini, Germany; Vinitaly, Verona; Mondial Brussels; and Concours de Vins du Monde, Montreal.
So far, exports to North America have been slow and in very limited qualities due to high demand in Germany, Russia, and Poland.
We can expect to see better quality Hungarian wines on our shores within the next six months to a year.
|Writer – Hrayr Berberoglu – E-mail – Read his books?
Professor B offers seminars to companies and interested parties on any category of wine, chocolates, chocolates and wine, olive oils, vinegars and dressings, at a reasonable cost.