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Hungary: Bull's Blood

Text and photographs © 2008, Tom Cannavan

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.
  

Indeed the wine cellars of the Eger region are fascinating in their own right, most of them carved from solid 'Tufa' rock, with some entire wineries hewn from Tufa cliff faces as a mass of subterranean tunnels and large caverns.


   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.

the grapes of Eger

Eger is the biggest wine region in Hungary, and of course Bull's Blood its most popular wine. A lot like Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône Valley, many grapes are permitted in Bull's Blood. Eleven varieties can be mixed freely, but regulations state that Bull's Blood must contain at least three different varieties, and no single variety can account for more than 50% of the blend. Permitted Bull's Blood grapes include Kékfrankos (synonymous with Austria's Blaufränkisch), Kadarka, Médoc Noir (Merlot) and Cabernet Sauvignon.

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.

The wines of Eger


   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'.

St Andreas

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.
  

Though not yet certified, St Andrea has started to grow grapes organically, and has 16 hectares fully organic and farmed using biodynamic preparations. It is a long, slow learning curve says Gyorgy, as the 2007 harvest was very wet and mildew became too big a problem, so he had to spray with chemicals in the end. "Next year we'll start again," he says. Gyorgy also tells me he is abandoning French oak barriques in favour of the traditional Hungarian 300-litre barrels. The wines of St Andrea are excellent by and large, yet strangely and somewhat disappointingly, despite the indigenous grapes, natural yeasts and Hungarian oak, I thought they were some of the most 'international' wines of my trip.

for tasting notes on five wines from St Andrea

Bolyki Cellars


   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.

In 2005 Bolyki invited a local school for children with physical impairments to pick the grapes for a special wine, to be bottled and sold to raise money for their school. The wine is labelled 'Nem Hall Nem Lát Nem Beszél' which translates as 'can't hear, can't see, can't speak'.

for tasting notes on four wines from Bolyki Cellars

Tibor Gál

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.
  

Tibor Gál use both very modern, reductive techniques and older, more oxidative techniques, for different wine styles. They are also making something of a specialism of Pinot Noir with Reserve and Single-Vineyard wines, and were the first Hungarian winery to plant Viognier.

for tasting notes on 4 wines from Tibor Gál

Thummerer


   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.

The cellars also house a fabulous restaurant, open only to group parties, where a succession of fantastic, authentic peasant dishes are prepared in two large, wood-fired ovens.

for tasting notes on 6 wines from Thummerer

Vincze Béla

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.

Vincze was 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

Hungary address file

Hungarian National Tourism Office
T: 020 7823 0411
www.gotohungary.co.uk

RESTAURANTS

Fakanál
H-1093 Budapest,
Vámház boulevard 1-3. I. floor
www.fakanaletterem.hu

Gundel
1146 Budapest, Állatkerti út 2
www.gundel.hu

Fehér Szarvas
H-3300 Eger, Klapka út 8.
www.feherszarvasetterem.hu
   MALEV Hungarian airline
Five daily services from London to Budapest
www.malev.com

HOTELS

Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal
Erzsebet Krt 43-49
Budapest, 1073
www.corinthiahotels.com

Andrassy Hote
Andrassy út 111, Tokaji
www.andrassyhotel.com

Hotel Eger Park
3300 Eger Szálloda út 1-3
www.hotelegerpark.hu

Go to
Part I - Tokaji.