Special Report: Bikavér: Another Hungarian Revolution

By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Bikavér, or “Bull’s Blood”, was once among Hungary’s most famous, or rather infamous, wines. One-liter bottles of the harsh blended red made by the State Farms in Eger and Szekszárd supported many candles in university residences back in the 1970s and 80s. I’ve had countless people of a certain age tell me it was the first wine they ever drank, principally because it was the only wine they could afford in their impecunious student days. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Remember that Szekszárdi Vöros? If you do, hopefully fondness for the memories of when and with whom you drank it overshadow recall of the actual taste of the stuff.

But as with so much else in Hungary today, things have changed. Like presently shiny and gleaming Budapest, practically unrecognizable to me now compared to my first trips to the city back in the early eighties, when everything I remember was grey, and bullet holes from the ’56 revolution and WWII were still visible in buildings and hucksters shilling Deutsch marks squatted on dark street corners, Bikáver has also gotten its makeover. The blended reds from Eger and Szekszárd are now winery calling cards, a window on the style and quality aspirations of their makers.

The Danube, Matthias Church, and the Fishermen's Bastion on Castle Hill, Budapest-1381

The Danube, Matthias Church, and the Fishermen’s Bastion on Castle Hill, Budapest

The story of how Bull’s Blood got its name has oft been told. But in case you haven’t heard it, according to legend, during the famous Ottoman siege of the Eger Castle of in 1552 (a city couple of hours by car northeast of Budapest), the valiant Hungarian soldiers led by István Dobó used to fortify themselves with big swigs of red wine found among the dwindling supplies in the Castle’s cellars. Later patrolling the Castle’s ramparts, the Turkish besiegers below noticed the fierce Magyars’ red-stained beards, and somehow came to believe that they must be drinking the blood of bulls to imbue themselves with supernatural force, the only respectable explanation for the failure of the Sultan’s siege with an army 30 times larger. The Hungarians’ (temporary) victory over the Ottomans was immortalized in the 1899 novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (Egri Csillagok in Hungarian), later adapted into the film Stars of Eger in 1968 (see the awesome trailer!).

Dobó Square in Eger with statue of István Dobó and the Eger Castle behind

Dobó Square in Eger with statue of István Dobó and the Eger Castle behind

Today, Bikavér is a legally controlled appellation for blended reds wines from both Eger and Szekszárd, a region south of the capital. Production regulations are fairly loose; to qualify, Bikavér must be made from a blend of at least four varieties, out of a long list of permitted grapes. Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch) is usually the backbone of the blend, and in Eger must make up between 30% and 50% of the wine. Other commonly used grapes include kadarka, cabernet sauvignon and franc, merlot, syrah and pinot noir. Minimum and maximum alcohol, cuvaison length and ageing are also specified, among other requirements, and wines come in Classicus, Superior, and Grand Superior designations, with tightening requirements moving up the ladder.

Eger is cooler and wetter than Szekszárd, which, coupled with its mostly volcanic-clay soils, generally leads to lighter and more herbal-spicy wines compared to Szekszárd’s riper, meatier wines from loess and limestone-based vineyards. But in practice, considering the production latitude afforded, it’s often easier to identify the producer than the region. Quality, too, varies considerably, with some wineries making Bikavér their flagship wine, while others position it more at the entry level. But overall I find the wines to fairly accurately represent each winery’s stylistic leaning (e.g. big and bold, or finessed and elegant, highly extracted and generously oaked, or made with a lighter touch) as well as their quality ambitions.

The newly cleaned, Neo Gothic Hungarian Parliament-1309

The newly cleaned, Neo Gothic Hungarian Parliament

Below are a dozen recommended Bikavérs from both Eger and Szekszárd covering the gamut of styles, fruit of a blind tasting of 30 examples presented at the VinCe magazine office in Budapest earlier this month. Prices shown are the approximate retail equivalent in Canadian dollars of what you would pay in Hungary, which is unfortunately the only place you’ll find many of these. Time for a visit – the city is truly stunning.

John Szabo’s Bikavér Buyer’s Guide

91 Villa Wanda Bormanufaktúra 2015 Egri Bikavér Eger ($56) – There’s lots of old wood character here in the Italian style, including a touch of furniture polish, reminiscent of Tuscan sangiovese. Tart red fruit leads on the nose. The palate is firm and juicy, with great acid structure and fine-grained tannins. I like the silky texture, the balanced tannins/acids, the dusty red fruit and the integrated, mostly old wood profile. Lively and energetic, with very good length and complexity overall. Drinking now, but better in a year or two and should hold nicely into the mid-twenties. (kékfrankos, pinot noir, syrah, 13%)

