VISITING EGER IN HUNGARY

By Rose Murray Brown MW    Published in The Scotsman 18 May 2024

I am standing in the highest vineyard in Hungary.  This 501 metre hill, in the foothills of the Bukk mountains, towers above the beautiful baroque town of Eger below to the west – and is one of the Eger’s most prized vineyards.

I can barely see the top of Nagy-Eged vineyard, as the early morning mist is swirling around its forested summit, but it is clear this steep south-facing site has a cooler microclimate, in comparison to lower warmer vineyards around Eger town – and its soil type is different to adjacent vineyards.

Many vineyards around Eger, like lower altitude Sik-hegy, have rhyolite tuff or andesite volcanic bedrock soils with a little loess and sand southwest of the town – but the famous high Nagy-Eged hill is predominantly Triassic limestone bedrock.  The six wineries who have been reviving vineyard plots on Nagy-Eged in the last decades post-communism produce white and red wines (today it is primarily red Kekfrankos grape grown on the hill) with fine acidity, elegance and ageability from this single vineyard.

Eger in northeast Hungary is often overlooked in today’s modern wine world, but it is a hidden gem for those who take time to visit.  Not only does Eger have some of the most exquisite and impressive town architecture in the whole of Hungary, with magnificent cellars carved from the tuff, it is becoming renowned once again for its wines.  Its better-known neighbour to the east, Tokaj, may have been blazing a trail with fine dry and sweet whites across the world – but what you find in Eger is completely different and unique in Hungary.  In Eger, you find both serious dry whites and high quality reds.

“It wasn’t always like this”, says winemaker Dr Gyorgy Lorincz of St Andrea winery.  “Historically the Carpathian Basin in northeast Hungary grew white grapes, inspired by the cooler climate, until red Kadarka arrived in C16 and other reds like Kekfrankos were planted after phylloxera in late C19”.

Today Eger’s forty producers work 5,500 hectares of vineyards, making 55% red – and 45% white wines.  Their most prized white grapes are Leanyka, Harslevelu, Olaszrizling, Furmint and Chardonnay – and most planted red is Kekfrankos (with one fifth of the vineyard area) alongside Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Kadarka, Syrah and some promising Pinot Noir.

Eger has an astonishing 64 grape varieties (of which 44 are white) and many are used for the blended wines (or cuvees) which are revered here.  White blends are called ‘Egri Csillag’ and red blends are ‘Egri Bikaver’ (no-one uses the old Bulls Blood name now).  To keep the authenticity of the region, these blends must contain at least 50% native grapes.

To get producers to focus on quality, the region introduced different quality levels.  Everyday drinking wines are labelled ‘Classicus’, whilst the lower yield four varietal blends are ‘Superior’ and the longer aged, lower yield four varietal blend wines from a single vineyard are ‘Grand Superior’.

The leading wineries in modern Eger are St Andrea, Tibor Gal, Toth Ferenc, Kovacs Nimrod, Gal Lajos and Bolyki – but it is exciting to see young dynamic newcomers like Marcell Bukolyi (whose winery and vineyards are all on Nagy-Eged hill) and Bojt winery now producing interesting wines.

 

ST ANDREA www.standrea.com

This is one of my favourite wineries in Eger region – I really enjoy the style of their wines and Dr Gyorgy Lorincz (pictured below) is one of the most talented winemakers in the region.  St Andrea (est 2002) is owned by three families who currently own 50 hectares.  They combine local and international grapes together and make mainly blended white and red wines; blends are typical of the region.

St Andrea’s team tend to pick later (often three weeks later) than other growers in the region so their style is quite opulent.  According to Dr Lorincz lots of people criticise them for making wines with high alcohol, but to be honest I found their wines very well integrated and balanced.

White: HARSLEVELU 2023 St Andrea (barrel sample)

Rich rounded, honeyed notes, good minerality from limestone soil

White: EGRI CUVEE GRAND SUPERIOR MARIA 2019 St Andrea ***

£25 Best of Hungary in UK

Superb blend of Chardonnay, Furmint with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc from Nagy-Eged limestone hill; deftly oaked (14 months in 300-500l new oak), rich and elegant.

