Hungary’s Red Face: winter warmers from Cabernet to Bikavér

by Caroline Gilby MW

Hungarians love their wine, each drinking around 30 litres every year.

Apart from Tokaj, Hungarians are most proud of their reds, even though around two-thirds of the country’s vineyards are planted with white varieties.

At one time though Hungary exported at least 80% of her production, often by the trainload to the ever thirsty and unfussy Soviet Union. After the change of regime, it proved useful for Hungary that people had been able to own tiny plots of land to feed their families. This meant the link between land, people and wine was less broken here than further east, and so Hungary made a quicker start in the new era than some of her neighbours, developing a wine culture and taste for the local product. Today Hungary produces around 2.75 million hl of wine and in 2015 exported around 23% of this (627,687hl, of which 570,000hl went to the EU), with Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia and then UK leading the way. Next come Canada, China, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Italy. Industry sources suggest these data are far from accurate though, so it’s hard to pick out trends for different wine styles.

Of Hungary’s 22 regions, reds are most renowned from Villány and Eger.

Hungarian reds are often unashamedly big and rich, especially in Villány where the climate is warm and Mediterranean. Here Bordeaux varieties reign but with Cabernet Franc often playing a leading role as it ripens well but still retains freshness and vibrancy. Gere’s iconic Kopar is a great example with its blend of 50% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot and just 10% Cabernet Sauvignon while Csanyi’s Chateau Teleki Villanyi Franc is a benchmark varietal example.

Eger in the northeast is on a latitude between northern Rhone and southern Burgundy. Wine styles here are often more “Burgundian” focusing on elegance so Pinot Noir and lighter reds like Kadarka and Kékfrankos perform well – Kovacs Nimrod’s “Blues” is a fine example. The new face of Bikavér (aka Bull’s Blood in English) must be mentioned in a look at Eger. It must be a blend of at least three varieties (often many more) and a majority of local Carpathian grapes required (usually Kékfrankos). St Andrea is at the forefront of raising standards in Bikavér to make it a flagship for the area and Áldás (meaning blessings) is a great introduction.