‘The king of wines’: Hungary’s highly desirable and largely unknown viticulture
Wine has been made in Hungary since the Romans introduced viticulture about 1,500 years ago. Serbs brought the Kadarka grape to Eger in the north of Hungary in the early 16th century. This ancient variety was used to make the robust red later known as Bull’s Blood, to commemorate the supposed secret ingredient that fortified defenders at the siege of Eger Castle in 1552. The siege has become a symbol of patriotic heroism in Hungary.
Bull’s Blood is one of the most recognized reds from Hungary and the wine most people have probably tasted or heard of, possibly along with the great dessert white Tokaji. But Hungary’s wine industry has much more to offer, having evolved considerably in the past quarter century.
Tokaji is one of the world’s great wines and once demanded high prices around the globe. In the late eighteenth century King Louis XIV of France famously declared Tokaji “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” meaning it was the wine of kings and the king of wines. The Tokaji region is believed to have received the first vineyard classification in the world in 1730.
Phylloxera hit Hungary hard in the late nineteenth century — see last week’s column for more details — which led to the introduction of more resistant grapes such as Kekfrankos, the local name for Germany’s Blaufrankisch, plus the range of Bordeaux varieties. Kekfrankos translates from Hungarian to English as blue Frankish, the same words in English for the German name of the grape. Kekfrankos has been called the “Pinot Noir of the East” because of the way it has spread and its reputation in Eastern Europe.
As in neighboring Bulgaria, the subject of an earlier column, quality suffered during the Communist occupation after World War II. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 production has improved considerably and much new technology has been introduced. This period has also seen a renewed interest in traditional varieties.
Hungary has 22 wine areas, but they are usually grouped into five to seven larger regions. This week we consider an excellent vineyard from the Eger region in the northeast of the country: The Grof Buttler estate (grof in Hungarian means “count”). An old aristocratic family, the Bukolyi, descendants of the Count of Buttler, established the winery in 1999. They focus on Hungarian and French grapes and have 42 hectares of vines, including the famous Nagy-Eged vineyard.
Apart from minimal amounts of sulphur, no other chemicals are added to the wine. The fermentation process takes place spontaneously using natural yeasts. Some wines are sealed with cork; the rest with screwcap. It seems the screwcaps designate drink-now wines with corks for wines intended to be cellared.
The 2012 Egri Viognier is a classy and elegant wine. It has a mineral finish with a perfumed nose and elegant texture. The back label notes say something similar, and this is probably the first time we’ve agreed so fully with such notes on any wine bottle. Only 1,560 bottles were made, which means this wine will be difficult to find, but worth the effort. It’s sealed with a cork. Egri means the wine comes from the Eger region.
The 2013 Egri Chardonnay is another quality wine. White peach aromas waft from the class and in the mouth it has a rich and supple texture. This is a cleverly made wine: The oak treatment is apparent but does not dominate. It exudes richness from extended lees treatment combined with good acidity, a citrus zing finish and a Chablis-like minerality. This is as good as a grand cru Chablis, though at a much lower price. The big difference is a grand cru Chablis should not be drunk for at least a decade, while this wine is drinking well now, and will be magnificent in a decade. Also sealed with a cork.
The 2014 Egri Csillag has a screwcap. This blend of mainly pinot blanc plus three other grapes feels single dimensional when served at room temperature. But when chilled it comes together nicely. It’s a friendly, crisp and even-handed white with floral and white peach aromas and nice acidity. It would make a fine house wine.
The 2012 Egri Bikaver, sealed with a screwcap, is a most unusual blend of eight grape varieties includ- ing Kadarka, Cabernet Franc and Kekfrankos. At 15 percent alcohol it might seem overwhelming and best restricted to an evening meal. But its pleasant fruit and soft acid and tannins give this drink-now wine a sense of panache. We call it a gastronomic wine in the sense that given the high alcohol it is probably best consumed with food.
The 2009 Kogart Cuvee has a deep ruby color with aromas of blackberries, spices and chocolate and an elegant sense of minerality. A blend of Kadarka (believed to be indigenous to Hungary) and Syrah from the famous vineyard of NagyEged, it has lively acids and good length. The two grape varieties combine nicely to provide complexity, with soft tannins and spicy aromas. It is drinking well now but could be cellared for another half decade.
Dr. Mihaly Konkoly, commercial director for Grof Buttler, said all wines were produced using traditional methods, with the aim of preserving the values (of the terroir] and the exceptional quality of the grapes. “Particular attention is paid to the integrity of the grapes during the harvest. This approach is upheld throughout the entire wine-making process,” he said. Dr. Stephen Quinn writes about wine for a variety of publications in the region. From 1975 he was a journalist for two decades with the Bangkok Post; the BBC, The Guardian, ITN, the UK Press Association; TVNZ; the Middle East Broadcasting Center in Dubai and a range of regional newspapers in Australia. Dr. Quinn became a journalism educator in 1996, but returned to journalism full time in 2011. He is based in Hong Kong and is the author of 17 books.