Hungarian wine is a little bit of a Rubik’s cube. Most people’s unfamiliarity with the language, and indeed the geography of Hungary makes getting a handle on the country’s wines and plethora of grape varieties challenging. Yet, like gradually rearranging the cube to complete the a puzzle, the sense of achievement and reward at the end is worth the effort, for Hungary’s dynamic and rapidly improving wine scene offers endless excitement.
Located in Central Europe, Hungary is generally characterised by a continental climate. Summers are hot and dry and winters can be cold and harsh. The West of Hungary borders Austria and generally gives the kind of light bodied whites and reds we might associated with the area. To the East, the historically important region of Tokaj delivers famously sweet wines that have been celebrated around the world for hundreds of years.
The key to unlocking Hungary’s wine complexities is to start with the rarely discussed appellation system. Although France, Italy and Spain have made a science of articulating a territory’s distinctiveness through the production rules and guidelines of an appellation system, Hungary and its wine trade have often shied away from such discussions. In reality however, EU law has sought to standardise wine labelling and Hungary too has created a quality hierarchy in line with what we might expect from more familiar wine producing countries.
There are three important wine categories in Hungary. Regional wines, on the same level as the Italian IGP or Greek PGI, are given the abbreviation OFJ - short for Oltalom alatt Földrajzi Jelzésknown. These are generally applied to large regions and can have any number of smaller, protected appellations within them. In Hungary, the best example of this is the large area around Lake Balaton, just South West of the capital Budapest. Here a number of smaller zones are given protected status at the level of say an Italian DOC, Greek PDO or French AOC. They are known as OEM, short for Oltalom alatt álló Eredetmegjelölés, and include distinctive grape growing settings such as Balaton-felvidék OEM, Badacsony OEM, Balatonfüred–Csopak OEM and on the south side of the lake, Balatonboglár OEM, known for the production of sparkling wine.
These protected territories are also allowed to take part in a voluntary sub tier of the OEM known as Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus or DHC for short. Consumers may note DHC on the label, but it may also be seen in its Hungarian form, VEB, short for Védett Erdetű bor. One can note how confusion can build. In principle, this additional category (perhaps like the Italian DOCG) must adhere to much stricter production rules which impact on things such as permitted grape variety and maximum yields. The inclination is of course to feel that wines carrying this classification are of a higher standard than others. In many cases this is true, but exceptions are everywhere. The wines are merely made to stricter production rules which may or may not result in better wines.
Nagy-Somló covers vineyards situated on the three volcanic hills of Ság, Kis-Somló, and of course Somló which frequently overshadows the appellation with its own smaller, more specific production rules. This is a white wine growing area, particularly Furmint, Juhfark, Harslevelu and Chardonnay.
Eger is perhaps best known for Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood, a dry Blaufränkisch based blend. Today Eger represents a dynamic scene of quality orientated wineries making wines in a number of different styles. Volcanic soils and cool climate viticulture help produce intriguing wines.
Mátra OEM covers a mountainous area in the north of Hungary. With almost 5500 hectares under vine it is the second biggest appellation in the country. Mátra was long known as a source of communist era bulk production, but the presence of volcanic soils has started to yield interesting terroir driven wine from some of the region’s more quality focussed producers.