The wines regarded as the flagships of Hungary are the sweet styles of Tokaj PDO and, increasingly, the dry Furmints from the same region. But their fame often means that wines from the rest of the country are overlooked. In Szekszárd, one of Hungary’s smallest appellations, and probably one of the least known globally, winemakers are quietly producing some of the country’s finest red wines.
Geographically, Hungary is at a crossroads, with a mix of soils and a variety of climates ranging from cool continental to hot Mediterranean. The northeast (including Tokaj) runs along the Carpathian Mountains (Kárpátok in Hungarian), which are laden with volcanic and limestone soils, with the country’s highest vineyards, at 500 meters, on the Nagy-Eged hill, in Eger. In western Hungary is Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake, which acts as a storage heater for the surrounding vineyards on shallow sandy hills in the south and on volcanic and limestone hills in the north. In this region, there is higher rainfall than elsewhere in the country, and Olaszrizling is the premier variety. The Danube (Duna) cuts across Hungary along a north-south line, running from the Slovakian border in the north to Croatia in the south. To the east of the Danube lies the Great Plain (Alföld), a source of high-volume, inexpensive wines.
On the western banks, there are two appellations with a red wine focus: Szekszárd (hear pronunciation) and Villány. Hot-climate Villány, on the Croatian border, focuses on full-bodied Cabernet Franc. To the northeast is Szekszárd, which offers three distinct red wines: Kadarka, Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch), and the blend known as Bikavér (Bull’s Blood).
The Szekszárd wine region covers 2,335 hectares over a range of low-lying hills that rise as high as 250 meters and run north-south on the western shore of the Danube. The steep slopes are split by valleys and ravines, creating a complex range of microclimates. Loess soil prevails in most of the vineyards, running as deep as 10 to 15 meters in places, with pockets of red and yellow clay. Erosion and soil movement bring the clay toward the surface.
The climate is characterized by long, hot, and dry summers and mild winters. The latitude of Szekszárd is comparable to that of Washington, Oregon, and the northern Italian lakes. Vineyards located toward the top of the slopes tend to be windier and drier, and the berries tend to be smaller and more concentrated, with the eastern and southern slopes generally providing the best wines. Grapes on vines planted at the bottom of the slope receive more water and are bigger and juicier. There is more clay in the south, with the colder soil balancing the effects of the hotter climate to yield lighter, fruitier wines.
Hungarian winemaking dates to Celtic and Roman times and continued with the arrival of the Magyar tribes in the late ninth century. The first written mention of Szekszárd is from early in the 11th century, and monastic vineyards were established 50 years later. By the late 15th century, Szekszárd was a significant town. The red Kadarka grape arrived in the area with Serbian refugees fleeing from the south, ahead of Ottoman invaders. Following the arrival of the Ottomans in the mid-16th century, many of the vineyards were abandoned. When the Ottomans left at the end of the 17th century, Hungary became part of the Habsburg Empire. To repopulate the land, Swabian farmers from southern Germany were recruited by both the government and local initiatives to settle in the area. Whole communities sailed down the Danube on large barges beginning in the early 1720s. Among them were settlers such as the Eszterbauer and Heimann families, who still own vineyards in Szekszárd.
In the 19th century, Szekszárd experienced a renaissance in its fortunes through vines, grain, and cattle. Kadarka emerged as the leading red variety, and a red blend, Bikavér, became increasingly popular, even inspiring the composers Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt. Phylloxera arrived in 1875, and, during replanting from 1881 on, many white varieties were lost and replaced by red vines. Kadarka was joined by Kékoportó, Kékfrankos, Médoc Noir (Merlot), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
As in other parts of Europe, the post-phylloxera replanting coincided with the rise in consolidation of small plots into larger vineyards, which could be mechanized and produce high volumes. Many of the labor-intensive hillside vineyards were abandoned. Wars, politics, and communism further changed the wine scene. Large-scale planting projects, higher-yielding Kékfrankos, and varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon displaced Kadarka as the main red variety. Post–World War II land reform nationalized all sizable vineyards, and by 1960 most belonged to state-run co-operatives. During this period, high-yielding, mechanized vineyards on the flatter plains were preferred.
