Bull’s Blood – what a name for a wine! There’s a story behind it, of course, and it takes us back to the sixteenth century, when Hungary was under Ottoman invasion. The fortified city of Eger in the north was one of the major strongholds in this war. The captain of the castle told the women of Eger to bring red wine for the men fighting on the city walls. As the men drank in haste, the wine spilled all over their beard and shirt, which made them look as if they had drunk blood. The news spread like wildfire among the Turks: the Hungarian soldiers are drinking the blood of bulls, that’s why they are so strong! And so they gave up the siege of the city.
The problem with this fascinating story is that there was no red winemaking in Hungary at the time – only white grapes and white wines. It was after the Turkish conquest that immigrants brought with them red grapes and the tradition of red winemaking.
Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) has been the flagship wine of Eger since the nineteenth century. It is a dry red blend, with Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) as the main component. Bikavér wines are typically spicy and racy with high acidity. Interestingly, the first Bikavér was not made in Eger but in Szekszárd, a wine region in the south of Hungary. To this day these are the only two places in Hungary where Bikavér is made.
The first mention of Egri Bikavér is from 1825, but up until the end of the nineteenth century the term simply meant a strong red wine. It was sometimes also called ‘black wine’. After the devastation caused by phylloxera in the late nineteenth century, as the vineyards of Hungary were being replanted, major reforms were introduced as to how the grapes for Bikavér should be grown, as well as to winemaking methods. For the first time in Eger, the grapes were vinified separately, producing a number of varietal wines which were then blended together. This led to a huge improvement in quality because it meant producing the best wine of each variety and then creating a balanced blend in which each variety could contribute in its own way: bring acidity or colour, fruity flavours or concentration. Today winemakers blend local with international grape varieties to produce a blend that best reflects their own individual style and the characteristics of the terroir. Most commonly used are Kékfrankos, Kadarka, and Portugieser of the local varieties, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot of the international ones.
In the communist era the quality of Bikavér was very poor, creating a bad reputation internationally for decades to come. To encourage the consumption of red wine, the Hungarian government had launched a ‘Bikavér programme’ in the 1970s, which meant planting lots of red grapes in the Eger region and encouraging large-scale industrial production of red wines. Quantity was to the detriment of quality: it meant huge yields, exhausted grapevines, and early harvests, when the fruit was still unripe. Wines were produced using cheap technology to keep prices low, so that even the poorest people could afford to drink Bikavér. Export was a prime goal, so cheap Bull’s Blood was created for the British and German markets. This was what led to the brand name being associated with cheap reds of a poor quality. What’s currently happening in the Eger region, however, is the complete rewriting of this negative history.
Following the fall of communism, in the early 1990s, hundreds of small wineries were set up. New, high-quality grape varieties began to replace the old ones that had been selected for industrial production, and the vineyards that were traditionally known to be the best were replanted.
In 1997 Bikavér became an AOC wine, that is, of protected origin. There is a so-called Bikavér codex, which ensures quality and guarantees the origin of all wines labelled Bikavér. It sets out where the grapes can be grown, what kind of grape varieties can be used, as well as methods of vinification and quality control. Today all Bikavér must contain at least four grape varieties, none of which can make up more than 50 per cent of the wine. The main component must be Kékfrankos – a grape that brings spicy flavours and high acidity to the wine. Bikavér must be aged in oak barrels for at least six months. Three classifications are distinguished within the appellation: Egri Bikavér Classic, Superior, and Grand Superior. Superior must contain at least five grape varieties, and the minimum ageing is one year in oak, plus six months in bottle. Grand Superior wines must also come from a single vineyard.
Today’s young, ambitious winemakers merge tradition and professional expertise to create outstanding wines that express the best qualities of both land and grapes. Bikavér has a number of qualities that will make it a favourite: these cool-climate wines, produced on mostly volcanic soil, offer an attractive combination of freshness, power, complexity and elegance. Egri Bikavér has been winning awards at the most prestigious national and international competitions, and some of the best wines from all three Bikavér classifications are available in the UK through merchants such as Best of Hungary.