Where and how the finest and most forgotten wine is made
“Ridus” continues to acquaint its readers with the history of world winemaking, the most interesting wines, the culture of wine drinking and, of course, the most interesting “wine countries”.
This time we want to talk about the wines, well known and popular in our country during the Soviet Union, and now forgotten, but not made worse. Perhaps many have already guessed that we will talk about the Hungarian wine and Hungarian winemaking.
Wines from this country can be found on the shelves of Russian stores and liquor stores, although their assortment does not shine with variety. There are only a few famous brands, mostly from the lower price category. The huge range of varieties and names of Hungarian wines is still not available to the Russians.
The vineyard near Lake Balaton.
To get acquainted with the Hungarian wine industry in practice and not in words, we went to the neighborhood of Lake Balaton, one of the most famous lakes in Europe. There are four winemaking regions here. On the north shore are the classic Balaton-Badacsony, Balatonfüred-Csopak and Balaton-Felvidék; on the opposite side, called Dél-Balaton (South Balaton), is Balatonboglár.
We would like to express our sincere gratitude to a member of the Board of the Hungarian Sommelier Association and the Hungarian Wine Academy, co-president of the Hungarian branch of the Circle of Wine Writers for helping us organize a visit to the two Balaton wine estates, member of the International Federation of Wine and Spirit Journalists and Writers (FIJEV), international class judge (Citadelles du Vin, Vinitaly, Berliner Wine Trophy, AWC Vienna, Les Grands Conours du Monde, Catad’Or Santiago, Asian Wine Trophy) József Kosárka and the co-owner of two family wineries Konyári and Ikon Emil Kvák.
A short excursus
Before we turn our eyes to the unique vineyards on the shores of Lake Balaton, let us tell you a few words about what is the Hungarian wine industry and why we recommend you pay close attention to it.
This history goes back more than a thousand years. On the shores of Lake Balaton has long been grown endemic grape varieties (inhabiting a relatively small geographical area), from which wines are made, typical only for these lands.
The country has 22 wine regions and vineyards spread over 64,000 hectares. Hungary ranks eighth in the world in the area of vineyards, surpassing the more famous in terms of viticulture New Zealand. There are 97 white and 40 red varieties of grapes cultivated in Hungary and it is officially possible to produce wine from them.
Hungarian grape varieties are primarily powerful Furmint with a high level of acidity and Hárslevelű (Hárslevelű) with a more delicate flavor. They are the basis for almost all Tokay wines (Tokay region), and not only them. Next are the now rare Kéknyelű and Szürkebarát, which the locals call Pinot Gris. These varieties do well around Lake Balaton.
Classic Hungarian varieties include Kadarka and, of course, Kékfrankos, the Hungarian variant of the Austrian Blaufrankisch.
The two world wars and their aftermath were a severe blow to the Hungarian wine industry.
Beginning in 1949, viticulture in Hungary went through a period of decline. Nevertheless, the Hungarians always tried to preserve their own style from a country with a rich tradition, so as not to be overshadowed by the great wine powers of Europe such as France, Austria, Germany and Italy.
For several decades Hungary followed a socialist path of development, which could not but affect the character of its winemaking. All this time the emphasis was on large-scale forms of farming with a total lack of any individuality. This led to the fact that for many years the Hungarian wine industry completely lost its former identity and diversity.
Most of the wines produced in Hungary were exported to the socialist camp countries – USSR, GDR, Poland and others.
Not surprisingly, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the socialist camp, which deprived Hungary of its main market of wine products, led to a crisis of overproduction and neglect of the industry, which lasted for years.
Currently, Hungarian winemakers are gradually integrating into the global wine industry, winning back niches in its various fields, returning the industry its own identity and its former diversity. If since the Soviet times the Hungarian wine industry was mostly known for the white (mostly sweet) Tokaj wines and the famous “Eger Bullblood,” nowadays it has a much wider range of European-style wines.