Red: KADARKA 2023 St Andrea (barrel sample)

Deliciously crunchy juicy cherry fruit, rounded tannins with good length

Red: KEKFRANKOS 2023 St Andrea (barrel sample)

This comes from Nagy Eged – the famous limestone hill – low yields here give dense fruit concentration and ripe tannins – approachable even at this early stage.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER ‘MERENGO’ 2018 St Andrea ***

£32.50 Best of Hungary in UK

Impressively soft smooth blend with bright cherry fruits – this 50% Kekfrankos with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir blend typifies the Eger region as it includes all soil types (volcanic and limestone).

 

TIBOR GAL www.galtibor.hu

If you are visiting Eger town and looking for a good tasting venue, Tibor Gal’s winery (Csiky Sandor u.10) is a stylish and historic place to visit.  The name Tibor Gal is legendary thanks to the founder’s huge energy, knowledge and enthusiasm.  Gal senior did so much to promote Eger region and revive Egri Bikaver, his beloved local grapes Kadarka and Kekfrankos and focus on terroir viticulture.  After founding the winery in Eger in 1992 and buying his first vineyards in Eger in 1997, he was tragically killed in a car crash in South Africa in 2005.

His family have carried on his legacy – with an impressive winery run by a hardworking team including the super-charming duo of Tibor Gal junior (Titi is pictured above) as winemaker and his sister Veronika Gal (pictured below) who runs the front of house, wine bar/tasting room.

Full marks to Veronika Gal for initiating the idea of ‘a glass around the town’.  This is a brilliant idea which involves sampling Tibor Gal wine range at different locations around Eger with a running commentary on this beautiful baroque town’s architecture and Tibor Gal wine from Veronika herself.

From Egri cathedral, archbishop’s palace, Eger university to the last remaining miniaret – we paced around with glass in hand – finishing at Tibor Gal Senior’s memorial stone, the winery’s old cellar (pictured below) and their very stylish wine bar.

The winery currently owns about 40 hectares in five outstanding vineyards: @18 ha in Sikhegy, 15ha in Pajados, 4ha in Tornyos , 3.73ha in Afrika and 1.03 on the famous Nagy-Eged hill.

White: EGRI CSILLAG 2023 Tibor Gal

An honorary mention here for Egri Csillag as Titi Gal was the initiator of the iconic white Egri blend – an excellent idea to help promote the region.  In 2023 their Egri Csillag was a six grape blend (Olaszrizling, Harslevelu, Viognier, Traminer Szurkebarat, Pinot Blanc).

Red: KADARKA 2022 Tibor Gal

From Pajados and Sikhegy vineyards; crunchy red cherry fruits, vibrant acidity and a touch of minerality – with moderate alcohol level at 11.5%.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER ‘PAJADOS’ GRAND SUPERIOR 2021 Tibor Gal

Blend of Cabernet Franc, Kadarka, Kekfrankos, Pinot Noir and Syrah aged in 220l and 500l Hungarian oak barrels for 14 months (20% new oak).  Dense ripe berried fruit, quite spicy and firm tannins – needs time to develop further

Red: EGRI BIKAVER ‘SIKHEGY’ GRAND SUPERIOR 2017 Tibor Gal ***

One of the best Bikaver’s that I have tasted – beautifully developed bouquet, well integrated and mature, silky soft tannins with long length from Sikhegy’s volcanic soils – sadly not available in the UK (blend of Kekfrankos, Kadarka, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc aged in 220l and 500l Hungarian oak for 11 months 20% new oak).

[Looking for UK importer]

 

BOLYKI www.bolykipinceszet.hu

What a cool location for a winery – Bolyki is based in a 3.2 hectares old C15 stone quarry – surrounded by 30 metre walls of rhyolite tuff (so soft and malleable it is easy to make tunnels and cellars).

