The Revival of Hungary's Bull's Blood

Nov 25, 2000

When capitalism took hold in Hungary just over a decade ago, investors poured money into revitalizing the sweet wines of Tokay. Now, Hungary's other famous wine, BikavHr -- better known as "Bulls Blood" -- is undergoing its own renaissance.

Several talented winemakers in the Eger and Szeksz7rd wine regions have been devoting their energies to restore BikavHr to its pre-Communist era character: a dry, concentrated, fruity red wine.

"There has been a gradual change in the mentality of the growers here over the last five to 10 years," said Tam7s P[k, a partner in P[k-Pol[nyi-Pince, one of Eger's top wineries. "We are making BikavHr a very good wine again. We must always focus on quality, not quantity."

BikavHr, which literally means "the blood of bulls," is a romanticized name that Szeksz7rdians gave centuries ago to their local red wine because of its deep color and potent flavor. Eger's producers started using the name for their red wine in the 19th century.

BikavHr used to be the pride of the two regions. Then, during Hungary's Communist era, the government limited use of the BikavHr label to producers in Eger and instituted mass-production techniques that led to the creation of vast quantities of cheap, sour Egri BikavHr. Most of this ended up on bottom supermarket shelves and ruined the image of BikavHr in Hungary as well as abroad.

PhotoBut a new generation of Hungarian winemakers has started producing BikavHr to suit today's global tastes. In the low hills surrounding Eger, a baroque town about 95 miles northeast of Budapest, independent winemakers such as Vilmos Thummerer, Ferenc T[th and Tibor G7l (former head winemaker for the famed Tuscan estate Ornellaia, who is now a partner in Hungary's G.I.A. Winery) -- and Egervin, a former Communist-era cooperative -- are creating robust, muscular BikavHrs.

And from the slopes and valleys around the town of Szeksz7rd, less than 60 miles from Hungary's southern border with Croatia, Vesztergombi, Takler and Heimann wineries, as well as Aliscavin, another former cooperative, are making elegant BikavHrs that are soft and spicy.

The quaint, 200-year-old stuccoed wine houses now have modern equipment, which has helped give momentum to the BikavHr revival. But much of the improvement comes from attention to the basics: taking better care of vines, replanting when necessary, hand-picking the grapes, aging the wines in barrels and determining optimal blends of grape varieties.

Hungarian law requires Bull's Blood to be made from at least three of the red grape varieties that the country has approved for commercial wine production. Most producers use a significant amount of KHkfrankos (known as Lemberger in the United States or as Blaufr nkisch in Austria), because its sturdy character, blackberry flavor and acidity provide backbone. Also used are international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

PhotoThe wine's hallmark, though, is the indigenous, spicy Kadarka grape. Once the main component in BikavHr, Kadarka nearly disappeared from Hungary's vineyards during the Communist era because its sensitivity to rot and disease and its tendency to grow close to the ground make it very labor-intensive.

"Kadarka is very difficult to grow," said Thummerer. "You have to get on your knees -- both literally and metaphorically -- to get something out of this variety."

But today, the grape -- which can produce balanced tannins and complex flavors such as black pepper, cherry jam and cloves -- is viewed as essential for a quality BikavHr, and producers are scrambling to return Kadarka to the vineyards.

Currently, only a few BikavHr producers export their wines to the United States, including Egervin, which ships thousands of cases annually. But several other wineries are attempting to get their BikavHrs here, such as Aliscavin, which produces steel-fermented and -matured versions under the Szeksz7rd line and barrel-aged BikavHrs under the premium Szent Gaal KastHly label. P[k-Pol[nyi-Pince, G.I.A. Winery and Takler are eyeing the U.S. market as well.

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Check out recent ratings of Hungarian Tokays.

Learn more about Hungarian wines:

  • August 3, 2000
    Top Hungarian Tokay Maker Opens New Winery With American Backing

  • Oct. 26, 1998
    Tip of the Day: What does puttonyos mean on the labels of Tokay Asz??

  • Aug. 23, 1997
    Bordeaux Vintner to Release Rare Hungarian Wine

  • Sept. 15, 1996
    French Group Opens Stunning Winery in Hungary's Tokay Region

  • Sept. 15, 1995
    Hungarian Tokay Revolution

  • June 15, 1995
    Hungarians Reject New Western-Style Wines In a Blow to Several Foreign Investors

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