Arriving in Balaton early in the morning, we drive with Emil Kwak to the Konyári winery. Behind the car windows we see typical Balaton landscapes, and behind the wall of trees the greenish mirror of Europe’s largest lake gleams from time to time.
Konyári and Ikon are family-owned, which is quite usual for European winemaking. The only difference is that while in Germany or Austria the history of such wineries can be measured in centuries, in Hungary, for obvious reasons, it is only a couple of decades at most.
“The collapse of the socialist camp deprived Hungary of a huge market,” says Emil Kvák, as our car loops along narrow rural roads. And it came as a real shock to the Hungarian wine industry. The broken ties and fierce competition in the European market hit the local producers hard and, as a consequence, the quality and image of Hungarian wine. Many winemakers decided not to bother and shifted to the production of the cheapest product of uncertain quality. It was often only possible to find a market for their product in this uncomplicated way.
Under these conditions, only a few producers were able to focus on producing authentic Hungarian wine rather than a cheap surrogate whose value was comparable to the cost of the bottle it was poured in.
Attention and support from the EU gave a new impetus to the Hungarian wine industry – producers got new equipment, loans and… quite tough conditions.
“At times, winegrowers have had to produce what is known as a ‘green harvest’ at the request of the EU,” says Emile Kwak. This means that because of an overproduction or a particular variety, the still green, unripe grapes have to be taken off the vine and destroyed. Not every grape grower who has put their whole soul into the vine can survive this. But there is not much choice: if you want support, you have to follow the requirements. This is one of them.
Hungarian winemakers do their best to keep the old traditions, often related not only to winemaking, but also simply to the norms of responsible business. Emil Kvak answers the question why, given the excellent equipment of the winery itself, manual labor is still present in production and vineyards on a fairly large scale, that excessive mechanization deprives many people of work, which neither he nor other local winemakers want to allow.
Konyári and Ikon.
Konyári and Ikon are family wineries, where they didn’t go for cheap products for the sake of easy marketing, but continued making real high quality wine.
Both wineries are in harmony with their surroundings. Production is based on the so-called Gravity Flow technology, which, on the one hand, contributes to obtaining higher quality products, and on the other hand, allows to save energy. Special architectural solutions make it possible to do without air conditioning systems in the basements. The family planted three hectares of oak to compensate for the wood used in the production of the oak barrels used in the winery.
What is the Konyári winery remembered directly to us? First of all the Pava wine. It has been produced since 2009 and only in exceptional vintages. On steep hillsides grow old vines, the grapes from which are used to produce this wine. The harvested berries are placed in tanks where the wine is fermented on the rind for four weeks.
At the end of October, 70% of the young wine is placed in new barrels, while 30% of it is poured into “secondary” Hungarian oak barrels for 14 months of aging. The base sauvignon is complemented by spicy red pepper notes through a small amount of cabernet franc. The 2018 Cabernet Syrah and 2019 Chardonnay are also quite good.
The Ikon winery, opened in 2007, is located on the historic site of Radpushta, which for centuries belonged to the Abbey of Tihany. The 35 hectares of Ikon vineyards are a real gem on the shores of the South Lake Balaton.
The Tulipán wine.
What was the most memorable? Probably the Tulipán, after all. It is an extremely complex and rich wine: the taste is smooth, velvety and dynamic at the same time. Its main components, sauvignon, merlot and syrah, are aged in small barrels for 16 months.
“Rosé” by Ikon.
Ikon’s “Rosé” is also beautiful. This is a rosé wine with fresh, fruity aromas and complex character from the southern part of Balaton. The main components are pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Return to glory?
It is obvious that Hungary is gradually regaining its fame, if not as a “great wine power” as France, Italy, Germany or Austria, then at least as a country that produces quality wines that meet all the requirements of the modern market.
However, so far it does not allow to overcome the common, but outdated ideas about Hungarian wines, which have been formed since Soviet times.
Yes, in those years wines from Hungary were considered quite worthy of the unspoiled consumer from Moscow or Leningrad, and perhaps they wouldn’t be bad even now. But times, and with them consumer tastes change.