Founder Jani Bolyki (pictured below) initially set up his winery in 1998 with his first harvest in 2002 – and created his current winery in 2019.  He now owns 30 hectares of vineyards in nine different sites and only uses estate-grown grapes, uses a mix of Hungarian, American and French oak for maturation and produces 250,000-300,000 bottles annually.

Bolyki’s labels are as unique as the winery.  Highly unusual with bright colours and tongue-in-cheek fairytale graphics of Crafty Rabbit and friends – certainly distinctive and all drawn by hand by an illustrator.  You might not like them – but you won’t forget them – and the wine quality is consistently good across the range.

White: KIRALYLEANYKA 2023 Bolyki

Light fresh and floral – an easy-drinking aperitif style white (12%).

White: HARSLEVELU META TEMA 2021 Bolyki

Bolyki owns 5.7 hectares of Harslevelu which he uses for this late harvested version fermented in stainless steel and aged in 500l oak for 6 months; a superb honeyed cuvee with candied fruit notes, sweet notes with a minerally dry finish.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER BOLYKI ES BOLYKI SUPERIOR 2019 Bolyki

Well-made soft rounded, good fruit concentration and approachable tannins in this blend of six grapes: Kekrankos 40%; Cabernet Franc 25%; Merlot 25%; Zweigelt/Blauer Portugieser/Blauburger 10%

[Available from Top Selection and Best of Hungary in UK]

 

TOTH FERENC www.tothferencpinceszet.hu

Set up in 1983 – this is one of the oldest family-owned wineries in Eger – named after the founder who is now 84 years old.  His daughter Katalin and her husband Zoltan run the winery.

They currently own 27 hectares (about equal white/red grape plantings) with Sik-hegy vineyard their most prized in which they own 9 hectares.  Toth Ferenc winery focus on Leanyka, Kadarka and Kekfrankos done as single varietals – and aim to perfect the famous Egri Csillag and Egri Bikaver blends.  Their flagship wine (made only in exceptional vintages) is named Varvedo, a classic Bordeaux blend to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the siege of Eger castle.

The current winemaker Gergely ‘Gergo’ Filep (pictured above) started in 2020. He has worked in Mendoza in Argentina and for several years at Disznoko winery in Tokaj in Hungary.  Since Gergo moved to Eger to join Toth Ferenc, their wine range has improved greatly – he has carried on the winery’s elegant light touch with a renewed vision, clarity and precision.

White: EGRI CSILLAG SUPERIOR 2022 Toth Ferenc ***

£16 available from Vindependents UK in June (who supply independent wine merchants)

Very good example of Eger white blend from grapes harvested later, barrel fermentation and wild yeasts – light smoky notes, textured and elegant – from Olaszrizling, Harslevelu, Leanyka and Riesling blend.

Red: KADARKA 2021 Toth Ferenc

Lovely cherry fruits, delicately soft, light texture, fruity fresh and vibrant.

Red: KEKFRANKOS SUPERIOR 2018 Toth Ferenc

Well made, good complexity with fine grained tannins; some quite prominent acidity which gives it a good freshness.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER SUPERIOR 2021 Toth Ferenc

More structured with firm tannins, but this is very stylish given time to develop more complexity with bottle age; a five grape blend (Kekfrankos, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir)

[Available from Vindependents in UK]

 

KOVACS NIMROD www.kovacsnimrodwinery.com

Founder Kovacs Nimrod is a well-known name in Eger, but he made his fortune in America working in the Cable, Media and Telecom businesses where he is mainly based (along with his family).  He set up his winery in Eger in seven continuous arched cellars in the historic Veroszala street which once (in C18) housed the wine press houses of Eger.  Kovacs Nimrod is now aged 74 years old and still visits the winery regularly when in Hungary.  He loves jazz – hence the wine names.

