Demystifying Bikaver aka Bull’s Blood
by Elizabeth Gabay MW
Bikavér, which means bull’s blood in Hungarian, has nothing to do with bulls or blood. Romantic, if erroneous legend, links the wine to the legend of when the Ottoman Turks believed the Hungarians were drinking blood to fortify themselves before battle when they saw the red wine stains on their beards. In reality, the name refers to a red wine blend of many different varieties, which, under Communist times, became an unidentifiable soup.
Today, bikavér can be found in the two very different regions of Eger and Szeksárd, with possibly the only common denominator being the inclusion of Kékfrankos in the blend. Winemakers in both regions have worked hard to not only raise the quality image of these wines, but also to establish strong regional identities. To start with, the terroirs of the two regions are very different.
Eger, lies on the volcanic and limestone hills in the cooler north of the country, including the highest vineyards in Hungary, Nagy-Eged at 500m and produces bikavérs with greater intensity and depth while Szekszárd lies in the hotter south, on loess and clay hills, to the west of the Danube and the Great Plain and aims at bikavérs with elegance and spice. The wines are built up around Kékfrankos for the backbone, and other varieties chosen for weight, fruit, tannin, flesh and spice.
Eger has different levels of quality reflecting vineyard, concentration of fruit and length of time ageing. Eger feels spiritually connected with Burgundy with a similar latitude and climate and vineyards planted by the Cistercians, so it comes as no surprise that their bikavérs usually contain Pinot Noir to give added a delicate elegance to the more concentrated Bordeaux varieties.
The bikavér pyramid starts with Egri Bikavér such as Aldás 2017 from St Andrea and Ostoros’s Bikavér 2016 are wines which express fresh berry fruit with supple tannins.
The next level up, with more weight, structure and ageing, includes bikavérs such as Nimrod Kovacs’s Monople Rhapsody Bikavér 2015 from the single vineyard Nyilasmár (Kékfrankos, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc aged in old and new barrels in Hungarian, French and American oaks and Ostoros’s Egri Bikavér Premium 2015 (Kékfrankos, Cabernet Sauvignon, Blauburger, Turán, Cabernet Franc and Syrah)).
Grand Superior is the top level Egri bikavér and are intense and more powerful wines. St Andrea make three different wines in this level: Hangács Egri Bikavér Grand Superior 2016 comes from the single vineyard Deimjén; Merengő Grand Superior 2016 (not a single vineyard wine) with a high percentage of Kékfrankos and the newest wine, Axios Grand Superior 2016, Gyuri Lorincz jr’s first bikavér, made from a blend of Kékfrankos, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, from low yielding vines on the limestone soils of the Nagy-Eged and aged for 17 months in oak barrels.
Quality levels in Szekszárd are slightly different with bikavér forming part of a triangle with wines made 100% Kékfrankos and 100% Kadarka. This warmer region has indeed embraced this latter variety, despite its reputation for being a difficult variety and Zoltan Heimann is so enthusiastic about it he is known as the Kadarka man! Kadarka has some of the elegant qualities of Pinot Noir, with silky tannins and red fruit, and replaces Pinot in the blend. Heimann’s fresh spicy bikavér from 2014 is almost half Kékfrankos with a touch of one of the new, fruitier Kadarka clones, plus Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sagrantino for a touch of tannic structure and is aged in 2/3 Hungarian barrels and 1/3 French.
Winemakers from both regions see bikavér as an emblematic wine through which they can express the quality of their region and their own individuality.