Hungarian Wines

by Michael Pitts

 

 

Hungary has one of the oldest and richest wine making traditions in the world. Hungarians love to tell stories of how their wines factored into significant events in European history. There was a time in fact when Hungarian wine was considered the best in the known world. Although this is no longer the case, wine is still very important to the people. First the history of wine in Hungary will be discussed and then the types of wine and the regions in which they are shown. Ultimately, I intend to show that wine is an indelible part of the Hungarian character.

No one knows for sure how or when wine was first introduced into the valley of the Danube. Most historians believe it was first introduced by the Greeks via the Black Sea. (1) Roman influence brought the wine press to western parts of Hungary and made it a part of the wine making tradition of western Hungary. Across the Danube in the east the grapes were traditionally trodden, Greek style. Early legend has it that when Charlemagne defeated the Avars , who had succeeded Atilla and the Huns at present day Hungary, he was enthused by the wine there and brought vines with him to Germany.(2) In the middle ages it was the church that became the greatest patron of wine in Hungary.. Wine growing was both propagated and stabilized. The Monarch Bela IV imported Italians and Flemings skilled in wine to teach their secrets. Another patron of wine was King Matthias Corvinus, who ruled from 1458-90. (3) Matthias, whose realm stretched from Bohemia to the Carpathians, is a favorite subject of Hungarian storytelling. He respected winegrowers greatly and believed all of his people should have wine.

 

Serfs who worked conscientiously with their vines acquired privileges. Communities centered on winemaking became remarkably democratic. Wine growing communities had " greater rights of inheritance, and privileged access to the market, matched by duties of loyalty , service and attendance at assemblies to check the quality of their wine. " (4) Vineyards were surrounded by hedges that clearly defined privileged areas. One wine historian describes these features as, " surprisingly early moves in the direction of controlled quality. " (5) The result of these early quality controls was that the communities of Safron, Somlo, Eger, and Debro built reputations that went far beyond Hungary. Poland, Russia, Sweden, and the Baltic countries all looked to Hungary for more potent and flavorsome wines than could be found anywhere else in Europe. In the 16th century Hungarians began " marketing " their wines more aggressively, sending agents to other countries. Arrangements were made with Poland whereby proceeds garnered from wine sales to Poland would only be spent on Polish goods. During the Turkish invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries wine, " became one of the few potential sources of revenue for the beleaguered Hungarians. "(6) During active warfare however, the Hungarians refused to sell any wine lest their men should go thirsty.The Turks gained control over most of Hungary in 1526 when they defeated the Hungarian knights at the battle of Mohacs. They were unable, however to control all of Hungary. Eger led a famous resistance that prevented the Turks from gaining control of the hills of Tokaji-Hegyalja. The resistance garnered a nickname for the wine there; the now infamous " Bull's Blood. "

 

In 1650 a turning point in the history of wine occurred. The Rakoczi family, which had acquired a majority of the vineyards in the Tokay region of northern Hungary, heard reports of an imminent Turkish attack. They choose to hold off on their harvesting. Any wine they harvested and barreled, it was feared, would be looted by the Turks.
   When it became apparent that that no attack was forthcoming they decided to try and salvage the grapes before the winter. By this time the grapes had developed a mold, Botriytis Cinera. Botriytis shrivels and softens the skin of grapes. The world now refers to this fungus as the " noble rot ". The result was the most luscious wine anyone had ever tasted. (7)

During the Hapsburg's colonialist rule over the Hungarians the Emperors used Tokay to impress and ingratiate foreign monarches. Peter the Great of Russia and Frederick I of Prussia both were avid fans. The Tsars set up a commission for Hungarian wines in St. Petersburg to ensure regular supplies. These wines retained their fame up until World War II. Their demise under communism will be discussed after a description of the different regions in Hungary and their respective wine.

There are about 500,000 acres of vineyard in Hungary, slightly less than in the United States. Hungarian viticulture is divided into four main areas. The Alfold, or " Great Plain ", to the east of the Danube, has half of the country's vineyards. These are modern plantations sponsored by the government in the 1960's and 70's. It is generally sandy soil where, " lesser quality wines are produced. " (8) These wines are generally a light red or an Olasz Riesling. The Kisalfold, or " Small Plain " is located along the Austrian border. Not much wine is produced here. What is produced is mostly a light soft red called the Soproni Kekfrancos.