He owns vineyards in three of the top terroirs in Eger:  Nagy-Eged (20 hectares), Nyilasmar (8 ha) and Nagyfai (12 ha).

White: DIXIE CHARDONNAY 2022 Kovacs Nimrod

£14.95 ND John Wines

Fresh zippy blend of Chardonnay with Pinot Gris with 4 months in large oak cask

White: BATTONAGE CHARDONNAY 2022 Kovacs Nimrod

£19.99 All About Wine; ND John Wines; Latitude Wines; North & South Wines; NY Wines

Rich leesy creamy Chardonnay matured in French and Hungarian oak for one year; good freshness combined with pineapple fruit and buttery toasty notes

Red: BLUES MONOPOLE KEKFRANKOS 2018 Kovacs Nimrod

£18.50 ND John Wines

A single vineyard wine with rich cherry fruits, earthy notes with juicy freshness, silky tannins and spicy finish – showing good development.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER RHAPSODY 2019 Kovacs Nimrod

Delicate spicy soft rounded style of Bikaver from a blend of Kekfrankos, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Franc

 

BOJT WINES www.bojtbor.com 

Bojt was founded in 1993 by father Laszlo Bojt when the family was awarded 3 hectares of so-called compensation land – and they added a tuff cellar.  Today the winery has 12 hectares (on Kutyahegy and Bikus vineyards near Ostoros about 4km south east of Eger) making 40,000 bottles pa.  Since 2016 the winery has been run by son Gergo Bojt (pictured above), who trained at Wither Hills in New Zealand.

They work with quite an array of grape varieties (including Welshriesling, Leanyka, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Kekfrankos, Cab Sauvignon, Blauburger, Turan, Zweigelt, Pinot Noir and Merlot).  They are moving to all organic viticulture – 2023 was their first year.

White: EGRI CSILLAG SUPERIOR 2022 Bojt Wines ***

£15.50 Danube Wines

Floral notes, zesty fruits and creamy soft rounded palate – a very good introductory white blend made from Olaszrisling, Leanyka, Sauvignon Blanc & Muscat from second-generation Gergo Bojt – a name to watch.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER SUPERIOR 2021 Bojt Wines ***

£16.50 Danube Wines

Clever blend of Kekfrankos, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and Blauburger matured in Hungarian oak; good concentration, soft rounded palate with firm tannin finish.

[Available from Novel Wines & Danube Wines in UK]

 

MARCELL BUKOLYI www.bukolyimarcell.hu

After making wine for his family winery for 10 years, Marcell Bukolyi decided to set up on this own starting his own winery with his wife Lilla in 2016.  With a winery right next to Nagy-Eged hill – with most of their vines planted on limestone – they currently own a total of 14 hectares planted with Kekfrankos, Furmint, Harslevelu, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.

The main vineyards are Koves (6 hectares at 310-330m) with limestone and chalk; the Farm (4 hectares at 280-290 ha) with rich chalk and volcanic subsoil and Birsalmas (4 ha at 275-300m) on Steinhauser hills with black volcanic soils with sand and tuff.

Currently the only certified organic producer in Eger – and a winery to watch.

White: EGRI CSILLAG 2022 Marcell Bukolyi ***

Well-made Harslevelu, Furmint and Riesling blend; soft rounded palate with fresh bright limey fruit notes and hints of minerality – 100% certified organic.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER 2020 Marcell Bukolyi ***

£16.50 Best of Hungary

Marcell Bukolyi is a young winemaker who crafts lush voluptuously fruity blends (Kekfrankos, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir), very approachable in style with silky tannins.  Well-made and the only certified organic Bikaver in Eger.

Red: EGRI BIKAVER KISFIAM 2022 Marcell Bukolyi ***

Kisfiam means ‘my boy’; superb Egri Bikaver with voluptuous ripe fruit, rounded tannins and long length – this is a very stylish blend of Kekfrankos 60%, Syrah 30%, Pinot Noir 5% and Cabernet Franc 5%.

[Available from Best of Hungary in UK]

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