More and more Hungarian winemakers are finding ways to reach a modern level of quality by combining European money and technology with purely Hungarian natural conditions and unique terroirs. What they produce now is quite different from what was done in the country during the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and even more so in the era of the 90s.
Everything has changed a lot in 20 years,” says Emil Kvak. – Technology has changed, business owners have changed. You can feel it in your own business: if something is wrong with you, then the income is not the same. There is no longer the former “vulgar” quality, everyone is trying to produce the best. And, of course, we strive to maintain a balance between quality and cost, as this is very important. For example, here in the region we hold monthly tastings of our wines. 20-30 winemakers come, we taste, we look for mistakes, we discuss. I feel like everything is changing, like experience is being accumulated. There are no more bad wines or wines with gross mistakes.
Ikon winery, the place where the grapes are loaded.
When asked by Ridus if Hungary can catch up with Austria or Germany in terms of wine quality, Emil answers in the affirmative.
Of course, in my opinion, it has already caught up. It’s just that there’s a different target, a different product. We don’t have a lot of white wines with aging. We have them, but that is not our goal. Germany does not have such serious red wines in the Bordeaux style, because the climate there is different, they produce light, fruity, more aromatic red wines. Another style, another market,” he says.
Of course, our interlocutor cannot help but praise his Balaton wines. As if expecting a question about how Balaton wines differ from the rest of Hungary, he immediately perks up when we ask him.
We talk about the soil that allows the varietal to give off the character we know. Tannins (naturally occurring polyphenols found in plants; give the wine its “dryness.” – Ridus’ note) are softer, the wines are softer, the acidity is less because it’s warm, and the balance is very good. These are good drinking wines,” he explains.
The long road to market
Alas, despite the fact that winemaking in Hungary is reviving thanks to the originally excellent natural conditions, European money and the skills of local winemakers, the way to the market for Hungarian wines will not be easy. This is largely due to the fact that the European consumer already has a certain “picture of the world”, in which Hungary is associated exclusively with the same “Kadarka”, “Bull’s Blood” and “Tokajski”. To explain that in addition to this here turns out much more interesting European classics, sometimes it is simply impossible.
When tourists from the Netherlands, Portugal, or Great Britain come here, for example, they say, “Give me, please, ‘Kadarka. We answer: “There’s no Cadarca here, there’s good Merlot here, there’s good Cabernet Sauvignon. ” To which they tell me, “Cabernet sauvignon is good in France, why should I come here.” They can’t understand that it’s not the same cabernet sauvignon, because here is the terroir, here is the soil, here is everything to get a good cabernet sauvignon,” laments Emile Kwak.
According to our interlocutor, the state is trying to invent or at least “designate” some national Hungarian variety or Hungarian wine. “But why do we need that? If cabernet franc or merlot is doing well here, why should I plant kekfrancos or kadarka? – laments Emile Kwak. – That’s nonsense.”
The key thing about Hungarian wines: the best wine tours
Hungarian wines are not too well known in Russia, but highly regarded around the world. The legendary Tokay was even ordered to their table by European monarchs. We will tell you what wines are worth to bring from Hungary to every tourist – for yourself or as a gift to your loved ones. We recommend interesting wine tours, we will reveal the peculiarities of the legendary drinks and orient you as much as possible on the varieties.
The most famous Hungarian wines are Tokay white wines. However, Hungary is famous not only for them. There are more than two dozen wine-growing regions in the country. In the south and west, local and European varieties of grapes are grown and white wines are produced. Near Lake Balaton the legendary reds are made.
Hungarian wines have a special taste thanks to the traditions of winemaking. Firstly, it is customary in the country to harvest late grapes. The grapes are dried on the vines, a little dried out, acquire the sweetness of raisins (such grapes are called asu). They make excellent wines with a mild flavor.
Secondly, the best drinks are usually kept in special cellars. Wines in Hungary are kept in multi-storey cellars with a special microclimate. They appeared several centuries ago and have proven to be excellent. The best winemakers do not betray the tradition – they age their drinks exclusively in such cellars.
