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Viticulture in the area was already an economic factor around 1010 A.D., when King Stephen founded the Eger Bishopric, renouncing the whole county’s tithes to the Church to provide further incentive for wine production. Walloon settlers arriving later in the IIth century gave further impetus to local viticulture and brought with them French traditions.
The area’s most celebrated hill, the Eged, was in fact named after St. Giles (Saint-Gilles in French and Aegidus in Latin), the patron saint of a Benedictine abbey in France. Under the influence of the invited Italian and French settlers, the region soon embraced the use of wooden barrels and cellars for maturing the wines, in-stead of simply keeping them in wine skins.
Until the end of the 16th century, local viticulture continued to flourish. During the tenure of István Dobó as captain of Eger’s fortified castle, sales of wine made a significant contribution to financing the defense against Ottoman invaders. As wine quality came to matter more, and accumulating stocks of wine needed more space, real cellars carved in tuff by well-heeled merchants and peasants began to supersede vaulted cellars and the plainly modified natural cavities in darázskő (“honeycomb rock”, an old Hungarian name for volcanic tuff) that had also served as wine stores till then.
By the second half of the century, a labyrinthine cellar network had grown under the town. After skirmishes and a siege that lasted decades, the Ottomans finally took Eger in 1596 and held it for 91 years. Despite their religious abstinence, the Ottomans allowed viticulture to survive because the taxes imposed on wine provided a source of income they could not afford to give up. In fact, the period also saw the appearance in the region of Kadarka, a red-wine grape whose first cuttings were probably brought along by Serbian growers fleeing north from the Ottoman invasion.
In the space of a few generations, black grapes began to displace the ancient white varieties in Eger. However, they could hardly have been regarded as a complete novelty; the account books of Bishop Hippolit Estei had sung the praise of Eger’s red wines as early as in 1507. At this time, the town’s best vineyards were located at Almagyar, Tihamér, and Cigléd. Once the Ottomans had been driven out, wine production increased steadily to exceed 80,000 akó (over four million liters) a year by the end of the 18th century. The share of white wines continued to dwindle in the Episcopal cellars, and reached a low of 18% of the total inventory in 1767. Red wines were entered in the books under two categories: as vinum subrubrum (a very light red almost like a rosé, called siller today), and the much scarcer vinum rub-rum, or true red wine. The majority of growers were accustomed to blending the little white they had with their reds; only a few larger and finer estates continued to make white wine and strictly pure red wines. These circumstances turned out to be all-important in bringing about Bikavér, Eger’s famous blended red wine.
From the end of the 17th century to the division of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772, the Polish aristocracy was the principal buyer of Eger wines. However, the political collapse in Poland and the concomitant loss of this important market did not prove fatal for Eger, which continued to flourish and rose to prominence among Hungarian wine regions by the 1800’s. Cellars continued to multiply, and in suitable years even some naturally sweet red wines were made from botrytized grapes. The first symptoms of decline surfaced in the ond half of the 19th century, when severe soil erosion forced growers to abandon a number of vineyards, including some of the region’s best sites on Mount Eged. The area under cultivation began to shrink not only around the town of Eger but throughout the region as well. The coup de grace was delivered by the phylloxera, which found ideal conditions in the cohesive clay soils and the monoculture of the region. In Eger, the root louse destroyed vines on a scale (93.51%) unequaled anywhere else in the country.
It was after the reconstruction of vineyards at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries that the Bikavér emerged as Eger’s most famous wine and attained a world-wide reputation. The excellence of this branded blend owed its success to a combination of factors, including the Kadarka ingredient, the unique terroir, the broadening knowledge in the field of enology, and improved celjar equipment. The appearance of Bikavér triggered a new period of boom for Eger, then known as the Eger-Visonta region, which lasted several decades. The heyday of the area ended after the Great War, at which time the name of the region was simplified to Eger.
Starting in the 1960’s, the mass-producing industrialized wineries dumped Eger wines of at best variable quality on domestic and international markets. The abuse of Eger’s repute ended with the social-political transformation of 1990, which enabled small and mid-size wineries to assert themselves with a representative range of products. The state-owned large wineries responded to the winds of change by reforming themselves as joint stock companies, while the communist-era “cooperatives,” set up under the forced collectivization scheme, “cleaned up their profile” and became limited liability companies or genuine (voluntary) alliances of growers. Wine legislation adopted in 1997 added the villages of Szomolya, Aldebrő, Feldebrő, and Verpelét to the official region. In the 19th century, and especially during vineyard reconstruction in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic, white grape varieties regained most of their former predominance. For a while, even some of the Kadarka crop was vinified as white wine—a blanc ie noirs of sorts—despite this red-wine grape’s formerly decisive role as an ingredient in Bikavér. In the 1940’s, this hallmark blend still normally contained 70% Kadarka, supplemented by 15-20% Nagyburgundi (Kékfrankos) and 10-15% Medoc Noir. Some Kadarka ended up as siller, and sometimes a small part of the crop that contracted noble rot in the upper section of the Eged, widely considered as Eger’s finest vineyard, would be made into a sweet red dessert wine.
