Hungary is enjoying a wine-making revolution after days of little but Bull's Blood, as Christine Austin discovered on her first visit for several years.

Can you remember the last time you drank Bull’s Blood?  Easy to say, and astonishingly easy to drink, Bull’s Blood was a staple wine at any 1980’s party where its big flavours and low price ensured that everyone had a good time.

But life has moved on in Hungary and now the emphasis is on quality not quantity. The difficulties of the communist era have been swept away and there is a new generation of winemakers, many who have travelled and trained overseas bringing fresh, precise flavours to Hungary’s wines.  Having briefly visited Hungary several years ago, I decided it was time to bring my knowledge up-to-date, and went back to discover a country still with its proud heritage and now with a revitalised economy.

Budapest took my breath away.  Astonishingly beautiful it retains its echoes of its glorious past when it was a capital of the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Parts of this capital seem to have been built by Disney – or maybe this is where Disney got his inspiration.  Unlike the endless sprawl of London, Budapest seems more contained, and it is easy to escape to the countryside where time moves to a slower rhythm.  But even here there is change. Land has been consolidated, cellars re-equipped and investment has poured in.  This is an exciting time for Hungary and its wines.

Heading 2 hours east of Budapest we came to the region of Eger, the home of Bull’s Blood but now it is called Egri Bikavér.  It got its name from a 16thcentury battle between the Hungarians and the Turks, when it was rumoured that the Hungarians drank red wine bolstered with bull’s blood to increase their strength.  The Hungarians won the battle and the name stuck.

Eger is situated at the foot of the Bükk mountains which give the region some protection from the usual continental extremes of climate.  Essentially is it a cool region, with enough sunshine to ripen a whole range of grapes.  The soil is volcanic in origin, layered with slate, lime and sandstone, each area proving its worth for different grape varieties.  And this is where you will find the highest grape-producing hill in Hungary, all 501 metres of it, called Nagy-Eged.  It helps to be driven most of the way up, but the last few metres have to be climbed on foot and the view from the top of the rock takes in the vast plain that those Turks rampaged across all those centuries ago.

The hill of Nagy-Eged, where top Egri Bikavér wines are made

This is an ancient place to grow vines.  They have found vine leaf fossils going back 30 million years but the real wine grape cultivation started around 1000 years ago.  Formerly this was a white wine region, but then switched to red wines.  Now there is a happy mix of red and white, each site being evaluated for the best match between vine and soil.

Grape varieties are a mix of local and international, with Kékfrankos playing a major part in Egri Bikavér.  This is the same grape as Austria’s Blaufränkisch and it makes wine with deep cherry and blackberry fruit with fresh acidity.  It has medium weight tannins and can withstand oak aging, but care must be taken to keep yields under control.  At least 60% of Egri Bikavér must be Kékfrankos with 3 other grape varieties in the blend.  Kadarka is another local grape that used to be widely planted and is now being revived for its gentle fruit and soft texture.  Pinot Noir is also finding a home here, producing wines with good aromas and silky tannins.

Among the whites there are a whole selection of lightly aromatic grapes such as Hárslevelü, Furmint, Olazrizling and Leányka with the inevitable Chardonnay making its way into vineyards and blends.

Key producers in Eger include St Andrea, run by father and son, both called Gyögy Löincz.  As an example of how fast things are developing in Hungary, while I was there the diggers were in action, extending their chic tasting room under the nearby hillside to accommodate more tanks and winemaking equipment.   The Wine Society has their Aldás Egri Bikavér 2016 (£11.50), made from a blend of Kékfrankos, Kadarka and Pinot Noir with various other grapes adding complexity.  ‘Everything has changed in our country,’ said György Junior, ‘and now it is time to fall in love with Eger wines again.  We have the potential to produce high quality here.’

Father and son winemakers at St Andrea, both called György Lörincz

Gál Tibor grew up in Italy while his father, of the same name, was winemaker at prestigious properties such as Ornellaia and Aia Vecchia. Now he is in charge, together with his sisters, of the family’s estates and winery.  The wines he makes reflect the terroir of the soil by using organic viticulture and controlling yields to concentrate flavours. I particularly liked his chewy, substantial, flavour-packed Bikavér Superior 2013, which is aged in centuries-old underground cellars.  His wines are more likely to show up on wine lists, but it would be good to see his range of single vineyard wines available in a retail shop.

Gál Tibor, making quality wines in Eger

Kovács Nimród has an American accent and clearly did well in industry before returning to establish his own winery in Eger.  He has planted swathes of vineyard on steep slopes and makes wine in a series of old, underground cellars that have been knocked together like a row of terraced houses turned into a mansion.  He makes structured, concentrated wines from indigenous varieties such as Kékfrankos, but also has Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to add to the range and his blends.  With a clear eye on the American market there is definite oak in the wines which is likely to tone down with time.  These are serious wines that will probably crop up on serious wine lists but should definitely be tried.

Kovács Nimrod has planted vines on steep slopes

The Ostoros Winery is a large family-owned winery and its wines have made the journey to Yorkshire.  With the familiar Bull’s Blood name on the label, the flavours of this soft, easy-drinking blend hark back to those dinner parties so long ago (£7.99).  Re-capture your memories with a bottle from M&M Wine and Food Co. in Halifax, www.mmwine.co.uk.

Also worth checking out is Bolyki Egri Bikavér 2015 (£16.49, at Martinez Wines in Ilkley and Bingley for its concentrated dark cherry fruit and winter-weight structure.

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

Let us know what you think

comments