A unique country, where Eastern and Western traditions meet, Hungary has lived through political and military turbulence over centuries. One stable and stabilising factor has been wine production, which has had a place in the territory’s history and economy since Roman times.
If the wines of Tokaj, favoured by European Kings and Russian Czars, put Hungarian wine on the international stage as early as the 18th century, the country’s modern styles are now finally being recognised for their distinctive elegance and complexity.
Geography, Geology & Climate
Hungary’s climate is mostly continental, with cold winters and hot summers. The long, sunny autumns favour the development of Noble Rot, playing a particularly important role in the wine styles produced in Eastern Hungary.
Even though Hungary is landlocked, it includes Central Europe’s largest lake, Balaton, which exerts an important influence on the surrounding regions, giving some of them an almost Mediterranean profile, with temperature variations tempered by the big water mass. The River Danube (Duna in Hungarian) flows north to south, dividing the country into almost equal halves. The Panon lies to the west, with the Great Plain to the immediate east of the river. North east of Budapest, stretch the Northern Massif’s volcanic hills. To the far north east, bordering Slovakia, is Tokaj.
Geology is incredibly rich and varied. The Great Plain has mostly sand and loess soils; the area surrounding Lake Balaton has a complex combination of volcanic basalt, clay and sandstone; in Tokaj a layer of decaying lava sits on top of multiple volcanic soils. Some regions also have limestone and slate soils but the best wines largely come from those of volcanic origin, which give complexity and structured minerality.
Hungary is blessed with a great repertoire of indigenous grape varieties, many of which were close to extinction after phylloxera ravaged European vineyards in the late 19th century. Small pockets of varieties thought to be lost, such as Juhfark, have gradually been discovered and saved from oblivion.
Key white varieties:
– Furmint – very fine and expressive grape, with great potential for mineral structure and textural complexity. Grown across Hungary and eastern Austria but is particularly important in Tokaj, where, being aptly susceptible to noble rot, it is the main variety in the region’s famous sweet wines. It is, however, being increasingly used for single-varietal dry wines, of great elegance and ageing complexity.
– Hárslevelü – this variety’s name, literally meaning ‘linden leaf’, hints at its rich aromatic profile, with beautiful citrus, herbal and spicy notes. Blended with Furmint in Tokaj (both sweet and dry) it brings a level of ethereal aromatics to Furmint’s sturdy minerality. Like Furmint it is increasingly being used to produce single-varietal dry wines: the ebay examples are full-bodied and intensely aromatic. In Somlò it produces more restrained examples, more mineral, less perfumed.
– Olaszrizling (the Hungarian name for Welschriesling) – although only introduced in Hungary after phylloxera, this is now Hungary’s most planted variety. It is not related to Riesling at all and indeed has a very distinct profile, more floral, less austere but equally terroir-expressive. The best examples are thought to be those producedaround Lake Balaton, Somlò and Eger.
– Juhfark – almost extinct after phylloxera, Juhfark has slowly but surely regained recognition due to the work of passionate producers like our very own Karoly Kolonics. Its name, meaning ‘ewe’s tail’, has prompted many social media memes, boosting its international recognition among a younger generation. It can produce wines of elegant expressiveness, with delicious salinity and great ageing potential.
Key red varieties:
– Kadarka – although losing ground to Kékfrankos, Kadarka is still perhaps the red variety most associated with Hungarian wine. It can produce fine, full-bodied wines of good complexity and texture, if allowed to ripen fully and handled carefully. But it is often picked too early and over-produced, with the wines lacking intensity and colour.
– Kékfrankos (the Hungarian name for Blaufränkisch) – increasingly fashionable, in both Hungary and Austria, and responsible for some of the finest reds in both countries. It produces wines of fine tannic structure, refined fruit and racy acidity.
Main Regions to know
The area influenced by Lake Balanton, with vines planted on the volcanic slopes that surround it, was overlooked for quite a long time but is gaining renewed recognition. To the north-west of the lake, the small Smoló region, whose wines once enjoyed a reputation similar to that of Tokaj’s, has been attracting important investment , driven by its potential to produce elegant, age-worthy, with distinctive minerality with Juhfark being a local grape with outstanding and distinct character.
The Pannonian region, west of the Danube, includes some of Hungary’s most recognisable appellations.
To the North are Etyek-Buda, Mór, Neszmély, Pannonhalma and Sopron.
Sopron, Hungary’s westernmost region, is effectively a continuation of Austria’s Neusiedlersee, and is mostly lead by growers of Austro-German descent that therefore reflect saxon styles. It is mainly a red variety region where wines from vines planted on schist soils can be particularly elegant.
Neszmély and Mór, far North, between Sopron and Budapest, are best known for crisp but well-balanced white wines, especially Olaszrizling, Sauvignon Blanc, Ezerjó, Leányka, and Gewurztraminer.
South Pannon covers the Pécs, Szekszárd, Tolna and Villány regions. Villány, by far the most famous, produces huighly prized reds and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Bordeaux of the East’. Cabernet Frank, Kékfrankos, Merlot, Zweigelt and Syrah all yield very good results here.
Great Plain (Duna)
Stretching east of the Danube to Hungary’s second river, the Tisza, the Great Plain accounts for nearly half the country’s vineyards. The region’s sandy soils became particularly appealing after phylloxera, and a wide range of varieties – mostly international – were actively planted on the flat, easily mechanised expanse.
Northern Massif (Upper Hungary)
Mountain range running north east of Budapest. It covers the wine regions of Mátra, Eger and Bükk, with Tokaj to the east. This is the home of the once famous ‘Bull’s Blood’, age-wirthy red wine highly sought after in export markets. Eger is again gaining international recognition for its fine reds, with Kadarka increasingly replaced by Kékfrankos as the main variety, supplemented by Cabernet, Merlot, and Portugieser (known locally as Kékoportó).
There’s much more to Tokaj than its renowned sweet wines. The wine region itself is classified as UNESCO world heritage due to its historical, natural and cultural importance. Mount Tokaj is the volcanic mountain at the southernmost tip of the region, where the Zemplén Mountains tower over it. The two leading varieties are Furmint and Harslevelu, which play the central role in sweet blends and, increasingly, single-varietal dry wines.