A focus on local grapes and the willingness to buck the norm mean that Hungarian wine should be on your radar. Vino247 meets with three of today’s generation, for whom concentration is on quality over quantity.

Hungary - Tokaj Gróf Degenfeld view of chapel thru furmint vines

Tokaj’s sunny, largely south-facing slopes provide an ideal situation for botrytis mold to form, much-needed for the region’s famed sweet wines.Photo: © Magdalena Rahn

It’s true. Our conception of Hungary somehow remains in the past: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Danube. Atilla the Hun. Full circle skirts, horses, steppe, goulash, paprika and Tokaji. Communism and revolt. Which leaves us with stews, sweet wine and the quality of production that can be expected in an era when brut industrialisation equalled progress.

We are talking about Hungary here, with capital Budapest, with borders shared by Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. It’s one of those countries “over there”, in the centre of Europe. It’s not, please and thank you, the same place as Bulgaria. Though both do make wine.

It is a country with 22 distinct wine appellations, located in 5 geographical areas, ranging from the shared Tokaj region (cross-border friendship at its best, perhaps) in the north-east, to Zala in the very west, and Villány at the southernmost point.

And then there is the Eger region, about 140km east-north-east from Budapest.

It is here where, in the 1552 Siege of Eger, the Hungarians were victorious over the troops of Suleiman the Magnificent, resulting in the ultimate discharge of the Ottoman Empire. The battle site went on to poetically lend its name some 300 years later to one of Hungary’s now best-known wines, Egri Bikavér, which means “bull’s blood”. (Don’t worry, it’s vegetarian.)

Harvesting grapes in the Eger wine region of Hungary. Photo: © Elin via Wikimedia Commons.

Harvesting grapes in the Eger wine region of Hungary. Photo: © Elin via Wikimedia Commons.

Skipping yet another century, we arrive in the period of communism, where nationalisation of homes and land was de facto and private property was considered subversion. But, because of the nation-wide revolt against the socialist-led government in Hungary in 1954, the country’s wine sector, among other areas, was never fully nationalised. It was such, in fact, that 70 per cent of vineyards remained privately owned, Dr Ernő Péter Botos, an assistant professor at Hungary’s Kecskemét Wine Research Station, says.

Why Hungary? Because in June 2010, I spent a week immersed in the Hungarian wine scene, as part of my studies for the OIV MSc in wine management, and became enamoured with the country and its wine. (As Eric Asimov said in a 25 September 2013 article in The New York Times, such a span “is nothing in agricultural years”.) During that week, we visited seven wineries in four regions, preceded by two days of instruction on the country’s wine industry at the Kecskemét Wine Research Station.

Remnants of a layered past can be found in hidden corners of Hungary, like this Soviet-era mural at a market in Budapest depicting hardy peasants.

Remnants of a layered past can be found in hidden corners of Hungary, like this Soviet-era mural at a market in Budapest depicting hardy peasants.Photo: © Magdalena Rahn

And also because, as Rienne Martinez, manager of Manhattan wine bar Terroir Murray Hill, says to Vino247: “I am not even sure that you could find dry Hungarian wine in New York City a few years ago. Importers in the last few years have been looking in Hungary, Croatia and other parts of Eastern Europe for value wine and are coming back with stuff that far exceeds expectation. I think wine-people are looking for good wine at a good price and the wines of Hungary fit that well.”

Where Hungarian wine stands today

In Hungary, wines can be labelled by regional or brand name (such as Tokaji or Egri Bikavér); or by appellation and grape variety (Villány Kékfrankos).

At 1.9 million hectolitres (the equivalent of about 253.3 million bottles), Hungary accounted for 0.84 per cent of European Union wine production in 2012, down from 2.02 per cent in 2007, according to OIV / Eurostat data. This was due largely to severe drought in the country last year, though it made for excellent quality.

Exports, with main partners being Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia, make up 24 per cent of the market for Hungarian wine.

Hungary has always been a wine—and alcohol—drinking nation. In the 1950s, 90 per cent of the population drank wine, for a nationwide intake of 11 litres of pure alcohol per person per year, beer, spirits (like pálinka, the country’s traditional fruit brandy) and wine combined. Such trends change, with beer, spirits and wine being drunk at the same rate, the percentage of non-drinkers growing and the formerly daily consumers becoming weekly and monthly. In 2010, annual wine consumption stood at about 23 litres per head—a significant drop from the nearly 33 litres in 2007. Correlating to the tendency to drink less, there is a trend towards purchasing more expensive (which, one would hope, equates to higher quality) wines. But this shift is being noted all across Europe.

Furthermore, while many Hungarians say that they prefer red wines, 70 per cent of total production is white, with reds comprising about 28 per cent of production and rosé wines less than 2 per cent. The country’s best known wine, the sweet Tokaji, is included in the white category.

There is also a preference of winemakers young and old to vinify from native Hungarian grapes, like Olaszrizling, Léanyka, Hárslevelű, Ezerjó, Kékfrankos and Kadarka, Zoltán Kerényi, a senior researcher at the Kecskemét Research Station says.

The past, and transformation

In the past known for its sweet botrytised Tokaji wines—which, when good, truly deserve all aura of mystery and acclaim that they have earned – the people of Hungary, the younger generation, those under, say, 45, tend to favour dry and semi-sweet wines instead of Tokaji. Granted, sweet wine consumption still comprises 33% of what people drink, but an ageing population makes up for what the youngsters tend to consider something reserved for baptisms or 50th wedding anniversaries.

Hungary - Kecskemet pink liberty building


The Liberty style of architecture was Hungary’s answer to Art Nouveau. On the photo is the city hall of Kecskemét, designed by the country’s leading Belle Époque architect, Lechner Ödön.Photo: © Magdalena Rahn

A side note about Tokaj vs Tokaji: Part of the beauty of the Hungarian language is its complexity; this complexity includes a grammatical feature called a “case system”. So if Tokaj is the name for the geographical region, Tokaji is the name for a product, like wine, coming from this region: the “-i” ending means “of / originating in”. Now back to the wine.

The communists were as good with Tokaji distribution as were they with nation-wide organisation of the vine and wine sector. State wineries accounted for 40 per cent of production, and co-operatives played a significant role, though they somehow managed to not be held to the Soviet quota system and avoided reporting back to the state. There were even a few private wineries.

Yet quality was an afterthought, and eventually, in 1989, there came the age of privatisation, which in some cases worked to the benefit of the state, or in some cases to the new foreign owners, or even, sometimes, the former state employees. What privatisation did certainly do was to let new, local entrepreneurs take their skills to work to make the best wines they could in their own cellars.

Vino247 talked recently with three of them about their philosophy on winemaking, the past and what they are doing now. We’ll be posting their stories in the forthcoming days.

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Magdalena Rahn is the North America Senior Manager for wine, beer & spirits, at Ubifrance—the French Trade Office, based in New York City. Before moving back to the States in 2010, she spent many years as a journalist and translator in Bulgaria, where she fell in love with the country’s wine, language, music and fermented vegetables. In 2009 she returned to France to study for an MSc in wine management with OIV / Université de Paris X. Views & words herein are her own.

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