Regional profile: Hungary
Hungary is a landlocked country in Central Europe. Its capital, Budapest, is bisected by the Danube River. On average, the country is essentially enjoying a continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. If it wasn’t for Lake Balaton, central Europe largest lake, the country would have no access to any body of water.
Hungary has about 65,000 hectares of vineyard plantations and almost 70 percent of this is destined for white wine. Its rich portfolio of indigenous grape varieties is both its curse and major blessing. During the communist era the wineries where state owned. Half of the total production was handled by two behemoth-wineries organised to export wine to the Soviet Union. But the vineyards themselves where largely in private ownership, so when the return of the free market economy came in the late 1980s the transformation to private wineries was not all that difficult.
Following the general European trend, the national production is in decline. In good years the output rarely surpasses 4 million hectolitres, only about 20 percent of this is exported. In recent years the total output has been similar to that of Bordeaux. Despite some allocated EU-funds to improve the marketing of Hungarian wine, exports have been rather stagnant for the past two decades. Consumption figures show that the Hungarians themselves consumed 2,4 million hectolitres in 2017.
Most of the exports from Hungary are in bulk and without designation of origin. Wines in this lowest category are usually just labeled as “Bor”, the Hungarian world for wine, or sometimes “Magyar Bor” (Hungarian wine). Wines such as these rarely show any influence of the place of origin and the grapes can come from any part of the country. There has been no plan implemented to increase the value of the national bulk wine.
– Among the reasons is the lack of an organisation that could help coordinate export and marketing activities, meaning most wineries have to build ties abroad themselves, said László Kopacsy, head of the marketing faculty at Budapest Business School in an interview with the Budapest Business Journal.
Size and sub-regions
The total vineyard surface area in Hungary is shrinking—down to around 67,000 hectares in 2016 from 78,000 hectares in 2006—because of EU financial incentives to convert vineyards to corn fields. There are 37 protected areas in Hungary: 31 of them are PDOs, called locally `Oltalom alatt álló Eredetmegjelölés´ (OEM). And six of them are PGIs, `Oltalom alatt Földrajzi Jelzés´ (OFL). The protected status of these areas are supervised by the Hegyközségi Nemzeti Tanácsa (HNT) office. Regions producing considerable wine for the bulk sales are the following:
The Great Plain: This is the main bulk wine production area, known as `Alföld´ in Hungarian. Generally speaking, the soils on the Hungarian Great Plain are sandy and flat, it proved easy to mechanise production here and the soils are somewhat naturally resistant to phylloxera. Mass production started during the USSR-era and is still ongoing, the local reputation of these “Alföld wines” could be better. An important sub-region within the Great Plain is Kunság, its 23,300 hectares makes it Hungary's larges wine region. It’s a flat and sandy area between the rivers Tisza and Danube producing mostly bulk wine with varieties like Kövidinka, Ezerjó, Izsáki and Kadarka.
Balatonboglár: This area of 2800 hectares produces bulk wine, mostly white, but also for sparkling wine production.
The Northern Massif: A range of hills running north-east from Budapest along the border with Slovakia. Eger is arguably the most famous sub-region, the home of Egri Bikavér, and now also a white counterpart called Egri Csillag. The the 7500 hectares in Mátra where planted during the communist area for the production of table wine. At its peak, 40 percent of the Hungarian wine exports came from here.
Villány-Siklós wine region: these wines are generally Bordeaux blends. The Villány-ara is hot and famous, Siklós rather unknown and cool climate. Fresh whites and elegant reds are starting to come up from here, such as the wines from Tamás Joó.
The Hungarian wine production is generally landing somewhere between 2,4 and 3,1 million hectolitres, similar to the Chilean output. Quality wine production goes back at most 30 years, the country is in the middle of re-discovering their pre-communist era wine heritage. Hungary has over 40 native grape varieties planted in diverse soil types across Hungarys 22 different regions. The current second generation of wine makers are seemly less interested in creating block-buster wines, and are more keen on understanding the foundations of their terroir and indigenous treasures such as Kékfrankos. According to László Kopacsy, some of the largest wineries in Hungary are German-owned, their production is shipped up to Germany in bulk and is used for blending.
The most-planted grape varieties in Hungary today are Olaszrizling, which makes acid-driven white wines, and Kékfrankos, which makes spicy, deeply coloured reds.
– The great thing about the wine world in the 21st Century is that people have finally realised that the world of international varieties is yesterday’s world. If this quote from British wine journalist Oz Clarke is true, then Hungarian wine has a bright future ahead. With grapes such as Juhfark, Hárslevelű and Furmint, Hungary is well equipped for the future. Somewhat unfortunately there seems to be very little interest is more sustainable practices such as organic farming.
According to Dr Pál Kozma, Head of the Grape Breeding and Gene Conservation Department, the national viticulture is a very polluting activity. According to him, it represents only 2% of agriculture yet uses 50% of the total pesticides.
Csanyi from Villány is one of the largest wineries in Hungary and certainly the biggest winery in the Villány region with 350 hectares under vine. Riczu Tamás Borászata is the winery came in first place in the Hungarian wine competition `Wine Lover’s Top Ten Kékfrankos blind tasting´. GERE from Villány is a smaller vineyard given as wedding gift in the 70’s and now boasts one of Hungary’s best established wine brands. Nimrod Kovacs from Eger is ideally suited to the independent and on-trade sectors. Stylishly labelled, Soul, Rhapsody and Blues are wines inspired by the winemakers love of jazz.
In 1985 Hungary exported three million litres of wine, a figure that today is similar to the whole national production. Today only a fifth of the current production is exported. Some years are more successful than others, such as the 2017 harvest, but that usually means that it was a poor vintage in for example France and Italy. Buyers seems to research Hungary as a last option, and not for the quality of the wines per se.
The organisation responsible for the marketing of Hungarian wine is called Agrármarketing Centrum. They take a small percentage of Hungarian wineries to wine fairs and events abroad. The selected wineries can get up to 90 percent state support. Despite its efforts, traditional markets for Hungarian wine such as Germany and Poland have both stagnated and are not growing. Exports are mainly focused to Europe, for the category `agricultural products´ as a whole the percentage of exports to other European countries was 85,8 percent in 2018.
Another organisation that is active in the marketing of Hungarian wine is The Hungarian Tourism Agency, who launched a new and unified Hungarian wine brand concept in May 2019. Many wineries hope that this can be the final push that makes wine exports take off in a more stable way.
The new leader in Hungarian reds – Kékfrankos
According to Hungarian wine expert Robert Smyth, Kékfrankos is becoming a leader both in plantations and market acceptance. The wines are medium, rather than full-bodied, and rarely pushes past 13,5 percent alcohol – a style of red that is in demand in many western markets. At present, its Hungarys most planted grape with a full 7,592 hectares (out of Hungary’s some 64,000 hectares of vines). Kékfrankos had played a backseat role for many years, until Hungarian vintners understood that the market was fed up with international grapes. Today, it’s getting increasingly clear that its Kékfrankos for reds and Furmint for whites that are best defining the Hungarian wine landscape.
- In 2018 Hungary produced 3.4 million hectolitres of wine
- Of the countries formerly located in Europe’s Eastern Bloc, Hungary has the best-known winemaking culture
- The annual Tokaj wine auction takes place in late April
- Hárslevelű is gaining attention as a varietal wine both within and outside Tokaj
- There is little support at the state level for wineries
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