91 Thummerer Pincészet 2015 Egri Bikavér Grand Superior Eger ($23) – Deep, rich, ripe, dark fruit-scented, with wood influence noted but of high quality, alongside dried cherries covered in dark chocolate. I like the full body and high concentration, richly extracted, with lots of wood still noted also on the palate but integrating nicely. Length and depth are excellent. Give this some more time to integrate; should be fine in another 2-3 years. Concentrated and age worthy to be sure. (kékfrankos, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, Kadarka, 13.5%)

90 Takler Borbirtok 2016 Takler Szekszárdi Bikavér Szekszárd – Pale-medium red ruby. Open, light, floral, with a ripe and earthy side, dark spice. On the palate the acids are firm and crunchy, while wood is not a significant factor, and length and depth are very good. This is well made, savoury, drinkable wine with some character and class. (kékfrankos, merlot, syrah, kadarka, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, 14%)

90 Bolyki János 2015 Bolyki Egri Bikavér Eger ($14) – Bright medium red-ruby. Open, bright, lightly earthy-herbal, wood not a significant influence. The palate is mid-weight, juicy-firm, balanced and succulent, structure is modest, more silky than chewy, and length is good. Solid, well-made wine, highly drinkable. (kékfrankos, cabernet franc, merlot, zweigelt, blauburger, portugieser, 12.5%)

89 Bodri Pincészet 2015 Faluhely Szekszárdi Bikavér Válogatás Szekszárd ($19) – Solid concentration here, and notable toasty wood, but high quality and integrated. There’s a nice mix of red and black fruit flavours with a pleasant green-herbal twist. The palate is dry, fullish, with very good depth, solid structure, ripe, moderate-intensity tannins and fine length. This is well made, another 1-2 years away at least from maximum enjoyment. Classy and balanced. (kékfrankos, cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, Kadarka, 13%)

89 Juhász Testvérek Pincészete 2015 Egri Bikavér Selection Eger ($9) – A fullish example with solid density, slightly heavy on the wood, and decent length and depth. I like the juicy-succulent acids. This is well made, just cellar another year or two for more complete oak integration. (kékfrankos, blauburger, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, 13%)

89 Twickel Szőlőbirtok 2013 Zichy Szekszárdi Bikavér Szekszárd ($17) – Medium red. The nose offers an intriguing mix of tart and ripe red fruit, slightly dried/candied, with dried flowers/pot pourri and integrated, old wood character. The palate is medium-full bodied, succulent and juicy, with ample, mouth filling flavour in the same register, and silky, fine-grained tannins framed by lively acids. Wood is still marked – I’d say this is still a year or two away from prime drinking at least, but already the experience is enjoyable. Succulent black cherry and fresh plum flavours linger. (bíbor kadarka, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, kadarka, kékfrankos, 14%)

88 Gróf Buttler Borászat 2012 Egri Bikavér Superior Nagy-Eged Hegy Eger ($33) – Rich, liqueur-like, with masses of oak and evidently concentrated, raisined fruit, designed for maximum impact. The palate is equally bold and full, evidently from very low yields, given maximum wood treatment, with hot, alcoholic finish. Tannins are fierce, and this is puckering and a long way from enjoyment. A bold and new world, late harvest style, ambitious, if not terribly representative in my view. (merlot, cabernet franc, kadarka, pinot noir, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, 15%)

88 Tüske Pince 2016 Szekszárdi Bikavér Szekszárd ($12) – Pale red. Open, spicy, with lots of fine, leafy-spicy kadarka flavour, and candied cherry, raspberry, strawberry fruit. The palate is light-medium bodied, delicate, with soft tannins, and balanced, juicy acids. Decent length. An elegant, simple but enjoyable wine, with fine spice, fits the current popular for lighter-style reds. (kékfrankos, kadarka, cabernet franc, merlot, 13%)

88 Sebestyén Csaba 2016 Sebestyén Bikavér Szekszárd ($12) – There’s some fantasy here, with light, high-toned, spicy aromatics, and wood not a major factor. The palate is savoury and juicy, showing more spice, light tannins and good length. Another well-made, post-modern style wine, best served with a chill. (kékfrankos, merlot, cabernet franc, kadarka, sagrantino, 13%)

88 Tóth Ferenc Pincészet 2015 Egri Bikavér Eger ($10) – Light red-garnet colour. Intriguing, open aromatics with dried flowers, hibiscus, and rosehip, old wood spice and black pepper, rather pretty and engaging character overall. The palate is appealingly mid-weight with light but firm tannins and succulent acids, and decent length. Solid. (merlot, kékfrankos, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, kadarka, pinot noir, 13%)

88 St. Andrea/ Lőrincz György 2015 Hangács Bikavér Eger ($27) – Showing slightly dried out/raisined fruit character, maturing, but still far from tired. The palate delivers a rather extracted texture, with slightly hard, astringent tannins, the vestiges of wood. A little overworked perhaps, or from a terroir yielding tighter, meatier wines. Solidly constructed in any case. Try again after 2020. (kékfrankos, cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir, Kadarka, 14%)

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS