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A concise history of Hungarian wine

Hungarian winemaking traditions are an important part of our national heritage. The position of the growers, favourable or adverse, and the quality and reliability of Hungarian wines have always faithfully reflected the political conditions in the country.

The first settlers and wine

Wine fulfilled a significant role in the life of the ancient Hungarian tribes, both as a healthy drink and as a symbol of faith and ritual. Travellers in those times and certain records, including in the Byzantine encyclopaedias, mention the great number of vineyards in the original homeland of Hungarians for whom the most important drinks were milk and wine.

In those days, as later in the Middle Ages, agreements of consequence were sealed and sanctified by the parties taking a drink of wine. The main witness was in charge of blessing the wine. The custom and ritual of a pact consecrated with blood was described by Herodotus with respect to peoples related to Hungarians, and by certain Byzantine records in connection with the Hungarians themselves. We can infer that the blood treaty, which fused the tribes into the unified Hungarian nation, was also accompanied by a solemn and momentous blessing with wine.

Of all the living European languages, only Greek and Hungarian have a truly native word for wine. The other languages all use a derivative of the Latin noun “vinum”. These circumstances suggest that some of the ancient Hungarian grape growing and winemaking traditions go back to the peoples who inhabited the native land vitis annifera, the wine-producing grape.

21 centuries of wine on Hungarian land

The first archaeological finds related to grapes and wine (the Dobogó hill at Keszthely, the analysis of pollen deposits around Lake Balaton by Bálint Zólyomi) go back to the Celts in the 1st century BC. On the northern shore of lake Balaton, the finds attest to an uninterrupted culture of wine to the time of the Hungarian Settlement and beyond.

This continuity makes sense to professionals. Until the second half of the 19th century there was no epidemic to decimate the vines here, and the hillsides were protected from the kind of frost damage that could have caused irreparable extinction. Besides, vine is a very sturdy plant with good survival abilities. When it is overshadowed, it climbs up on bushes and trees to any height just to get some sunshine.

Once Hungarians had settled the land, they took up Christianity. As a result, wine production became ever more important, and growing areas were expanded in Hungary. The missionaries brought a number of innovations to growing and vinification practices.

The Threefold Foundation of Hungarian wine

On the one hand, dealing with wine relied on the ancient traditions Hungarians had brought with them from the Caucasian Mouintains, deep in Asia. On the other hand, we had the local version of the Latin knowledge of wine in our land, especially around Balaton. Finally, experience was imported by Benedictine missionaries, certain teaching mendicants and immigrant settlers from Italy, Burgundy and the Rhine. This very colourful heritage – combined with extremely varied soils and microclimates – has been instrumental in imparting a unique quality to certain Hungarian wines in well-defined growing locations.

During the rule of the house of Árpád and the Anjous (until 1387 AD) wine production flourished undisturbed, and trading abroad was unhampered by internal politics or foreign powers. Next to gold, copper, silver and cattle, wine was the most important export commodity of Hungarians. The significance attributed to wine back then is evidenced by the fact that growing wine was thought of as the queen of all agricultural endeavours.

Charters and royal bills indicate that the best sites for wine were known, designated, protected and held in great esteem. Production in these areas was strictly regulated. The royal court had its own wine estate in the vicinity of the seven Kál villages in the Balaton upper country.

The vineyards were rigorously fenced off with bournes and gates.

Making wine was an activity that entailed special rights and responsibilities. Serfs were allowed to freely bequeath, buy and sell their vines.

Local wine community governments, then known as Promontorium, were first recorded in 1271. Litigation documents pertaining to the origin of some wines, and especially the Buda Book of Law from the 14th century, attest to the elaborate regulation of the wine hills and a rigorous practice of wine law. An ancient tradition prescribed that “all proprietors of vines abide by the same law, be they of the nobility, of arms, or of the order of serfs."

Due to serene political conditions, the age of the Árpáds and the Anjous was at once the golden age of Hungarian wine. The esteem for the country is witnessed by the Byzantine historian Constantin Manassos, who wrote in 1175 "Hungarians are an independent people who will not serve. They walk with their heads raised high, cherish freedom, and like to be their own masters..."

The rampant social and political confusion under the mixed house (1387 - 1526) was not conducive to the cause of wine production and commerce. The exception was the 32-year reign of king Matthias, when the halcyon days briefly returned. As the king had new cuttings brought from Burgundy, red wine production started in Hungary, first in the vicinity of Buda.

The decades, even centuries, of the ottoman occupation (1542 - 1683) and Hapsburg absolutism (1565 - 1867) meted out a lethal blow to wine production. When the Ottoman troops took Buda by siege in 1542, the centre of Hungarian wine trade was destroyed. In the occupied areas (Pécs, Villány, Buda – with the exception of Kecskemét) vineyards quickly succumbed to oblivion. On the fringes of the annexed provinces, wine growers were beset by Ottoman looting campaigns and atrocities perpetrated by the Hungarian soldiers who held the last strongholds.