Beginning in 1990, state-owned co-operatives were privatized, and there was a revival of family wineries, including Fritz, Vesztergombi, Dúzsi, and Takler. Consumers at the time favored big reds. Ferenc Vesztergombi was named Hungarian Winemaker of the Year in 1993, following the success of his full-bodied blend called Óvörös (“red”). Ferenc Takler, who had established his family vineyard in 1996, was an early proponent of raising the quality of Bikavér by using the best grapes rather than leftovers.
By the early 2000s, the first initiatives in regulating the quality and style of wines other than Tokaj started to emerge. In 2005, nearby Villány adopted a quality-control system, ensuring that all wines of the required quality and style could carry the Villány crocus flower stamp. The appellation introduced the Classicus and Premium classifications, and in 2015 it added a third, called Super Premium, for wines made from 100% Cabernet Franc. In 2016, the Balaton Bor label was created for unoaked Olaszrizling made around Balaton Lake. Eger has three Bikavér levels: Classicus requires 6 months of aging, and Superior and Grand Superior require 12 months as well as much lower yields and longer maceration.
In 2006, the Szekszárd Winemakers’ Guild was created, and with it the impetus to define and improve the wines of the region by focusing on three red styles: Bikavér and single-variety Kékfrankos and Kadarka. Today, there are around 40 independent family wineries.
In 2014, the producers in the guild decided to bottle the three key wines in a specific bottle, choosing a Burgundy shape, which they felt best reflected their style of wine. Since 2015, Bikavér, 100% Kékfranos, and 100% Kadarka can be presented in the Szekszárd bottle, including older vintages now ready for the market, if they pass the regional tasting panel and are deemed representative of the appellation. Today, around half of the producers are using the syndical bottle. In 2017 and 2018, a Szekszárd bottle with screw cap was introduced for younger, easier-drinking wines.
The syndical bottle itself does not indicate a specific quality level. Some producers use the bottle only for their entry-level wines, but most producers label the wines as Premium or list the name of a single vineyard. The Premium wines come from better sites and lower-yielding vines. They are more complex and concentrated and often have higher alcohol by volume. Producers have discussed whether they should further differentiate quality. Janós Eszterbauer would prefer greater distinction between the quality levels indicated on the bottle. Péter Vida, however, believes the prime purpose of the Szekszárd bottle is to “generate brand awareness for the Szekszárd region” and that it is up to individual producers to indicate the quality level on the label.
Wine styles have been evolving for several reasons, including the range of red varieties currently planted. Kékfrankos remains the most widely planted grape in Szekszárd, followed by Zweigelt, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Kadarka. But Kadarka is once again becoming increasingly important. Many producers still use Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon for top wines made in large oak vessels. A number of producers are also making Premium Kékfrankos wines, including single-vineyard examples, such as Vesztergombi’s Porkoláb and Takler’s Gurovica.
New clones are also impacting wine styles. Rebeka Vida, the winemaker at Lajvér, says, “[The] eventual moving toward new clones is inevitable due to global warming. Some vines just won’t be able to function in our climate. With time, we won’t be able to make light, fruity wines anymore. New oak will be needed for the new clones that are probably more tannic as well.” Winemaking has already begun to evolve. The use of oak has shifted from large, old barrels; to small new oak barrels from Hungary or France; to less new oak and less oaky wines overall. The market is increasingly looking for more-delicate wines. András Takler notes that old-style Kadarka was very different, explaining, “The grapes were harvested much later, creating concentrated, deeper-colored, tannic reds aged in three-to-five-hectoliter old wood barrels.”
The three red flagship wines of Szkeszárd represent three different faces of the region.
