A sparkling wine revolution is bubbling over in Hungary

While wine lovers will be familiar with the likes of Tokaji and Bull’s Blood, Hungarian sparkling wine has never made it to the same heights – and despite a rich and illustrious history. Sophia Longhi says that could be set to change with the rise of Etyek wines – plus a little help from the Champagne region

Words by Sophia Longhi

etyek wines hungary
Mérész Sándor, head winemaker at Etyeki Kúria Winery

Every so often, Hungary makes a splash on the international wine scene. In the 15th Century, it was down to Tokaji: the ‘king of wines and the wine of kings’, coveted by the likes of King Louis XIV and Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II of Transylvania. In the 1970s, it was Bull’s Blood from Eger that captured the imagination of wine lovers in the UK and across the West thanks to its deep, brooding notes of ripe black cherries and spicy Hungarian oak. Next, could it be a sparkling wine to take to the world stage?

While Tokaji and Bull’s Blood are part of the general wine lover’s lexicon, the name ‘Etyek’ remains unuttered by most. But sparkling wines from the Etyek region aren’t exactly new. ‘The heritage of Etyek is founded on sparkling wine,’ explains Tamás Hernyák, winemaker at Etyek family winery Hernyák Estate, located about 30 kilometres from Budapest. ‘As József Törley realised at the end of the 19th Century, we have similar climatic and soil conditions to Champagne, so why not take advantage of it?’

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Low temperatures and calcareous soils mean Etyek is primed for sparkling winemaking

Etyek is part of Etyek-Buda, one of Hungary’s 22 wine districts – which is located in Upper Pannon, one of the country’s six wine regions. With its low temperatures and calcareous soils, it’s ideal for growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other cool-climate varieties, which retain a distinctive line of acidity when made into traditional method sparkling wines.

When József Törley opened his winery in Budapest in 1882, he led the way for sparkling wine in the region and became the first to introduce the disgorging process to Hungary (bringing back his knowledge from an apprenticeship at Louis Roederer in Reims). Törley sparkling wines were sipped in America, Australia, Germany, Sweden and, the biggest compliment of all, in Paris. But tumultuous political events throughout the 20th Century meant production was devastatingly stop-start until the early 1990s. Hernyák claims that the fall of the Iron Curtain marked a return to ‘quality winemaking’, though, with a new generation of producers replanting vineyards and rebuilding cellars. ‘It is now the task of the second generation to determine the unique products that define a region,’ he says.

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Tamás Hernyák in the cellar at his family winery, Hernyák Estate in Etyek

Hernyák’s ambition is to change the perception of Hungary’s sparkling wine on a global scale by establishing Etyek as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Etyek’s sparkling wine, known as Etyeki Pezsgő, will be required to meet a set of standards in order to carry the name on its labels. Only traditional method wines with a maximum of 12g/l of residual sugar and with a minimum of 24 months of ageing will be considered. Furthermore, these wines can only be made from four permitted grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris – out of the 40 grown in the region.

Hernyák admits that it took some compromise to reach an agreement on the four grapes they’d champion. ‘Let us not forget that the PDO product description is a “live” concept: just like in Champagne, where many changes were introduced in the last ten years,’ he says. ‘This is a solid foundation, a good starting point.’

The producers of Etyek want these wines to be characterised by medium intensity aromas of biscuit, roasted nuts and bread crust, with an elegant fruitiness on the palate

It seems Hernyák and his comrades (12 producers first formed the PDO association back in 2017) are ambitious with their goals, with Hernyák claiming they have used the past five years to map out their ambitions for the next 50 to come. In terms of a defined style, the producers of Etyek want these wines to be characterised by medium intensity aromas of biscuit, roasted nuts and bread crust, with an elegant fruitiness on the palate, teamed with a harmonious acidity. The texture should be creamy, with velvety bubbles.

Although the first registered harvest was in 2020 and the inaugural wines are not due to be released until 2023 at the earliest, Hernyák’s own flagship sparkling wine, Hernyák Brut Pezsgő, already displays all the PDO hallmarks. Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc in equal proportions, it has delightful baked apple and pastry notes, with a fine mousse and a persistent finish. ‘In the context of Hungary,’ says Hernyák, ‘Etyeki Pezsgő wines will have one of the longest ageing potentials, thanks to their high, definitive acidity levels.’

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Due to the similarities in climate and soils (and no doubt the allure of its glittering potential), Champagne hasn’t strayed far from the minds of many of the Etyeki winegrowers. For his Öreghegy Brut 2016, a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs aged for 48 months on the lees, Dániel Pázmányi at Haraszthy Vineyards says he was inspired by Ruinart, recalling his first sip of the sparkler. ‘I was really driven by that experience,’ he adds.

Etyek’s parallels with the Champagne region have even prompted the PDO Association to collaborate with Pierre-Yves Bournerias from the Institut Oenologique de Champagne, in order to propel their knowledge to new heights. Just like József Törley before them, Etyek’s producers are willing to learn from the world leaders of sparkling wine production. ‘We have made it to the point where we have learned how to manage the vineyards and make a good base wine,’ says Hernyák, ‘Yet classic method sparkling wine is such a complex product, each step of the process needs to be consciously, precisely done.’

I ask Hernyák what is it that the wine world can look forward to from Etyek in the years to come. ‘It is hard to predict what will differentiate us from other traditional method sparkling wines around the world, but we will have the answers in five to ten years… time will tell,’ he says. ‘We follow in the footsteps of Champagne, but our sparkling wines will be and should be different – a true reflection of Etyek itself.’