Wait; they make wine in Hungary?!
Can you name a Hungarian wine? Most would shake their heads while some (but not many) may have heard of the white Tokaj or the red Bull’s Blood wine. Hungary’s wine-making history goes back to ancient times and the fact that the local word for wine – ‘bor’ does have Latin origin may meant that wine was made here even before the ancient Romans started planting vineyards all over Europe.
In the Middle Ages, Hungary was best known for the sweet Tokaji Aszu which was dubbed ‘the king of wines and the wine of kings’ and was the drink of choice for the likes of Louis XIV and Peter the Great. Unfortunately, under Communism, wine production was nationalized, and Hungary’s historic wine traditions, grape diversity, and established quality were mostly forgotten in favor of large quantities of mass-produced and low-quality wine exported to the vast Soviet market.
Luckily, in the past couple of decades, Hungarian wines have been making a comeback with small wineries all over the country once again producing artisan wines from native grape varieties. All in all, there are 22 wine regions in Hungary, but the best-known by far is the historic Tokaj, which can be visited on a longish day-trip from Budapest.
5 cool facts about the Tokaj wine region:
1. Located in northeast Hungary at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, the Tokaj region is protected as a UNESCO Historic Cultural Landscape. What makes its terroir unique is the blend of clay and volcanic soil, south-facing slopes, two rivers (the Bodrog and the Tisza) creating the perfect micro-climate for the molded raisin-like berries essential for producing sweet Tokaj wine, and the centuries-old subterranean network of rock-carved wine cellars providing constant temperature and humidity.
2. Tokaji Aszu was the world’s first protected wine and one of the world’s first sweet white wines, made from nobly rotten grapes as early as the 16th century – long before similar sweet wines were made in France and Germany.
3. According to legend, Hungarian farmers had to leave their vineyards unharvested in order to battle the invading Ottomans. Upon their return, they found the grapes affected by noble rot (botrytis) but decided to pick them and make wine anyway. They were delighted by the sweet wine they got and have been making it ever since.
4. The Tokaj region is world-renowned for its dessert wines, but in the 1990s local vintners started experimenting with dryer whites and today dry wine production is widespread in the region. The most popular native Hungarian white grapes are the Furmint and Harslevelu, which are blended to make the famous Tokaji Aszu, and Hungary’s most-planted white grape – the Olaszrizling (called Welschriesling in Austria and Grasevina in Croatia).
5. If you are a wine lover and only have time for one Hungarian wine region, go for the Tokaj. Harvest time, generally September – October, is of course the most exciting time to visit. Day-trips from Budapest usually include tastings at several wineries and lunch providing a fabulous introduction to the region’s culture, food, and wine-making traditions. If you are in Budapest in September, do not miss the annual Wine Festival held in the courtyards of the Buda Castle.
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