Kadarka plantations once shrank to 110 hectares, and the grape was in danger of becoming a rarity, but its numbers are steadily growing again. Currently, the biggest producers of Kadarka are Mészáros, Eszterbauer, and Heimann. Zoltán Heimann says, “The high yield and no work on clonal selections after the 1960s [had resulted] in poor-quality vines with heterogenous maturity and botrytis problems.” The growth in Kadarka plantings, he believes, is a result of rising interest in indigenous grapes, the popularity of lower-alcohol, lighter red wines, and quality advances in winemaking.
Modern clones are making it easier to produce greater, more reliable volumes of Kadarka, with homogenous ripening, thicker skins, and richer, darker fruit. Zoltán Heimann Jr. is such a big fan of Kadarka that his nickname is Kadarka Man. An early advocate of trialing Kadarka clones, he released his first wine made entirely with new clones, Céh Kereszt, in 2015. Heimann notes that the riper, darker fruit is better at supporting oak.
Many prefer to blend new clones with the once-dominant P9 clone. Takler says, “Kadarka new clones show higher concentration and fruit intensity, [but they have] less of the spicy character of the P9.” Csaba Sebestyén finds the new Kadarka clones to be much fruitier and darker in color. “They are less sensitive, but we really like P9 for its spicy character—but we don’t think any Kadarka clone should be aged in new oak. It covers its fruitiness, and most of the wines from new clones are still very fragile.”
Kékfrankos became the leading Hungarian red variety in 1970, after reconstruction. Today, Hungary boasts the highest volume of Kékfrankos plantings in the world, with over 8,000 hectares. Yet the grape is best known by its Austrian name, Blaufränkisch, which is registered as the official name for the variety. Lemberger is the name in used in Germany and America, and Frankovka Modrá is used in the Czech and Slovak Republics.
It is easy to produce good wine with Kékfrankos because of its big clusters and berries, disease resistance, and adaptability to harvest timing. Péter Urbán, chief oenologist and viticulturist at Bodri, explains that Kékfrankos is flexible and can be a “light rosé; fruity, lighter red; [or] very complex red with big structure.”
While the 1970s plantings of Kékfrankos were based on clone KT1, from Kecskemét, on the other side of the Danube, there are now many clones available from the research center in Eger and elsewhere. Today, an increasing number of Hungarian producers are planting Austrian clones, such as A2, which was developed for the long growing season of Austria’s cooler climate and has full-bodied, spicy fruit.
Research is now being done in Szekszárd to explore which varieties and clones are best planted where. Kékfrankos grown in hotter locations results in big, intense wines. Hetényi’s Tábornok, from the hot slopes of the Decsi-hegy, offers black chocolate, prune, and spice notes, and fine-grained tannins; and Szekretár’s Phoenix, from grapes planted in the southern part of Szekszárd, presents flavors of ripe blackberry, sour cherry, and almond, with fresh acidity and structured tannins.
Examples from cooler areas have more mineral and floral notes. Sebestyén’s Nénai, from vines in the north, where winds keep the vineyards cool and dry, is austere, with aromas of blue-black flowers and damson, mineral notes, and silky tannins. Takler’s Szenta-hegyi, sourced from windy, steep slopes facing southeast, offers perfumed blue-black fruit, with supple, juicy tannins and fresh acidity.
Bikavér is best known globally by its English translation, Bull’s Blood. It generated a reputation as a poor-quality wine during Hungary’s years of high-volume production, but modern winemakers are thoughtfully crafting quality blends. The name Bikavér was reserved for wines from Eger until the mid-1990s, but today there are two Bikavérs: one from Eger and one from Szekszárd. In addition to adhering to slightly different regulations, Egri Bikavér comes from cooler, higher-altitude hills, while Szekszárdi Bikavér comes from a warmer region with diverse valley microclimates. An annual tasting is held in Budapest comparing the styles of the two regions.
Szekszárdi Bikavér is essentially a blend of Carpathian and Bordeaux grapes. It must contain at least four varieties, with a minimum 45% Kékfrankos and 5% Kadarka (adding up to a minimum of 50% of the blend). Kadarka is kept to a smaller proportion because, with its more delicate fruit and tannic structure, it ages faster than the Kékfrankos and can result in an unbalanced wine after a few years. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot cannot individually exceed 40%. The final blend must be aged in barrel for one year before release.
