Nestled deep within the heart of the Caucasus, Hungary sits at the crux of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Wine grapes grown in this region are as diverse as the landscape, and there are several different varieties produced in each area of Hungary.
Wine making is an ancient art form dating back in history more than a millennia – long before Roman influences brought new varietals of grapes to the region.
Through disease, famine, war, prohibition and strife, the wine culture of Hungary has survived and evolved. Western Europeans brought new grape varieties, recipes and wine making methods into the region. These new methods and fruits were incorporated into traditional fruits and recipes, resulting in unique and delicious new wines.
The History of Hungarian Wine
Dating back to 1000 AD, wines were brought to Hungary along with the spread of Christianity. Wine quickly spread in popularity, and demand for it created a new industry in the region. When the Ottoman Empire defeated and annexed most of Hungary, the natives pushed west and wine making went underground. Hungarian vineyards went uncultivated, though many of the vines did manage to survive until the empire fell and the Habsburgs came into power in the 1600s.
Under Austrian rule, the Hungarian wine culture and industry was revived. Romanians, Serbs and Swabs born to affluent families or who were decorated in battle were given vineyards. These people had wine growing and making skills that served them well. Before long, Hungary’s economic stability was founded upon the wine industry. Elites from Austria, Russia and Poland paid a premium for these high-quality wines.
In the 1700-1800s, disease drastically affected wine grapes, and many vineyards were forced to burn and replant their lands. By the First World War, vineyards were still struggling to reestablish their crops, and wine quality suffered. Communists and fascists ruled and divided the country. All of Europe was in turmoil during this era, and again the wine industry fell. Rich landowners were stripped of their property, and vineyards were divided into small sections where peasants took them over.
By the 1980s and early 1990s communist rule fell and freedom came to Hungarians once more. Vineyards that had suffered horribly under communist laws, wars, bad farming practices and impossible quotas and restrictions were able to finally recuperate and rebound. Though it has taken more than two decades, the Hungarians are working hard to regain their reputation for excellence in winemaking.
There is a winemaking revolution afoot in Hungary. Investors are pouring in to the country, jumping at the chance to revive the beloved Hungarian wine culture. The latest technology in winemaking and bottling has been brought in to the country. Beneficial farming practices are in place, and the results of these efforts are evident: wine sales are booming.
It’s no surprise that winemaking is held in such high regard. Many natives of this region are excited about the opportunity to bring new jobs and new revenue into the area. Like other areas of the world, Hungarians are on board for the global Cultural Revolution and the accompanying appreciation for the finer things in life, i.e. fine imported Hungarian wines. It should come as no surprise that learn how to pair wine with certain foods and wine expertise are skills valuable to those working in the wine industry.
A Different Flavor for Each Region
There are 22 wine regions in Hungary, most of which are located within a comfortably driving distance from the capital city, Budapest. These wine regions include: Etyek-Buda, Tokaj, Mór, Ászár-Neszmély, Bükkalja, Villány, Szekszárd, Hajós-Baja, Csongrád, Kunság, Eger, Zala, Mátra, Pécs, Tolna, Badacsony, Somló, Sopron, Balatonfüred-Csopak, Balatonboglár, Balaton-felvidék and Pannonhalma. These 22 regions are further sorted into larger regions, all producing different varietals of wine.
Hungarian wines include traditional varietals as well as wines created by grapes from foreign DNA strains originating in France, Germany, Austria and Italy. Today, high quality wines of a wide variety are created in Hungary. Wine grapes grown in Hungary include: Kadarka, Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt, Portugieser, Zierfandler, Furmint, Harslevelu, Olasrizling, Leankya, Keknyelu, Irsay Oliver, Zefir and Zenit.
The creation of wine and its resulting flavor profile is dependent upon several factors, such as terrier, rainfall, soil composition, PH balance and more. Mountainous regions and areas with volcanic soils produce acidic, full bodied wines. Both white and red wines may be made from grapes grown here, though they will be rather dry in comparison to grapes grown at lower altitudes in richer soil. Nutrient dense soils with good drainage often produce crisp, light white wines and refreshing rose or reds. Farmlands are wonderful for growing a wide variety of grapes, from which nearly any type of wine can be made.
Tokaj is Hungary’s best known wine making region, with idyllic vineyards established just at the base of the Zemplén Mountains. The growing season here is rather long, with an extended warm autumn and high humidity providing the perfect conditions for producing consistently excellent grape crops. Grapes which are allowed to linger on the vine before harvesting are sweeter and more flavorful than grapes harvested earlier in the year.
Only in Tokaj is the botrytised grape is grown. Plucked from the vine by hand and gathered into buckets, the botrytised grapes are crushed to make a mash, or paste. Ancient blends of secret ingredients are added to the mash and allowed to age and ferment. The juice is later filtered from the mash and stored in barrels made of different types of materials. The composition of the storage barrels influences the flavor of the wine, giving hints of wood, smoke and more. After aging, the wine is filtered several more times. It is then bottled, sealed securely and aged on wracks in dark cellars or caves with moss covered walls.
Wine making is a valuable skill that is widely respected on an international level. Consider growing wine grapes at home and learning to make delicious varietals. It only takes one season to gain a deeper appreciation of this ancient art form.