The most popular dry whites are the Egerszóláti Olaszrizling and the Verpeléti Olaszrizling, while Leányka, Tramini and Muscat Ottonel are often vinified in the off-drv or semi-sweet style so characteristic of this region. In better years, these wines can have good body and a refined taste. The Egri Leányka is an aromatic, short-lived white that often contains some residual sugar, although the dry Leányka of the G.I.A. winery, since the 1990’s, has expressed the true and very special flavors of this variety which the sweeter versions cannot begin to convey. For decades, the semi-sweet Debrői Hárslevelű and Verpeléti Muskotály have been highly popular, if equally variable, white wine choices from the Debrő district. Kékfrankos, Cabernet Franc and Merlot have long since replaced Kadarka and Kékoportó as the decisive black grapes in Eger. One local red wine style in addition to dry Bikavér that attained a certain popularity was the notoriously semi-dry Medoc Noir, originally made from a strain of a French grape known as Mornen Noir or Cot Rouge. These days, this dubious red has been superseded by the similarly semi-dry Egri Medina (an interspecific cross of Medoc Noir itself).
Eger reds are typically medium-bodied but reasonably tannic and dark, although in cooler vintage years they tend to lose both color and tannin, and can be on the harsh side. In terms of body, tannin and alcohol, the regional average rarely achieves the standards of Hungary’s southern red wine regions, but the most prominent examples will not be dwarfed by the tallest giants from Villany. Their elegance and complex harmony of taste give them a respectable position among Hungary s red wines. Traditionally, Eger’s best red was of course the aforementioned Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”), originally a fiery blend of Nagyburgundi (Kékfrankos), Kékoportó, and Kadarka. The brand was properly established by a man named Jenő Grőber, who borrowed the memorable name from Szekszárd and also perfected the recipe of the blend by adding Medoc Noir for body.
Bolstered by efficient marketing and scrupulous quality control, Egri Bikavér became one of Hungary’s best-known wines and enjoyed universally high esteem until World War II. The heavily industrialized mass-production during the communist era degraded this brand to the point where it became at best barely acceptable and often simply undrink-able, creating an aversion in the better foreign markets that is still making itself felt today. Just how much of its appeal the blend has lost is illustrated by the fact that the small and medium-size privately owned wineries in Eger, which started out in the early 1990’s, did not take on the Bikavér as their declared flagship product, but typically relegated it to a second label. Indeed, some small local growers in the appropriate locations still sometimes hawk wine called “Bikavér” to unsuspecting tourists that is really just a blend of inferior lots and grape varieties that they could not possibly sell in any other form. On the positive side, the local Wine Community in 1997 adopted a Bikavér Code. The most significant provision of this regulation defines Bikavér as a blend of at least three grape varieties chosen strictly from a specified list. If this system of quality assurance is genuinely adhered to by the majority of growers, and accompanied by appropriate strategies of enforcement, the region will have made a big step toward restoring the honor of what is potentially its best brand.
The composition of Bikavér at the turn of the millennium differs from the original version in that Kadarka is no longer one of the three or four grapes in the blend. Run-of-the-mill Egri Bikavér typically relies on heavy producer grapes such as Kékfrankos, Zweigelt, and Kékoportó.
Area: 4395 hectares.
Climate: little precipitation, long winter.
Vine varieties, wines: Kékfrankos, Cabernet, Merlot, Kékoportó are the base of Egri Bikavér. Characteristics of the wine: harmonious, full-bodied, velvety, harsh, warming, – it gets its characteristic bouquet after years of ageing in wooden casks. From grapes named Leányka is made the slightly sweet, fruity wine with complex taste-harmony. Italian Riesling – harmonious, fine, characteristic fragrance, elegant acidic. Tramini – characteristic fragrance and bouquet.
For more interesting information:
> Hungarian wines and wineregions (authors: Zoltán Benyák, Tibor Dékány)
> Terra Benedicta 2003: Tokaj and Beyond (authors: Rohály Gábor, Mészáros Gabriella, Nagymarosy András)