Under The Radar

In 2004, James Suckling was invited to a blind tasting wine dinner with 10 bottles to sample. The evening turned out to contain many surprises — one of which was how a 1989 Pétrus, a 100-point wine, appeared to be the unanimously voted worst wine.

The other? A 2000 Gere Attila Kopar Cuvée, a Bordeaux blend from Hungary, emerged as a crowd favourite. “Balanced, silky, and fruity… but I had never heard of it, much less tasted it,” Suckling described. As the American wine critic’s famous line goes: “When a Hungarian red beats Pétrus in a blind tasting, you know the world of wine is a gunslinger’s paradise.”

A Storied History

Despite being an Old World wine region with a heritage dating back to Roman times, Hungarian wines haven’t quite had their moment the way French or Italian wines have.

There are good reasons for that. For one, the country has had a turbulent history: The Ottoman-Hungarian wars, a massive bout of phylloxera in the 19th century, and the economic instability of World War I contributed to a declining wine industry. And when Hungary fell into the communist regime in 1945, quality was abandoned for quantity for all production matters, even its wines.

And then there’s the Hungarian language. “There’s really nothing quite like Hungarian,” quips Jasper Foo, co-founder of The Wine Key, Singapore’s only dedicated Hungarian red wine importer. The Wine Key was set up by Foo and his partner, Jody Ong, in 2021. The pair first encountered the highly underrated world of Hungarian reds some 10 years ago on a trip to Hungary tasting a wine made from 100 percent Kékfrankos grapes. “We had never tried something that paired so well with steak,” Foo shares.

Following that trip, the duo scoured Singapore and Asia looking for Hungarian reds. While they found mostly sweet and dry white wines from Tokaj, exports Hungary is most famous for, there was close to nothing for reds.

A World Undiscovered

Since starting The Wine Key, Foo notes that consumers are constantly surprised by the drinkability and likeability of Hungarian reds. Sipping any Hungarian red, you’ll find that they sit in the sweet spot between bold and elegant. The building blocks of each bottle are often a mix of foreign grape varieties — notably, traditional Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot — and indigenous ones.

Kékfrankos and Kardaka are arguably the two most important Hungarian indigenous grape varietals. Kékfrankos, Hungary’s most planted grape, accounts for around 40 percent of Hungary’s grapes. Its berry-like and delicate spice notes lend wines a full-bodied yet fresh character. Kardaka, on the other hand, sports vibrant, crunchy red fruit profiles with smooth tannins and a lively acidity. These grapes are sometimes bottled up into single varietal wines, but more often than not, they’re blended with Bordeaux grapes.

The most famous of these blends is the Bikavér — or Bull’s Blood. A Kékfrankos-based blend, Bikavér is produced in the Eger and Szekszárd regions. These cool-climate wines, produced on mostly volcanic soil, boast a powerful fruitiness balanced with a vibrant acidity and mineral finish.

As for Bordeaux grapes, you’ll find them in Hungarian Bordeaux blends (like the one Suckling had), or even as a single varietal wine like the Villányi Franc, a classic Hungarian wine made from Cabernet Franc grapes.

Terry Lim, deputy head sommelier of Park90 Singapore at Conrad Singapore Orchard (which also carries Hungarian wines), notes that Hungary’s terroir lends its wines a special character. “Hungary’s volcanic soil is what makes its wines special — while most volcanic soils are found on islands, the fact that Hungary has them lends its wines an additional savoury, mineral character,” Lim adds.

An insistence on traditional winemaking practices, too, makes Hungarian wines unique. “Because the Hungarians’ winemaking history was so disrupted, they never had the chance to develop new techniques,” Ong says.

Today, Hungarian winemakers still adhere to a strong sense of respect for the terroir. Local yeast strains are used, and oak barrels for vinification strictly utilise oak from each vineyard’s vicinity. “It’s a huge source of pride, using oak from their district,” Foo notes. “As compared to American oak, Hungarian oak is denser as it’s grown in very cold climates. This results in elegant tannins, and less of the in-your-face oakiness that you usually get with American oaks,” Foo adds.

“Hungarian winemaking has always been, and continues to be largely anchored by low-intervention methods,” Ong says. “They just haven’t gotten around to marketing it the way trendy natural wines do,” she adds.

Vincent Tan, wine director at three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Odette, also believes that the use of native varietals, while sometimes challenging, help Hungarian wines maintain a strong sense of identity. “Additionally, Hungarian wines harmonise exceptionally well with food, showcasing vibrant acidity in styles like Bikavér, [something that’s] not commonly associated with full-bodied red wines,” he opines.

Paint The Town Red

So what’s a person who wants to start their Hungarian wine education to do? “Hungarian wines are in a strange place because they’re new [to the world]… and yet very old. The only way to know if something is good is to taste them,” says Foo.

Even wine tourism is difficult. Mason Ng, wine director at Park90, who has visited Hungary to learn more about its wines notes that “Hungary isn’t like Australia where cellar door tours are readily available; language barriers also pose an issue,” Ng points out.

“I’d recommend going to restaurants in Budapest and asking for Hungarian wine recommendations. Take photos of the bottles and remember what you liked; even if you don’t speak or read Hungarian, eventually you’ll find ways to relate to the wines,” he says.

For Foo and Ong, who don’t speak Hungarian either, their yearly trips to source for new and undiscovered wines are as difficult as you would imagine.

“The lack of a proper classification system for Hungarian wines, unlike your DOCs, makes it difficult to know whether a region’s wines will be of a certain quality,” says Foo. “It’s a lot of trial and error; we just drive around and knock on vineyards’ doors, try their wines, and decide if it’s something our customers would like,” Ong admits.

The groundwork for discovering the world of Hungarian wines is doubtless still being laid, and for those determined to venture into this world, you’ve been warned that it won’t be easy. But as they say, oftentimes, the journey is the reward.