Hidden treasures or just a sip of something unusual? A very traditional Central European wine-country is working hard to rebuild its reputation. Hungary used to be mentioned in the same breath as European winemaking giants like France and Germany.
What a good idea to develop a less well-known country. Unknown and maybe forgotten grape varieties, old-but-new characters. A wonderful playground for wine-lovers.
Hungarians have always had good reason to be proud of their deep-rooted wine making traditions and Hungarian winemakers sometimes reach back to the past for inspiration. But in doing so they are not trying to recreate this past. Hungarian winemakers are rediscovering traditional grape varieties, cultivating them increasingly in accordance with the viticultural norms that are now taken as standard almost all over the world. And once again they are starting to make wines that reflect the individuality of the traditional grape varieties and the very specific terroirs.
The characteristic traditional Hungarian wine is white – or rather warm gold – and spicy. Good ones are distinctly rich, not necessarily sweet but full of aromatics and roundness and have an even and excellent structure. The grapes are often ripened in warmer autumns than in many parts of continental Europe, although the climate is relatively cool and the growing season shorter than in most Mediterranean regions. Almost all of the country’s historic wine regions have evolved in the shelter of high ground. And varied terrain has resulted in a range of meso-climates, which is reflected in the diversity of the wines from each of Hungary’s growing regions.
Hungary, which lies between the latitudes 45 and 50 degrees north, is land-locked but includes Central Europe’s largest lake, Balaton. The River Danube (called Duna in Hungarian) flows through the country from north to south, dividing it into almost equal halves. To the west lies Transdanubia, while to the immediate east of the river is the Great Plain. North east of the capital Budapest are the volcanic hills which constitute the Northern Massif, whose south-facing slopes are particularly well suited to vine-growing. In the extreme north east of the country is the Tokaj (formerly Tokaj-Hegyalja) region. Soils are very varied. The soils of the Great Plain are mainly sand and loess, while the area around the Balaton is complex basalt volcanic rock with clay and sandstone. Other soils include limestone and slate, particularly around Balatonfüred. In Tokaj, the soils are volcanic and in some aspects extraordinary complex with a topsoil of decayed lava. The best wines often come from volcanic soils, producing full, well-structured wines rich in minerals.
The word “terroir” is the broadest definition of productive area including the soil beneath our feet and the sky above us. It is not only the geographical conditions of the soil that are important. Geological and climatic conditions also play an important role, and together they shape the character of wine. Another thing that makes the Carpathian basin uniquely different from other wine regions around the world is the rich variety of volcanic soil that can be found here. Hungary may not have cloud piercing mountain peaks, but there are many gently sloping hillsides shaped by millions of years’ of erosion, which offer production conditions for wines that have uniquely well balanced and rich characters.
From a regulatory point of view, the Carpathian Basin is divided into 22 wine districts within Hungary plus a number of adjacent regions with similar geological characteristics. Over the past decade, the area under productive vines has shrunk dramatically. This year, the total active grape-growing area was around 65,000 hectares.
The list of Hungarian grapes originating in the Carpathian Basin and still grown today on large areas of land is impressively long. DNA tests now allow us to reliably trace the genomes of individual varieties, their earliest occurrence, and their lineage. All things considered, Hungary’s finest grapes most certainly include furmint, kéknyelu, hárslevelu, juhfark, ezerjó, leányka, királyleányka, mézes fehér, bakator, budai zöld, pintes, sárfehér, and kövidinka. The list could go on, although clearly not all of these varieties are viable as commercial wine grapes today.
None of the red wine grapes grown in Hungary today are native to the Carpathian Basin, a geographical unit with a special, readily recognizable climate. In fact, red grapes and their vinification, were not introduced to the Carpathian Basin until the beginning of the 15th century, when they began to “migrate” here from the south or, particularly in later centuries, from the west. This latter wave of red grapes arriving was predominantly driven by ethnic Schwabian and German growers who settled in Hungary after Ottoman rule ended, and who were by then were well-versed in the art of making red wine. Even a cursory look at the red grapes we can safely assume to have been planted in Hungary before the phylloxera epidemic confirms that virtually all of them were of the kind best suited to making acid-driven wines. The many incarnations of kadarka, járdovány, purcsin, feketefájú bajor, kékfájú bajor, csóka and laska all yield a wine that is rich and fruity. These wines are often overlooked in other countries because they are produced in such small quantities. But if we could choose one word as guideline for tasting these wines, the whole world would certainly be open-minded and curious. It is highly likely that these wines are not so readily available now because of their sensitivity and how difficult it is to cultivate them. The natural environment and development also brings with it a specific type of maturation, and offers a very unique aspect. It is not interchangeable with anything, it cannot really be classified, it cannot be easily ranked or rated. At best, it provides a harmonious interplay between place of production, variety and taster. This is exactly what gives these varieties and wines their beauty.
There’s nothing left to do but taste some of these wines, which are great examples of how to combine both Northern-style and Southern-style winemaking features, combined with some ancient grapes and traditions, All offered for a modern but heart-warming life.