In general, the national classification of Hungarian wines does not differ from the European. The inscription on the bottle is different, but the essence is the same. All wines can be divided into 4 main categories:
- Asztali bor – table wines. The grape varieties and the region where it grows are not labeled on the bottle.
- Taibor – local. The grape variety is not indicated on the label, but you can be sure that the wine is made from berries grown in Hungary.
- Minőségű bor – vintage. That is, wines from the wine-growing regions of Hungary with the grape variety indicated.
- Külőnleges minőségű bor – controlled by origin. The same as AOC wines in France or DOC wines in Italy. The quality of these drinks is assessed at all stages of production.
Do not be afraid to buy even inexpensive wines in Hungary. The prices in this country are quite low. Even the legendary tokajskie wines in supermarkets are relatively inexpensive – you can easily find a decent option for 1000-1500 forints. There are also cheaper options.
It doesn’t hurt to remember a few more useful words to help you choose Hungarian wines:
- Fehér – white;
- Vőrős – red;
- Száraz – dry;
- Félédes – semisweet;
- Pezsgő – sparkling.
Of the grape varieties, we will highlight the following: Ezerjó, Furmint, Hárslevelű, Leányka, Kadarka, Kéknyelű, Cserszegi fűszeres, Zeta, Szürkebarát and Irsai Oliver.
Hungarian wines from the Tokay region are considered some of the best in the world, they are called the “liquid gold. They have won a huge number of international awards, as well as high praise from respected sommeliers, dignitaries and eminent personalities. Tokaji have been enjoyed by Beethoven, Louis XIV, Voltaire, Goethe and Peter the Great for centuries. That is why tourists rarely have the question of what wine to bring from Hungary – almost everyone buys Tokaji.
Tokaj is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the region’s wines are considered the most important intangible heritage of Hungary.
Tokay wines are usually white and classified as dessert, liqueur wines. They are exquisite drinks with a thick honey-spicy aroma and a bright, fruity aftertaste. It is a perfect accompaniment to Hungarian desserts and the best European cheeses.
There are 3 types of Tokay, each of which is worth tasting in Hungary:
- Tokay Native. A dry, sweet wine made from grapes harvested in late fall. The brushes are tied up beforehand to cut off moisture access. As a result, the grapes are wilted and sugared. They are squeezed, left to ferment, mixed with the wine which was prepared beforehand, then poured and sent to the cellars.
- Tokay-asu (Aszú). The production of this sweet Tokay wine begins in Hungary with the ripening of the first harvest. The best berries are selected from these – the “base” wine is made. Then it’s just like with the native Tokay, except that each berry affected by the noble mold is hand-selected in Tokay-asu.
- Esszencia. A uniquely sweet wine that nature herself creates. Berries, made into raisins, are selected by hand, but they are not pressed – the juice flows out of them by itself (gravity works, not a mechanical press). Of course, not much juice is extracted, therefore this type of tokaj wine is considered one of the most expensive in Hungary.
Another good wine worth bringing back from Hungary is the legendary Egri Bikavér (Egri Bull’s Blood). It belongs to the category of külőnleges minőségű bor (drinks with protected regional origin).
Traditionally, the wine “Bull’s Blood” in Hungary is made from 3 grapes (black Kadarka is mandatory), none of which must dominate. It is aged in oak barrels for at least 1 year. The color is rich: from bright ruby to blood-red, brownish. “Eger Bull’s Blood” is a wine with a harmonious fruit and berry flavor, slightly spicy. Its strength reaches 12-15%. Try this wine in Hungary with a game dish or foie gras. You should drink it chilled to 15-18 degrees.
Hungary is famous not only for its Tokay wines and “Bull’s Blood”. It makes sense to pay attention to drinks from local or European grape varieties made by unique technologies.
