Travel

Raise a glass: Hungarian wine

The spiritual home of ‘noble rot’, Hungary has been producing great wines for millennia, from from Tokaji aszú to Egri bikavér.Monday, April 8, 2019

By Nina Caplan
Grapes in a basket at a vineyard.

Why don’t we drink more Hungarian wine? This compact country has a history of viticulture going back to Roman times; it has a wealth of indigenous grape varieties, producing fragrant, food-friendly whites and reds; and it’s home to Tokaji aszú, one of the world’s most famous sweet wines.

Tokaji aszú (usually known in the UK simply as Tokaji, or Tokay) tends to be made from three grapes: furmint, hárslevelű and sárgamuskotály (a type of muscat), grown on volcanic soil near the northern town of Tokaj. In the 17th century, fear of attack by invaders led a local priest/winemaker to delay the harvest, during which time botrytis fungus set in, drying the grapes and concentrating the sugars. The result was a luscious wine that became the toast of Europe, drunk by kings and tsars. Botrytis (also known as ‘noble rot’, or aszú in Hungarian) is responsible for some of the world’s best-loved sweet wines, including Sauternes, from Bordeaux. But it’s generally agreed the Hungarians were the first to discover its viticultural possibilities, and the vineyards of Tokaj were the first to be formally classified — over a century before Bordeaux’s famous 1855 classification.

The inhabitants of Eger, west of Tokaj, also have reason to be proud of their wine. In 1552, a mere 2,000 of them saw off 75,000 Turks who’d besieged their city. The invaders had fled in terror, mistakenly believing their enemy’s wine-stained beards were red from drinking bull’s blood — an elixir said to bestow superhuman strength. The nickname for the punchy red wine stuck.

In the UK in the 1970s and ’80s, Bull’s Blood became a dinner-party favourite, along with Blue Nun, Liebfraumilch and other heavily advertised wines. But, in general, Hungarian wine has flown under the radar on these shores — surprising, given how much is produced (there are 158,000 acres of land under vine — more than in New Zealand). Part of the reason is that during the communist era, Bull’s Blood was mass-produced, heavy and tannic, and Tokaji overly sweet. But since the early ’90s there’s been a return to quality, and a move away from the Bull’s Blood moniker, with reputable producers using the Hungarian name, bikavér, instead.

Today, there are dedicated winemakers lovingly tending vineyards, upgrading wineries and reviving local varieties, and underrated areas such as Szekszárd, near the Serbian and Croatian borders, and the chalky hillsides of nearby Villány, are gradually getting the recognition they deserve. The grapes grown here, whether international varieties like chardonnay or local ones such as kadarka or olaszrizling, are great with food: the whites work with fish, the reds with roasts and stews. And when you’ve finished eating, there’s the extraordinary experience that is Tokaji aszú (‘the wine of kings and the king of wines’) with which to finish the meal in style.

Five to try

Barta Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint 2015
This glorious dry furmint is rich with quince and peaches and works wonderfully with smoked fish. £23.50. corneyandbarrow.com

Orosz Gábor Király 2015
A pale, perfumed dry white made from hárslevelű grapes, this has a lovely saline bitterness, a little like Chablis but less mineral. £31. theatreofwine.com

Heimann Kadarka 2017
Orange-red, spicy, light enough to be chilled but imbued with enough robust flavour to cope with slow-roasted lamb. £10.95. thewinesociety.com

Weninger Gneisz és Csillám 2015
Grown on a biodynamic vineyard in Sopron, in the shadow of the Alps — racy, rounded and a great match for cheese. £17. dropwine.co.uk

Tokaji ‘1413’ Aszú Disznókő 2013
A great-value dessert wine from Disznókő, a top Tokaji estate, this is beguilingly sweet yet elegant and fresh. £14.95 (50cl bottle). leaandsandeman.co.uk

Published in the Hungary, a culinary journey supplement distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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