Transdanubia is located below the Small Plain. It is centered on the largest freshwater lake in Europe, Lake Balaton. Here blending of Western varieties with Hungarian ones has led to some excellent wines.They are, " capable of a tremendous spicy honeyed flavor, soft and fiery, and are amongst the few white wines which could cope with the highly flavored Hungarian foods. " (9)

 

Far and away the best wine in Hungary , and among the best in the world as well, is produced in the north between the river Tisza and the Carpathians. It is the Tokay. The Tokay was the pride of Hungary for hundreds of years and deserves some more attention. The discovery of Botriytis, the " noble rot " , has already been discussed. This rare mold combined with the soil in which the vines are grown and the meticulous method of production is what makes the Tokay so spectacular.

When one speaks of great Tokay they are either referring to Tokay Aszu Essencia, or Tokay Essencia. The grapes are picked in a single pass through the vineyard after they have become extremely desiccated. The grapes are put into a wooden tubs called a puttons. ( Vintner's Art) The grapes remain in puttons for six to eight days during which time a very small amount of juice will naturally exude from the grapes. This is called ' Essencia ' and is drawn off. The remaining grapes are mashed into a form of porridge. A certain amount of ' Essencia ' is combined with a certain amount of the porridge depending the quality desired. The higher the percentage of ' Essencia ' the higher the quality is. Pure ' Essencia ' is no longer produced because it is far too valuable. It used to be produced and was reserved for the death bed of kings as it was considered an elixir of health. (10) The mixed product spends more than ten years in casks before it is even bottled. The reason that it must be aged so long is that it is so rich in sugar. This causes fermentation to occur very slowly. Very good Tokay's must age 50 to 100 years to achieve their proper flavor and bottles. Tokay's as old as 300 years are reported as still improving. (11)

 

Hungarians are extremely proud of their wine tradition. This is what makes the events of the past century so particularly painful to them. Julian Street wrote in his wine journal " Wines " ;

" Poor Hungary! After the war, some months of
Bolshevism, with Bela Kun in the saddle; and
after Bolshevism the Roumanian invasion and
looting. Such very old Tokay as the
Bolsheviks did not find, the Roumanians did,
and there is very little of it left - indeed,
I believe one might have better luck in
hunting a great Aszu in Vienna, Czechoslovakia,
or Poland. " (12)

 

They were literally stripped of their treasured heritage after World War I. The years of communism after World War II saw of collectivization of many vineyards. The amount of wine that was produced went sharply up from 1.85 million hectoliters in 1967 to 5.71 million in 1980. (13) The quality has gone sharply down however. The closer the vines are allowed to grow the poorer the grapes that are grown on them.

Wine connoisseur are looking forward eagerly to the future of Hungarian wines. All agree that the wines will get better as vineyards are privatized, allowing individual owners to take better personal care of their grapes. The Hungarian reputation has been severely damaged and it will take a while for them to regain their once world renown status. Wine has so long been a part of Hungarian history, however that one cannot doubt that pride will restore them to world class status.

 

(1) Johnson, Hugh. Vintage. Simon and Schuster. London. 1987 p. 230

(2) Unwin, Tim. Wine and the Vine. Routledge. London 1991 p.211

(3) Johnson, p. 231

(4) ibid., p.232

(5) Unwin, p.226

(6) ibid., p.221

(7) Johnson, p.233

(8) DeBlij, Harm Jan. Wine. Rowman and Allanhead. New York. 1983. p.235

(9) Clarke, Oz. The Essential Wine Book Fireside. 1985. p. 288

(10) Johnson, p. 235

(11) Halliday, James and Johnson, Hugh. The Vintner's Art Simon and Schuster. 1989. p.133

(12) Street, Julian. Wines. Knopf. New York. 1933. p. 141

(13) Deblij, p.138

 

 

 

 

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