Hungarian wine is not world famous, I usually did not find any in wine stores around the world. However, let me share my opinion with you. I have tasted lot of wine during my travels, from New Zealand to Bordeaux, from Tuscany to the Douro Valley, I have also taken several wine courses, so I am confident in telling you that Hungarian wine is world class. Of course not all of them, but now there are many wine makers who produce top quality wines.
Wine in the Carpathian Basin has been produced since Roman times, so for almost 2000 years. The climate of the country is excellent for wine production. Until the Ottoman times (16th-17th century) only white wines were produced. The red vines (for example Kadarka) and the technique of the making of red wines were brought to Hungary after the Ottoman era by Serbian people, who moved to Hungary escaping the Ottomans still present in their country. Phylloxera killed most vineyards in Hungary at the end of the 19th century, except for those growing in the sand of the Great Plain. During communist times the large cooperatives have been making huge amounts of wine, mainly for the Soviet market, so quantity was much more important than quality.
After the political changes in the 1990s the vineyards got privatized and luckily, quality became more important than quantity. Today Hungary has 22 official wine regions. Of course there are still horrible wines around, I would not even call them wines. If you go to the kocsma (pub) in village centers, you can experience a real local atmosphere and meet local people, which is wonderful, but avoid the wine from the plastic bottles. It’s better to get a bottle of beer. For good quality wine, go to a wine store with a good selection, or even better, directly to the winery. Today even most supermarkets or gas stations have a pretty good selection of wine, but the experience is much nicer if you visit the winery as well.
The volcanic soil and the sunny, southern slopes make Bükkalja an ideal location for delicious wine. Anywhere you go, you will find cute wine cellars carved into the rhyolite tuff. In my opinion, these rows of old wine cellars are the nicest part of the villages of Bükkalja, and as they are often located up on the hill, you can enjoy nice views of the countryside as well. These cellars offer very good conditions for storing the wine. They have a constant temperature of about 10-12 C, high humidity and they are well ventilated.
Wine has been made here for centuries. It’s a wonderful program to walk, bike or drive around on the sunny slopes, between the vineyards. However, if you’d like to taste some wine as well, you will need a driver. Please note that it’s zero tolerance in Hungary, so if you are driving, you cannot drink alcohol at all.
In the old times, basically every family had a cellar, in some villages there were actually more cellars than houses. Many people made some wine for themselves, but they also stored their vegetables, fruits and other food in these dark and cool places, as the fridge had not been invented yet. They also kept their tools here, and sometimes the cellar functioned as a barn for the animals, to keep them safe in bad weather conditions. During times of war these underground holes were used as bunkers, to hide from the enemy.
Let’s not forget that although the rhyolite tuff is easier to carve than limestone for example, but it was still really hard work. People had no machines, they had to excavate the stones by hand, using a pickaxe and carrying out the stones with wheelbarrows. They usually worked in the cellars during the winter, when there was no work to do in the fields and the grape had been harvested already.
The area of Bükkalja is home to two wine regions: the Bükki wine region and the Eger wine region.
The Bükki is probably the least known of the 22 wine regions of Hungary. It is hiding between two famous wine regions, the Eger wine region, famous for the Egri Bikavér (Bull’s blood wine) and the Tokaj wine region, world famous for its Tokaji Aszú, an excellent and expensive dessert wine. It’s like a little brother, always at a disadvantage compared to its older brothers, although the climate and soil here is just as good as in Eger. Its history dates back to the 14th century, but it is officially a wine region only since 1970. For decades most of the grapes grown here have been "exported" to Eger to make top quality wine there.
However, for the past few years, this invisible region has been slowly entering into the limelight. Instead of just serving the neighbouring Eger region, a group of passionate, young winemakers are now making their own quality wines, working hard on the revival and repositioning of this small wine region. Up until a few years ago you could not find Bükki wine in a bottle, but luckily this has changed and now you can drink excellent bottled wine in top quality Budapest restaurants. Also, in 2020, the city of Miskolc has decided to play a more important role in the life of the region, so local wines will be offered in the restaurants, at the festivals and at the touristic attractions of Miskolc.
Although the area itself is much bigger, grapes are grown on about 1500 hectares only, vineyards are generally small, scattered around. White grapes are dominant, about 80%, the most important grape varieties are Chardonnay, Olaszrizling, Leányka, Cserszegi fűszeres, Pinot blanc, Zenit, Zweigelt and Kékfrankos.
The two most important wineries are:
Sándor Zsolt – His cellar can be found in the Avas area of Miskolc, where about 1000 cellars remind us that once there was serious wine making in town. After WWII Miskolc was turned into an industrial city and blocks of flats replaced the vineyards. Hopefully life will return to more of these cellars in the near future.
Gallay pince (pince is the word for cellar) – The wine maker, Borbély Roland, learned all about winemaking in California. After returning to Hungary, he founded a small boutique winery with his family, and today he makes top quality wine in Nyékládháza. His wines can be found in Michelin star restaurants in Budapest.
Both wine makers are working with traditional, organic methods, without using any additives.
As for rows of smaller, family owned wine cellars, you will see the nicest examples in Bogács, Cserépfalu, Cserépváralja and Tibolddaróc.
Thanks to the volcanic soil which is really rich in minerals, wine makers can produce rich, complex wines here. Throughout the centuries white wines were dominant in this area, however, Eger has become famous for its red cuvée wines. The main grape varieties are Királyleányka, Chardonnay, Olaszrizling, Kékfrankos, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
In the Eger wine region, these are our favourite wineries to visit:
St. Andrea – Top wine estate in Egerszalók with internationally renowned wines. I love their Merengő and Áldás wines. They have superior and grand superior wines as well. They also own a gourmet bar and a skybar downtown Budapest, which is a must if you’d like to enjoy award winning wines with a great view.