Starting in 1565, the Austrian province erected prohibitive duties to keep Hungarian wine out. Exemption was granted only to wines made around the towns of Sopron, Ruszt and Pozsony. This meant that Hungarian wine exports became restricted to Poland, and even there, access remained only relatively free and intermittently shut off. This was the time when the botrytis aszú became popular, after having been made in the Szerémség exclusively until 1523. Now several regions across the country engaged in making aszú, including the Balaton region, Somló, Ruszt and Tokaj. It was in this period that Tokaj assumed the role in aszú production of the Szerémség, as the Tarcal hills were known back then, from this district that had fallen to the Ottomans in 1523. Thanks to what was known as the “Gate to Poland," tokaji aszu embarked on its career to conquer the world. The popularity of these wines was understood by Queen Marie Theresa, who abolished the tithe that had been levied on them throughout the country.

When in 1772 Galicia was declared an Austrian province, Hungarian wine was practically shut off from the outside world by the Hapsburgs' duty ring that closed in all around.

The crisis of overproduction induced by this imperial duty policy caused a catastrophic division among wine growers in Hungary. Most of them switched to mass production, entering a fierce price war to sell their inferior wines at bottom prices. The resulting sorrow state of Hungarian wine is described vividly by István Széchenyi.

Yet, some growers and the intellectual elite of the trade soon realized that mass production was a dead-end street. These men adopted and propagated growing methods and scientific knowledge that had been proven in the West, and they organized professional training sessions as a way to fight the situation that had emerged. Led by key figures such as György Festetics, János Nagyváthy, Ferenc Pethe, István Széchenyi, Ferenc Schams, Lajos Mitterpacher and József Fábián, they published a number of invaluable books and also launched the first Hungarian journal of viticulture in 1858.

The Compromise of 1867, which essentially ushered in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, opened vast horizons before the production and export of Hungarian wine. Thanks to the solid professional foundations, there was a quick shift to quality, and the "miracle of Hungarian wine" emerged on the wings of a break-neck boom. Nevertheless, troubles loomed large as powdery mildew invaded the country in 1864, followed by phylloxera in 1875, and downy mildew in 1881. The organization of wine production and trade evolved fast, and the regulations were tightened and fleshed out in detail.

1875 saw the establishment of what became the predecessor to the National Institute for Wine Qualification to advance the cause of protected origin. The first comprehensive Wine Law was passed by Parliament in 1893. The legislators emphasized that "… wine counterfeiters … may damage the entire country ... Consequently, merchants will lose trust in the wine coming out of a country that has lost its good credit, and they will not buy or refuse to pay but a very low price ... Therefore all men shall be held accountable who make artificial wine, as well as those who sell or serve thereof in an establishment ... In this way punishment shall be meted out to the counterfeiter who cheats the State, and also to those who make a purchase from him." In 1895 Parliament passed the Wine Community Act, which laid new foundations for the protection of wine origin and for the representation of grape growers and winemakers. In 1896 Gyula Istvánffy founded the Central Research Station of Ampelology and the Institute of Ampelology. The organizations were set up for training in ampelology and viniculture at the elementary, secondary and higher education levels, and inspectorates were established to monitor winemaking practices.

Between 1896 and 1915, in the fight against phylloxera, 90% of Hungary's vineyard acreage was replanted, with the help of favourable loans issued by the National Credit Union. After the turn of the century, the results of the successful reconstruction were felt increasingly. Then in 1920 Hungary, with its territory mutilated in the War, was once again confined in the cage when new duty barriers were erected. Most of the markets and one third of the vineyards were lost. At first, the State tried to help embattled growers by constructing a network of so-called public cellars, but they proved to be an unlucky solution and were soon given over to cooperatives. The legal system relating to wine was also reformed at this time.

Between 1938 and 1948, and for some years after that, Hungarian wine production entered a period of rapid development, despite the havoc wreaked by the war. A land registry of vineyards was drawn. The auspicious process was cut short by the dictatorship forced on the nation by the Soviet occupation. Hungarian wine production and its markets were destroyed as estates were nationalized or sequestered, people relocated, and the agriculture collectivised. Wine was steered onto the course of mass production.

After 40 years of grievously mistaken economic policy, today we begin to see the directions of rebirth. The wine communities have been revitalized, family estates are cropping up, and a few coops do exemplary work. This sector could be made to flourish in a brief period of time, making life easier for nearly half a million Hungarian citizens.

Traditions of gastronomy

Hungarian dining rests on the pillars of wine, as do the French, the Italian and the Spanish culinary traditions. The first written record on the subject, by Galeotto Marzio, was written in 1484: "Hungarians have a great deal to eat and drink at their feasts, and they drink many kinds of wine. (The same habit was attributed by the historians to Galienus, Roman Emperor.) ... At the most luxurious feasts, several different types of wine are served." Although Hungarian wine and cuisine both have a common national character, it would be a mistake to underestimate the wealth of local specifics. These days Hungarians have come round to the ancient wisdom that places where wine consumption eclipses the use of other spirits have a much lower rate of alcoholism.

As over the years since 1990 great Hungarian wines appeared once again on the horizon, the best restaurants are quick to make the change. Most of them now offer an impressive selection of wines. The sommelier profession has been reinstated as a requisite for a fine restaurant.