Turn to any wine club outside Hungary and it is quite likely that, if there is any Hungarian wine on their list at all, it will be Tokaji. This is, in a way, no surprise, as sweet wines are what the country has been known for ever since Tokaji received its seal of approval from France’s Louis XIV (“Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum”, or Wine of Kings, King of Wines, is the usual way it is remembered).
Tokaji and beyond
But there is a lot more to Hungarian wine than this and, in fact, local wine-making has been enjoying very much of a revival since sinking to a mass-produced low point under communism. Still, and despite increasing recognition in dedicated international circles (judging for instance from success rates in competitions), it remains overshadowed by its French, Australian or Chilean counterparts.
One assumes no one who has ever failed to get the words királyleányka, cserszegi fûszeres or pölöskei muskotály (three local white grape varieties) rolling off his or her tongue will say anything to the contrary.
It’s at this point that Béla Bede’s Wine Regions of Hungary – 145 Highlights, recently published in English by Corvina Guidebooks, comes in as just that – an up-to-date English-language guidebook to the nation’s 22 wine regions.
The guide plays a fine balancing act between the permanent and more transient aspects of local wine-making. On the one hand, each of the 22 is presented over one or two pages with information on the size of the area under cultivation, its location, soil and climate, grape varieties and history.
The latter is particularly interesting and helps to highlight the many connections between the country’s wine-making traditions and the various movements of population or political influences (Roman, German, Croatian, Turkish, etc.) that mostly contributed to, but sometimes also hindered, its development.
One learns, for instance, that wine continued to be collected as a tithe during the Turkish occupation of much of Hungary’s great plains in the 16th century, when “the occupying Ottomans would let the wine dribble down their throats, without of course touching their lips”; that vineyards were planted to bind shifting sands in the 18th century during the reign of Maria Theresa; that wine-making and the use of barrels became widespread around Eger (of Bull’s Blood fame) after Walloons were settled there following the 13th-century Tatar invasion; or that throughout the country red kadarka grapes and the techniques for making red wine were the legacy of Serbs who fled the Ottoman invasion and settled here.
On the other hand, the guide steers away from discussing vintages but it does consist mostly of a list of winemakers who may or may not continue to exist in the same shape or under the same name in years to come. It also does not aim to be a comprehensive listing of all existing wineries in 2013, but rather lists its top 145 plus another 211 for good measure.
Author Béla Bede, perhaps no wine expert himself (he is the author of an equally interesting volume on Hungarian Art Nouveau buildings, published in English in the same Corvina Guidebooks series last year), relied on various recommendations to describe the 145 big and small estates, their history, philosophy, size and type of grapes used. The picture is completed with the other 211 names, organised by region and recommended by winemakers described in the first section. For these only addresses and contact details are listed.
The guide lends itself to extensive usage – picking bits of information here and there to prepare a visit to a particular region or look up a name from a restaurant menu, or get a general feel for the scene in Hungary.
Beyond descriptions of wines in centuries past it also gives a few pointers to the development of the sector since 1989, with the arrival of a new generation (and another new generation emerging today) of new techniques and different quality standards, of a modest but nonetheless noteworthy development in organic wine-making and of a revaluation of traditional techniques alongside modern ones.
Along with the growth over the last two decades of wine tourism as an organised sector of the economy, many of the winemakers cited now plan to invest in on-site guest accommodation.
Numerous photographs of vineyards, cellars and landscapes help make this a lively book.