Bolyki – The owner is young, dynamic and creative. Just look at the labels on his wine bottles. Playful and funny. He is serious though when it comes to creating great wines. I love the Bolyki Egri Csillag, as well as his fruity Sauvignon Blanc. Oh, and the Indián nyár. (Indian summer.) The winery is located in a very unique place, an abandoned stone mine. It looks fantastic with the tall stone walls, and the new, modern winery building melts perfectly into its environment.
Gál Tibor – Gál Tibor was one of the most important wine makers of Hungary, he played a tremendous role in the revival and repositioning of Hungarian wine after the political changes in 1989. His death was a great loss for all Hungarian wine lovers. His children continued his work and created a wonderful wine bar downtown Eger, where you can taste their fantastic wines paired with great food.
Thummerer – The Thummerer winery can be found in Noszvaj, our favourite village in the Bükkalja. This is a winery of 100 hectares with grapes around Eger, Noszvaj and Szomolya, and with a huge cellar. The family has been producing excellent wine for centuries, and their wine can be purchased abroad as well. If you have time, it’s worth booking their vineyard tour. The Magtár in the center of the village also belongs to the Thummerer family, they serve wonderful food paired with the right wines.
Kovács Nimród – They are among the top Hungarian wineries. Their cellar can be found in a historical part of Eger, in a row of old cellars. Several cellars have been united and nicely renovated. They are combining the latest technology and traditions. The vineyards can be found on the Nagy Eged hill above Eger, and also near Noszvaj. Their Grand Cru wines come from their best terroir. Great presents for those collecting wine. The story of the man behind the winery is also remarkable. He literally swam for his freedom, became a successful businessman in the United States, moved back to Hungary, then after a while quit the business world. Now he is determined to make top quality wines at international levels, and he is doing a fantastic job.
Kaló Imre – The small, family run winery is located in Szomolya. They make many different types of wine, red aszú wine among them, which is very unique in Hungary. Kaló Imre is surely not an average man, he lives and works his own way. He is also called the „hermit of Szomolya”. When you visit his cellar, you will not only taste wonderful wines, but you will also listen to him talking about nature, faith and his strong passion about Hungary. Although one of us had to drive, Ilona, the Mayor of Szomolya insisted that we had to visit the Kaló cellar and taste the wines. She was so kind and her husband offerred to drive us back to our accommodation in Noszvaj in the evening, so we could not say no. It sure was a very special experience, don’t miss it if you are in Szomolya. Make sure you have enough time though, as Kaló Imre’s tastings might last up to 5 hours, with lots of wine and lots of stories. Kaló Imre’s daughter, Kaló Júlia makes fresh, fruity wines in the same village.
All of them produce Egri bikavér, which is the traditional and famous red cuvée, but not long ago, in 2010, a „little sister”, the Egri csillag white cuvée wine was also created.
Noone knows exactly for how long the Bikavér has been produced, but written evidence has been found from the 19th century. It’s a full bodied wine, a blend based on Kékfrankos (Blue franc), but must contain at least 3 different traditional grape varieties. The most commonly used are Kadarka, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir. The best wineries also produce superior Egri Bikavér, in that case 5 traditional grape varieties need to be used.
According to the legend, the name is linked to the big battle against the Ottomans at the Castle of Eger, in 1552. The small group of about 2000 Hungarians was fighting the huge Ottoman army, and they were served good food and lot of red wine to have enough strengh and energy. They managed to protect the castle, then luckily winter was approaching, so in the end the giant army left. The Ottomans were saying that there must have been a bull’s blood in the wine to help the Hungarians. Of course this is just a legend and we don’t know exactly where the name comes from.
Gárdonyi Géza wrote an excellent book about this battle, which is one of the first books Hungarian children have to read at school. It’s called Egri csillagok, the Stars of Eger if translated literally, and it was first published in 1901. You can also find it and read it in English, the English name of the book is „Eclipse of the Crescent Moon”. There is a nice movie based on the book, with the same name, you can buy the DVD with English subtitles. Fun fact: The movie was shot in the area of Budapest, near Pilisborosjenő. As the castle today is surrounded by the beautiful historical center of Eger, the film crew built a copy of the castle in a vast open field, with no houses or electical wires around. We hiked there not long ago with a group of international children living in Hungary, you can read about it in our blog post.
Regarding the Egri csillag white wine there are strict rules as well. It has to contain at least 4 of the traditional grapes, and at least half of them needs to be a Hungarian grape variety. These white cuvée wines are real summer wines, fresh and fruity, perfect for a picnic on top of a Bükkalja hill.
There is also a legend about the Egri csillag name. Eger and the surrounding area has always been part of important trade routes, between the mountains and the Great Plain. Merchants, soldiers and all kind of people were travelling in this area, on foot or on a horse carriage. They often had to travel at night, and it was easy to get lost in the forests and valleys. There were several guarding huts in the area, illuminated by torches at night, so their lights were helping travellers to find the right direction. These lights in the darkness of the night looked like the starts in the sky. So there was a saying about it: If you travel to Eger, follow the star of Eger. Today you can see the ruins of a guarding hut near Ostoros. According to another legend, the Ottomans were using these huts to watch Eger, while preparing for another attack.
Read more about Bükkalja: