By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 5 November 2016
The first bottle of wine I ever bought was a Hungarian ‘Bulls Blood’. As a student in the late seventies, it was the only offering within my budget in my local Victoria Wine with an enticing label. I remember the spicy kick to the finish, but it was pretty rough heady stuff, as much of the Eastern European wine was at that time.
Move on 40 years, the famous ‘Bulls Blood’ is now back in a new guise. Modern Bikaver (pronounced ‘bik-ah-vair’), as Bull’s Blood is officially known, is now much more sophisticated, elegant and reliable cuvee.
The name comes from the famed 1552 siege of Eger Castle. Legend has it 1,000 men, women and children triumphed over 100,000 Ottoman soldiers – and the vanquished declared the victors must have been drinking Bulls Blood to have been so strong to defeat them.
Bikaver can only officially be made in two Hungarian wine regions: Eger in the north-east at the foot of the Bukk mountains and Szekszard in the south near the Danube.
Whilst Eger is far better known, due to more prominent marketing and bigger volumes, in our tasting two Bikavers from Szekzard region were favoured by tasters who preferred their elegance, luscious fruit ripeness, softness and spicy character.
“I think it is important that people realise Bull’s Blood is not the same as they remember”, says Csilla Sebestyen, whose family winery is based in Szekszard’s Ivan valley.
“Historically Bikaver used to be a vineyard blend, recipes were kept secret and varied from grower to grower – now quality is strictly classified and controlled. Modern Bikaver should be built on the best quality Kekfrankos in the cellar”, she says.
She agrees that the two region’s Bikaver styles are different. “Even though Eger is further north, Egri Bikaver tends to be more tannic, firmer, structured with earthy flavours. Whereas more southerly Szekszard’s loess soils and its warm dry summers create soft textured much lighter styles which age faster”, says Sebestyen.
Hungarian wine laws are some of the most precisely defined. In Eger, Bikaver has three types all dominated by Kekfrankos grape in the blend: Classico Egri Bikaver (with a minimum six months oak); Superior (one year oak) and Grand Superior (16 months oak).
Tasting a cross section from Eger, I found that almost all examples needed to be served with food – and you can see how well they would compliment a robust spicy goulash.
Szekszard Bikaver has just two classifications. Standard Bikaver must have at least four grapes in the blend, with Kekfrankos and Kadarkas at 50% (with minimum ratio of 45% and 5% respectively) – and other grapes (like Cabernet, Merlot, Zweigelt) must not dominate over 10% in the blend. It has a minimum one year oak.
“The increasing ratio of Kékfrankos highlights the Szekszárd character of Bikavér, as there is no other similar blend anywhere in the world based on Kékfrankos and Kadarka. Kekfrankos gives acid and structure providing the ‘spine’, whilst Kadarka gives its unique aromas”, explains Csilla Sebestyen (her brother Csaba is pictured right).
When it comes to Szekszard ‘Premium’ Bikaver, things get even more complicated. It has an extra year’s maturity – with Kekfrankos at a minimum of 35%, Kadarka at 5%, Syrah at 10% (but not obligatory).
If you happen to visit Hungary and visit the beautiful Eger (it makes a good mid-way stop enroute to Tokay region) you may well be introduced to a local Egri custom. Restauranteurs pour themselves a glass of wine first before you – and then throw it on the ground (for the dead to share).
BIKAVER TASTE TEST:
Eger: EGRI BIKAVER 2015 Tibor Gal ***GOOD VALUE***
Popular with our tasters who enjoyed its upfront primary blackcherry notes, initially generous ripe palate, typical earthy undertones with sour cherry flavours, finishes with a touch of austerity: 14%
Eger: EGRI BIKAVER 2014 Korona Borhaz
(£13.95 www.slurp.co.uk; www.bottleapostle.com; www.hcwines.co.uk www.hungarianfoodandwine.com)
Light introduction to Bikaver, mellow, good spiciness mid palate, but tannins too rustic on finish: 12.5%
Eger: EGRI BIKAVER SUPERIOR ALDAS 2014 St Andrea ***STAR BUY***
(£19-£21 www.slurp.co.uk; www.bedaleswines.com; Vagabond Wines; Last Drop Wines)
This Kekfrankos, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Kadarka and Syrah blend was popular with tasters who praised its enticing aromas, rich fruit concentration and peppery, spicy paprika flavours, but the slight bitterness to the finish needs weighty food accompaniment: 13.5%
Eger: EGRI BIKAVER SELECTION 2012 Korona Borhaz
The more pronounced barrique ageing gives an enticing smokiness and vanilla notes to the aroma, solid hefty structure, pronounced tannic finish, concentrated weighty style: 14%
Eger: EGRI BIKAVER RHAPSODY MONOPOLE 2012 Kovacs Nimrod
This blend of Kekfrankos, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc also has Pinot Noir in the blend; our tasters loved the warm spicy aromas, but found tannins quite austere on the finish: 14.5%
Szekszard: IVON-VOLGYI BIKAVER 2011 Csaba Sebestyen
(£22 Woodwinters, Edinburgh and Bridge of Allan; www.grapesofhungary.co.uk)
Modern expression of Szekszard Bikaver with 50% Kekfrankos, 10% Kadarka, 25% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon matured in large Hungarian oak for two years. Attractive approachable style with soft tannins, peppery edge and spicy undertones: 14%
Szekszard: BIKAVER 2013 Vida
Lightest in colour in our tasting; raspberry aromas, soft light, smooth tannins to finish – typical of Szekszard’s milder Bikaver style: 13%
Szekszard: BIKAVER RESERVE 2012 Ferenc Takler
(£17.99 www.hungarianwinesociety.co.uk; £20 www.mephistowines.co.uk)
A dead ringer for St Emilion, said one taster. Takler’s modern Bulls Blood shows how refined this peppery spicy blend can be; light smoky undertones (from 16 months in new Hungarian oak), creamy rich mid-palate, finishing with firm tannins but very elegant classic style: 13%.
Join Rose’s Historic Hungarian Tokay Wine Tasting on 29 November in Edinburgh www.rosemurraybrown.com