Today we travel deep into central Europe, to a region in one of the furthest corners of mainstream European viticulture, but a region with one of the oldest winemaking histories on Earth. Hungary has made wine for centuries, with the Eger region specifically possessing records dating back to the 13th century showing its wines being sent all across central Europe. However the country hit a period of stagnation in the 16th century with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks, who imposed Sharia law upon all conquered lands, forbidding the production and consumption of alcohol. This invasion does however paint the picture for the story that accompanies the most famous wine of the Eger region; Egri Bikavér, or Bulls Blood.
Due to the location of the region in the north-east of Hungary, the Ottomans, who invaded from the south, reached Eger after rolling through most of Hungary undefeated. When they attempted to take Eger however, they were repeatedly thrown back from the city walls by the ferocious locals. During breaks in the heavy battle, the locals would drink the local deep, rich red wine to lend them strength and courage in battle. This red would run down their faces and stain their armour, and when they launched their counter-offensive against the invading Turks, the attackers believed that the locals had been drinking the blood of bulls due to the ferocity of their defence and the red stains across their faces. This story has lived on for centuries, becoming an important sales tool to promote the wine in the modern market. Eger hit another speed bump during the Cold War where Hungary became part of the Eastern Bloc of USSR supporters (under heavy duress some would argue). Under this new governmental guidance, quality was forsaken completely for quantity, and productivity was the key to success under the Communist regime. Many years of this saw the loss of knowledge as to how to make quality wine in this region, and even today, the majority of Egri Bikavér is still seen as a cheap and cheerful dry red meant for immediate consumption.
The Bikavér blend consists mainly of local varieties Kadarka and Kekfrankos (known elsewhere as Blaufränkisch), usually with smaller components of Zweigelt, Blauburger, Kekmedoc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Local legislation states that all grape varieties should be used in the blend, however no one variety can make up more than 50% of the final wine. This ensures the wine is a complex mix of flavours, while at the same time giving the grape growers an insurance policy against the ravages of mother nature. By using different grape varieties that mature and ripen at different times, if the region is hit by late spring frost or an end of season storm, something will always ripen and they will always have something to add into the blend. This is the opposite of regions like Burgundy, where varietal individuality is of paramount importance, however the vintage can rise or fall with the whims of nature, as was seen in the recent ’12, ’13 and ’14 vintages, where several key regions were decimated by hail. The usual tasting note of a Bulls Blood red is a rich, deep red/purple colour with aromas of plum and spices, with a medium body, soft tannins, firm acid (indicator of a high percentage of Kekfrankos) and relatively high (14%) alcohol from the hot summers, where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius in the vineyards! Whilst not as well know, Eger also produces some fantastic whites, made more commonly today from Chardonnay, but also from local varietals Olaszrizling (known as Welschriesling in northern Italy, Austria and Germany), Leanyka, Kiralyleanyka and finally Harslevelu, which those of you who are fans of the sweet wines of Eger’s eastern neighbour, Tokaji may recognise.
Wine Sales Manager