Here are the wines worth taking back from Hungary for every tourist looking for a worthy gastronomic souvenir:
- Soproni Kekfrankos, a red, velvety wine from vineyards on Lake Balaton, served with meat;
- Balaton Boglári Muskotály – an inexpensive white Muscat semi-sweet, an excellent accompaniment to desserts;
- Badacsonyi Szürkebarát – the famous Hungarian white wine “Grey Monk” from the Balaton region;
- Kadarka – one of the most inexpensive wines in Hungary, a light wine with an aroma of fruit with hints of vanilla, considered one of the best “kadarka” in the world (the most famous local producer of Kadarka – Boranal);
- Ezerjó – a light white dessert wine from the Mor region, has a subtle flavor and subtle acidity;
- Torley Muskat – also known as the “Hungarian Champagne”, which in Hungary is bought by fans of liqueur sparkling wines;
- Sauska Villanyi, a famous brand of wine from the province of Villany, dry red or rosé.
There are a huge number of wineries in Hungary: large factories, farms, small private distilleries. We have already stressed that there is a lot of inexpensive wine in Hungary – don’t be afraid to buy it. If you’re really worried, get products from the country’s most famous producers in supermarkets or wine shops.
Top 5 popular Hungarian wineries:
- Chateau Dereszla
- Balatonboglar Winery
- Royal Tokaji
Every year in Hungary there are wine festivals of various scales. Some of the most famous are the October festival in Villani, on the shores of Lake Balaton, the July Egri Bikaver in Eger (home of “Bull’s Blood”). Festivals are held even in Budapest. Before you go, we advise you to read the announcements. If you do not get to the events or prefer a quieter holiday, it makes sense to take at least one tour with a tasting of Hungarian wines. We made a list of the most interesting tours in Budapest in Russian.
From Budapest to Eger
One of the most interesting Russian-language tours in Budapest – the reviews are excellent. Ideal for a small group or a couple. The guide will take you to fantastic places outside the city. In Eger, you’ll learn a lot of interesting things, swim in the healing sky-blue water, and then go to the legendary wine cellar to enjoy one of Hungary’s best wines, Bull’s Blood.
This tour from Budapest to Eger is much like the previous one, but with less emphasis on wine and more on sightseeing. Healing springs, local legends, the architecture of the “postcard” city, caves and much more – the tour in Russian will be extensive, interesting and informative. After lunch, you will taste wine in the famous Valley of the Fair Lady: the tasting includes “Eger Bull’s Blood” and “The Girl from Eger”.
Walk on the Danube
Let’s warn you right away – this is not a Budapest city tour, there is no guide in Russian. The price includes a two-hour Danube cruise, fantastic views of the main attractions of the city (and they are located on the banks of the river) and tasting of 7 types of the best Hungarian wines. This walk will not be educational: it is good from an aesthetic point of view and to find your favorite type of wine in Hungary.
Excursion from Budapest to the shores of Lake Balaton – Russian guide, interesting tour, excellent reviews of tourists. You will enjoy the natural beauty of this fantastic place. Healing thermal springs of Heviz, lavender fields of Tihany, charming resort of Balatonfured. All of this under the very interesting story of our guide. The important part of our tour is a tasting of the legendary local wines, as well as lunch in the national style.
A very interesting excursion for those who love to admire ancient castles, listen to the legends, and immerse themselves in history. Of course, it will also appeal to connoisseurs of wine. Incredible places, walk through the castle, where Beethoven lived and created, wine tasting – this trip will be definitely remembered for a long time!
Excursion from Budapest with a Russian guide – tour through the most beautiful cities of Hungary with a huge number of extremely positive reviews. Magnificent Esztergom, the fortresses of Visegrad (incidentally, Dracula himself was imprisoned there!), tasting wonderful marzipan in Szentendre. Read the itinerary and reviews – the tour is worth it. Of course, do not do without tasting the best Hungarian wines and lunch in the national style (the cost is already included in the price of the tour).
Before you go to Hungary, be sure to check out our great shopping guide: the best souvenir ideas (including gastronomic ones), interesting gift options for loved ones and useful tips for every tourist.