Hungary is a beautiful country, blessed with a sunny and temperate climate. The grapevine is widely cultivated there and it flourishes well in many parts of the country – Hungary, in fact, is now one of the top ten wine producing countries of the world.
Hungary’s tradition of viticultural excellence is an ancient one – wine has been produced at Tokay since before the Magyars came to Hungary about eleven centuries ago – but until recently, few people in Great Britain or the United States were given the opportunity to appreciate it, for Hungarian wine was difficult or nearly impossible to obtain outside
Hungary. Fortunately, this situa-tion is rapidly changing and wine exports have increased substantially over the past few years. For the prospective buyer of good quality, reasonably priced wine this is good news because Hungarian wines are among the cheapest – and best – on the everyday wine market.
There are three principal wine-growing areas in Hungary: the region around Lake
Balaton, an inland seaside resort area southwest of Budapest, the area around the town of Eger, in northeast Hungary near the Czech border and, last but quite certainly not least, the region of Tokaj or Tokay, also in northwest Hungary and near the border with the U.S.S.R.
Most of the wines produced around Lake Balaton are white. Some are made from an Italian riesling grape, others from furmint, a variety of grape which seems unique to Hungary. Hungarian wines are marked with both their region and grape of origin on their labels – a great relief to the discerning drinker who is unable to speak Hungarian! Thus, Balatoni
Riesling and Balatoni Furmint, both full-bodied, slightly sweet, golden white wines.
Behind Lake Balaton is the hill of Badacsonyi, crowned by the crater of an extinct volcano. It produces some of the best white wine of the whole area. Badacsony Sziirkebarat, made from the transplanted pinot gris grape, called Szurkebarat in Hungarian, is even strong-er and richer than the other Balaton wines, and the best of it is heavy and sweet enough to be served as a dessert wine.
Somlo, also near Lake Balaton, pro-duces a lighter and slightly sweet white wine, which was much favoured by Queen
The most famous red wine of Hungary is undoubtedly Egri Bikaver, or Bull’s Blood of Eger. It is a strong, full-bodied wine with, reassuringly, absolutely no literal relationship to bull’s or any other animal’s blood! (The name apparently comes from a crisis occasioned by one of the attempted conquests of Hungary by the Turks – this one in the sixteenth century.
The town of Eger was at the time under siege, when the Turkish army beheld the defenders of the town drinking great quantities of a purplish red liquid from skins. The poor Turks apparently believed that the liquid was bull’s blood, being imbibed to give the Hungarians some sort of supernatural strength, and they thus concluded that the only thing to do was to retreat fast. They did, the siege was lifted and that purplish red liquid, which was nothing more lethal than the local red wine, has been known ever since as Bull’s Blood.) Whatever its origin, Egri Bikaver remains a superbly sustaining wine.
White wine is also produced at Eger, one of the more popular varieties being called Egri Lcanyka, or Maiden of Eger, because of its delicate, gentle bouquet.
But the jewel of Hungary’s viticultural crown remains Tokay. Tokay Aszu is the correct name for the heavy, sweet, sensual golden wine known all around the world. Its unique bouquet is obtained by adding what the botanists call botrytis cinerea, or nobly rotted grapes, to fer- mented must – the quantity of the nobly rotted or aszu grapes being strictly controlled and the amount used, by law, is required to appear on the wine label. Tokay Aszii lasts indefinitely and gets better as it becomes older. Tokay
Szamorodni, a less sweet (and cheaper) version of the classic Tokay is made slightly differently – all the grapes of the vineyard, including the nobly rotted grapes, are pressed together and the resulting wine is sharper than Tokay Aszu, and even on good years, much drier.
The Hungarian Rieslings and Furmints should be chilled and go beautifully with the highly spiced fish stews of the area, as well as with white meat dishes, such as .
The beautiful full-bodied reds go best with game stews, winter casseroles, goulasches and other such hearty fare.
Tokay is considered to be a dessert wine, but in fact Tokay Aszu is so superb it seems a pity to serve it as an accompan- iment to anything – it should, ideally, be drunk by itself.