Ask most wine drinkers what they know about Hungary, and the answer will likely be two wines: Tokaji and Bull’s Blood. These two wines sit at opposite extremes of quality and price. Tokaji Aszú, from the northeast of Hungary, is the formidable sweet wine made from grapes affected by noble rot (botrytis). French King Louis XIV adored it, Beethoven was inspired by it. Tokaji is the pricey one. The cheap wine is Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”), a product of mass production on high yielding vineyards during the country’s unfortunate Communist era. The story is similar for all the ex-communist wine producing nations: the fall of communism left a vacuum slowly filled by independent vine growers, wine makers (sometimes, but not always, the same), exporters, distributors, and so forth. Hungary has some large players, of course, but its particular strength is its growing legion of small artisanal winemakers, working in over twenty delimited regions.
The Tokaj region in the northeast (which juts into a bit of Slovakia) produces dry wines from the white Furmint grape, but its most famous product is the hyper-sweet Tokaji Aszú. To make it, the grower picks only those grapes that have been shriveled by noble rot, one grape at a time. The grapes go into a large vat, and are then trampled into a paste called Aszú dough. The winemaker then adds grape must or wine to the dough and lets it all steep up to two days. The winemaker then racks the liquid into casks or vats, and stores them in cool cellars. These vessels are not tightly closed, letting in oxygen, and encouraging a slow fermentation process that can last for years, for an ultimate wine that can last decades. The aroma, flavor, and feel of Tokaji Aszú cannot be described.
The Eger region, in the north produces the robust Bulls Blood Bikavér blends. Recent laws have created a Bikavér Superior label. Bikavér is a blend of mainly Kadarka and Kekfrankos (Blaufrankisch), with additions of Zweigelt, Blauburger, Kekmedoc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. When Bikaver is good, it is medium-bodied, with soft tannins, plumy flavors, and spice. Eger is sandwiched between Mátra to the west and Bükkalja to the east, both mainly white wine producers.
The trio of Kunság, Csongrád and Hajós-Baja fill out the Great Plain (part of the larger Pannonian Plain) between the Danube and the Tisza Rivers. Half of all Hungarian wine is produced here, much of it average quaffing wine destined to bulk export to Germany and Austria.
The Szekszard wine region in southern Hungary is on the west side of the Danube, across from Hajós-Baja. It produces fragrant, structured red from Kekfrankos, Kadarka, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. White wines are also produced from Welschriesling, called Olaszrizling here, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Tolna is a region of large producers of easy-drinking wines from Chardonnay, Welschriesling, Pinot Blanc, Rhine Riesling, Rizlingszilváni, Kadarka, Kékfrankos, Zweigelt, and Merlot.
Pécs has a long growing season. Because of the long hot summer, wines are usually full-bodied and either high in alcohol or residual sugar. The characteristic wine of the region is the white Cirfandli (Zierfandler in German), spicy and floral with high alcohol. Good Chardonnay and tart dry white Furmint are also produced.
Villány is Hungary’s most southerly and hottest wine region, producing high quality full-bodied red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Portugieser.
Lake Balaton in the west is surrounded by wine appellations. The Pannonian Plain was once an ancient sea. Lake Balaton and Austria’s shallow Neusiedlersee are its last aqueous remnants. The mild climate Zala region (also called Balatonmelleke) between the two lakes is humid. It produces table grapes. Wine grape varieties include Welschriesling, Rieslingszilváni, Zöld Veltelini, Piros Tramini, Chardonnay, Kékfrankos, Zweigelt, and Blue Portugieser.
Balatonboglar covers the southern shores of the lake. It is producing good sparkling wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, reds from Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah, and dry whites from Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat Blanc. While the area to the north of the lake has produced wine for centuries, Balatonboglar itself is relatively new.
Balatonfured-Csopak sits on the northwest edge of the lake. It is renowned for its Olaszrizling (Welschriesling).
Balaton-Felvidek is mainly a white wine region. Olaszrizling leads production, followed by Chardonnay.
Etyek-Buda, just west of the capital city of Budapest, is known for the area’s traditional grape Keknyelu, which produces full-bodied smoky white wines. The international bullies Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are in the process of nudging this rare traditional gem into obscurity
In Mór to the west, the white indigenous Hungarian Ezerjo, the most widely planted, is used mainly for sweet wines. It is followed in production level by Chardonnay, Rajnai Rizling, Rizlingszilvani, Sauvignon Blanc, Sztirkebarat, and Tramini. Mor wines tend to be on the aggressive side, and have the acidity to support long aging.
The Ászár-Neszmély produces white wines, mainly from Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Olaszrizling (Welschriesling).
Pannonhalma in the northwest produces mainly French grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
In the extreme west of Hungary, Sopron is essentially an extension of Austria’s Neusiedlersee-Hugelland region. Sopron is a red wine producer. Its primary grape is Kekfrankos (Blaufrankisch), with plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
The Somló appellation lies on the slopes of the Somló Mountain. Vineyards surround this dormant volcano rising from the plains of the Tapolca Basin. The appellation is white wine only, from Hárslevelű, Furmint, Juhfark, Welschriesling, Tramini and Chardonnay.