|This feature on Hungary is in two parts. This is part II, on the Eger region. There is a link to Part I, focusing on Tokaji, at the bottom of this page.|
|The Eger region lies mid-way between the capital city of Budapest and the Tokaji region.
Eger is both the name of this region and of its provincial capital city. The city is a historically important centre, and a remains a very beautiful one. An 11th century castle, cathedral and various splendid churches combine
with an historic 'old town' of narrow, winding streets, craft shops and restaurants.
Wine has been made in Eger for over 1,000 years, with some cellars over 400 years old.
The photograph left is of the Bolyki cellars in Eger. But although based on the tunnels of a 500-year-old quarry, like many other cellars I visited not all of these Troglodyte wine cellars are ancient: Bolyki has recently opened up
a whole new chamber filled with stainless steel tanks, and excavating the tufa hillsides with large tunnelling machines is still a common method of constructing cellars that are cool and humid, and perfect for the job
of making and maturing wine.
Undoubtedly Eger's most famous wine is Bikavér, or 'Bull's Blood', which takes its name from a 16th century legend: 2,000 Hungarian soldiers withstood a month-long siege of the fortress at Eger
by 150,000 invading Turkish troops. As food ran out, wine cellars were opened for the Hungarian troops in the hope that wine would give them strength. On seeing the red wine-stained beards and armour of the troops,
word spread amongst the invading Turks that they were drinking the blood of bulls to make them invincible. Soon the siege by the demoralised Turks was broken.
These varieties turn up in other Eger red wines, as do Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Portugieser, Zweigelt and Pinot Noir. For white wines, the popular Leányka is joined by Grüner Veltliner (known locally as Zöldveltelini), Irsai Oliver, Welschriesling and Tokaji's Furmint and Hárslevelu, making both sweet and dry styles.
Bull's Blood has both positive and negative connotations for Western wine drinkers. The cheap plonk of many a student party in the 70s and 80s, even that mass-produced stuff had a certain rough and ready appeal.
But Eger too has been revitalised under private ownership since communism fell in 1989, and at least some of today's Bull's Blood makers are trying to produce something altogether more serious, both as
Bull's Blood and as varietal and other blended wines.
These include producers like St Andrea Cellar, amongst whose range (left) is a Bull's Blood called Merengo, ambitiously pitched as an 'icon wine', selling for 40 Euros locally, and being offered 'en primeur'.
|Gyorgy Lorincz is owner and winemaker of one of Eger's leading estates, St Andreas. Gyorgy had a huge set back in 2005 when his partner in the business and one
of Hungary's brightest stars, Tibor Gál, was killed in
a car crash whilst working on a project in South Africa.
The success of St Andrea began in 2002, when new cellars were carved into the hillside and extensive new vineyards planting began, with density of vines doubled from a traditional 3,600 plants per hectare to over 6000 plants per hectare.
Gyorgy has just planted in a new district which he describes as a "great terroir," and in all they have 19 different varieties planted from almost 50 permitted in Eger.
Whether in his Bikavér or one of numerous other bottlings, Gyorgy says his focus is firmly on indigenous varieties, "Cabernet and Merlot are not so interesting." He uses only open vats and barrels for
fermentation, and only natural ambient yeasts. He employs lots of small plastic bins for fermentation in small batches.
|for tasting notes on five wines from St Andrea|
|I only tasted four wines here, but each was very impressive. This is a family winery, where the unassuming János Bolyki tells how he inherited an apartment in Budapest and car from his parents, but
decided to sell both to buy a vineyard in Eger, purchasing 11 hectares based around an old quarry.
He has since added 14 more hectares, and has even expanded his fascinating winery, built straight into the rock face.
The tunnels which are part of the 500-year-old quarry have been expanded, but this most natural and traditional method of cellar construction is not without its dangers: the inset
photograph shows the results of a collapse, which destroyed a tank last year - János arrived to find a river of wine running down the hill from his winery.
The cellar is filled with stainless steel tanks and barrels, and the winemaking is quite adventurous, including some intense, Botrytised wines that are vinified dry.
|for tasting notes on four wines from Bolyki Cellars|
|Tibor Gál is certainly one of the biggest, and most commercially successful names of the Eger region, established in 1993 as a partnership between Tibor Gál, Kobrand of the USA and the Italian family behind
Sassicaia. Though initial production was based largely on purchased fruit, they have been planting vineyards extensively since 1997, and today produce 250,000 bottles, only from estate fruit.
Tragedy struck the estate in 2006 when founder and winemaker Tibor Gál, former winemaker at Ornellaia and one of Hungary's best winemakers, was killed in a road accident aged 46. Today, his talented son Tibor
has taken over winemaking duties.
The cellars in the town of Eger (right) are carved into volcanic tufa below a row of small wine cellars which once belonged to individual houses, but each of which Tibor Gál has bought out gradually, so now they have a
one kilometre-long cellar containing almost 8,000 bottles as well as good visitor facilities.
|for tasting notes on 4 wines from Tibor Gál|
Another cellar hollowed into the tufa rock, around 12 kilometres from Eger. This is another operation that employs a combination of an all-stainless steel "technological cellar" for whites and old, very traditional cellar with
Hungarian oak vats and barrels for reds. The Thummerer family estate is led by Vilmos Thummerer (left), a first generation winemaker now with 84 hectares of vineyard, and growing over 20 varieties,
both international and Hungarian. This is another big concern by Hungarian standards, with around 25 different releases and a half million bottle production.
In fact the Thummerer cellars are well over 100 years old, and in their chequered history once belonged to an aristocratic Hungarian family. They remained in the hands of a Hungarian count until 1949,
when they were taken over by the state to become a cooperative cellar. Finally, the Thummerers took the cellars back into private hands in the 1980s.
|for tasting notes on 6 wines from Thummerer|
|I caught up very briefly with winemaker Vincze Béla in a wine store in down-town Eger, where he arranged to meet my little party and show us a couple of his wines.
Winemaker of the Year in Hungary in 2005, and has carved out something of a reputation for his Bordeaux variety wines in particular. When we met in late September, he told me he had just started
harvesting his Pinot Noir, but that a period of heavy rain just before I arrived was potentially a problem - rain is unusual for the Eger region at harvest time.
Again, these are more 'international' styled wines, but quality is undoubtedly very high.
|for tasting notes on 2 wines from Vincze Béla|
Hungarian National Tourism Office
T: 020 7823 0411
Vámház boulevard 1-3. I. floor
1146 Budapest, Állatkerti út 2
www.gundel.hu Fehér Szarvas
H-3300 Eger, Klapka út 8.
MALEV Hungarian airline
Five daily services from London to Budapest
HOTELSCorinthia Grand Hotel Royal
Erzsebet Krt 43-49
Andrassy út 111, Tokaji
www.andrassyhotel.com Hotel Eger Park
3300 Eger Szálloda út 1-3