Producers describe the final blend, achieved by combining not just varieties but also different sites, as having elegant spice and red fruits. Takler’s Örökség Bikavér, for example, is a graceful yet powerful blend from the hot loess slopes of Decsi-hegy and the cooler red clay of Báta.
Today, Szekszárd winemakers are split over the future of Bikavér. While an older generation may have memories of Bikavér as low quality, the younger generation sees Bikavér as a quality wine. Some worry that the burden of the Bull’s Blood legacy is too great, while others, like Sebestyén, see Bikavér as a uniquely Hungarian wine ready for a revival. Style preferences vary, however. Eszterbauer says, “Bikavér is successful if it is a slightly fuller-bodied wine.” Urbán agrees, noting an increase in interest for the more concentrated Bikavér and Kékfrankos. Péter Vida is less keen on “big-structure Bikavérs,” preferring those with “nice spiciness and local character, with elegance.”
Csaba Sebestyén, one of the newest and youngest winemakers in Szekszárd, noticed that during fermentation the wines from his vineyards within the single region of Iván Valley (Iván Völgy) always tasted the best. In 2007, he decided to make a single-vineyard Szekszárdi Bikavér from the vines grown there. This was the first time a Szekszárdi Bikavér was labeled from a single cru.
Until recently, blending grapes or vineyard sites, or both, has been the universal method for consistency of high-quality wines from vintage to vintage. But the growth in single-cru or single-parcel wines has allowed producers to learn and identify the character of their microterroirs, and in Szekszárd there has been a steady increase in the production of these wines. Yet opinions remain divided. Lajvér’s Rebeka Vida stresses the importance of blending for her wines and the variation between vineyards with, for example, their differing water-retention capacity. In vintages such as the hot and dry 2022, vines planted in the valley ripened later than those in other vineyards on warmer sites, while the cooler sites were the ones most hit by spring frost. Sebestyén agrees that blending is a traditional method to obtain good quality every year, while single-cru wines are reserved for the best years and can demonstrate distinctive vintage character. Takler says that “single-vineyard wines [are] unique and exciting. Blending the sites results in reliable quality that is very useful for our cuvée wines.” But others, like Eszterbauer, find blends just as compelling. He says, “Blending of the same varieties grown in different vineyards [is] an exciting and quality-oriented task.”
Traditionally, Hungary has been a secure market for its own wines, but producers are increasingly looking to export. The US, Canada, and northern Europe are proving to be good and growing markets for many producers.
The American importer Eric Danch and his business partner, Catherine Granger, specialize in central European wines with their company, Danch & Granger Selections. Danch finds Kadarka the easiest Szekszárd wine to sell. He says, “The lighter-red angle helps, being somewhat natural helps—spontaneous, unfiltered, organic. But more importantly, it has an identity that people seem to understand above and beyond ‘a chillable red at a good price.’ We’ve stopped selling it as central or eastern European Pinot Noir, for instance. There are so many clones and mutations that it’s super diverse.”
Producers are eager to emphasize the uniqueness of the wines, and consumers appreciate both the indigenous varieties and the traditional Bikavér blend. Danch agrees that the Hungarian styles and indigenous varieties are a strength, and suggests that producers avoid emphasizing the more familiar Bordeaux-blend character of Bikavér.
Rebeka Vida also feels that the range of styles offered by Szekszárd is key, explaining, “You can find light-, medium-, and full-bodied wines, with the different styles satisfying all demands of the market.” János Eszterbauer agrees. Kadarka is lighter, and, he says, “Bikavér is the golden middle way, full bodied, complex, and with finesse, while Kékfrankos is the most variable wine among the three, depending on the terroir, yield, and aging philosophy.” Heimann has found that the visual image of the Szekszárd bottle has been useful to tie the three wines together.
While it might be a stretch to call Szekszárd undiscovered, it has great potential that is still being recognized globally, with wines that have both easy charm and weighty complexity, as well as unique character shaped by the use of local varieties.