The History of Wine in Hungary
The history of wine in Hungary goes back to Roman times. There are over 22 official viticultural regions in the country offering a very diverse variety of grapes. Some regions are famous for their white wines, other for their reds, but rosé wines became increasingly popular lately on the international market, with Tokaji Aszú as the best known throughout the world. Eger, in the northern part of the country, produces elegant reds, especially the Bikavér blends, but they do not have the body of the reds from the south. The southern area of the country, also known as the Great Plain, is responsible for over half of the country’s wine production. With private enterprise starting to develop slowly only after 1989, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, the Hungarian winemaking has diversified a lot over the past years, with small wineries appearing all over the country.
The best known Hungarian wines are Tokaji Aszú and Egri Bikavér, the later being produced in two regions of the country: Eger and Szekszárd.
Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood of Eger) has been Hungary’s most famous red wine for a long time. The wine has earned its name from a 16th century legend according to which during the Siege of Eger, the handful of soldiers defending the fortress against the Turks managed to hold off for five weeks because the wine they were drinking wine mixed with bull blood. Although the blend varied over the years, it is originally based on the Kadarka variety brought over during the 16th century by the Turks. The quality of the wine is quite variable, with very big differences between the high end ones and the cheap market versions.
Szekszárdi Bikavér (Bull’s Blood of Szekszárd) is a full-body red wine, smooth and not very strong, with fruity and oak flavors. There are also several Rosés and Cuvées produced in Szekszárd, but the Bikavér remains the best known.
Tokaji Aszu holds a very high place among the dessert wines in the world. Although there are several types of Tokaji wines, varying from dry to very sweet (like Eszencia, also called nectar), Aszu is Hungary’s most famous one. It is actually made from grapes infected with Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus that attacks the fruit absorbing water and shrinking the skins, making healthy grapes turn into an awful, but sweet mass. Making sweet wines is a difficult and risky business because the sweetness of the grapes depends on very many factors. Prices are understandable high, which is why these special occasion wines are meant to be savored. Tokaji wines range greatly in price from under $12 per bottle for a basic bottle of Bodvin Tokaji Furmint all the way up to $571 for a bottle Tokaji Essencia, from the most famous producer in Hungary, Royal Tokaji. It is said that Rákóczi II, Prince of Transylvania, gave King Louis XIV of France some Tokaji wine from his estate, as a gift. Delighted with the precious beverage, the king offered a glass of Tokaji to Madame de Pompadour, referring to it as “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” (Wine of Kings, King of Wines). This famous line is used to this day in the marketing of Tokaji wines.
What you Should Know About Pálinka
Pálinka is a traditional fruit brandy produced in many countries in the Carpathian Basin and known under different names. Due to very strict laws regarding the branding of this spirits, the trademark name of pálinka is given only to Hungarian brands produced, distilled, matured and bottled in Hungary.
The first record of pálinka goes back to the 14th century, when it was a blend of brandy with rosemary that was used in the treatment of arthritis. Later on, as the use of pálinka extended from medicinal to recreational, many landowners began producing it in their own distilleries, while introducing laws to prevent the peasants from making pálinka at home. Although illegal, many peasants were brewing their own pálinka, but the end product was often inferior and could not be commercialized. In the 18th century, as a larger scale production began and new laws prohibiting the use of bread-stuffs in the distillation process have been introduced, pálinka began resembling that of today.
Fruits grown in different regions of the country give every pálinka its unmistakable characteristics. From apricot and plum, to pear, quince, cherry and blackberry, pálinka flavors vary a lot. The alcohol content varies between 37% and 86%. To enjoy the qualities of pálinka, the brandy is drunk out of a small, tulip-shaped glass, at room temperature (to bring out all the fruity nuances) and smelled before tasting (the heavy aromas that evaporate are as pleasant as the taste itself). Pálinka is truly a very versatile drink that can be enjoyed before or after food, or on its own. My personal preference is cseresznye (cherry) pálinka, but I rarely drink it because of its high level of alcohol .