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Bikavér Hits the Bullseye in 2016

Drinks

After flattering to deceive many times over previously released vintages as a collective herd, Bikavér wine from 2016 is already showing great promise, with the wines already drinking very nicely, displaying both good balance and depth. This applies to wines from both the Bikavér-producing regions of Eger and Szekszárd, with the latter especially appearing to have got its act together.

After flattering to deceive many times over previously released vintages as a collective herd, Bikavér from 2016 are already showing great promise, with the wines already drinking very nicely, displaying both good balance and depth. This applies to wines from both the Bikavér-producing regions of Eger and Szekszárd, with the latter especially appearing to have got its act together.

Bikavér is a key red wine category for Hungary, but it has for so long been a problematic one due to negative associations with the mass-produced (albeit successful on foreign bottom shelves) plonk of the former system that has still not been completely killed off; so much so that many producers eschew the use of the wine’s English moniker of Bull’s Blood. Personally, I feel that a checkered history is better than no history at all and at least has some traction on foreign markets; indeed, what’s wrong in selling a new-improved version?

Bikavér enables the edgy and distinctive local grape heroes Kékfrankos and Kadarka (the latter mainly in Szekszárd but increasingly in Eger) to be tastily tamed and rounded out by international heavyweights. This combination of local and foreign talent makes for a big, bold yet balanced blend that oozes local flavor but yet isn’t too off the radar for international imbibers. As such, it can also serve as a launchpad for single varietal Kékfrankos and Kadarka.

The growing season for 2016 was quite rainy and cool without wide temperature differences, resulting in slow, steady ripening, according to wine expert Gabriella Mészáros, who led a masterclass on the 2016 vintage as part of this year’s Eger-Szekszárd Bikavér párbaj (duel), held at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest on February 22.

The wines featured in this article were either tasted in the masterclass or in the walk around tasting that followed. The 2016 weather conditions appear to have prevented the Bull’s Blood from becoming too thick and intense, which is also the case with 2015.

Less is More

In wine, less can often be more when it comes to power and intensity, and the cooler vintages may have played into the winemakers’ hands, although I suspect vintners are also seeking measured restraint over sheer weight by harvesting before the grapes are overripe and using less in the way of oak. Bikavérs from earlier vintages have tended to throw a bit too much at the palate. If the experience could be liked to a bullfight, then it is an encounter in which a timid toreador is slaughtered in seconds by a raging bull.

Bikavér is usually built on a backbone of half or a touch more from the two local K grapes. The blend is then fleshed out delightfully by fuller bodied and more intense grape varieties like Cabernet Franc (particularly good in Hungary), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others, although Zweigelt and Blauburger, both parented by Kékfrankos can also put in an appearance.

Takler’s 2016 Bikavér (HUF 4,650 at Bortársaság) from Szekszárd is fruity (still oozing primary red fruit), fun and flavorsome, and follows up nicely on its predecessor’s pleasantly restrained bottling. While at 14% alcohol it is 0.5% higher than the previous vintage, it is really well integrated and doesn’t give any burn.

Consistency is also the name of the game with Tibor Gál’s fresh, focused, fruity and spicy Titi Bikavér 2016 (HUF 2,900 from Selection.hu, HUF 3,250 from Bortársaság); it also contains some Pinot Noir, like the 2015.

Incidentally, Gál describes Bikavér from Eger as fruitier, more dynamic, mineral and leaner than the wider, broader and fuller-bodied style from Szekszárd, and his wine is a good example. Cooler Eger, which has volcanic rhyolite tuff and brown forest soils plus some limestone lies 130 km north of warmer Szekszárd, with its loess and red clay with some pockets of limestone.

Hand Harvested

Presented with an attractive new label based on an old watercolor painting of the local hills, Péter Vida’s 2016 from Szekszárd was hand harvested during October 6-15 from vines ranging in age from six to 100 years old. It has a note of green herbs and mixed spices on top of the vibrant red and black fruit.

This is refined and refreshing with zesty acidity, is medium- rather than full-bodied, but is also very long and complex. It was aged in tanks for six months, then 80% went into 1,000 liter barrels and 20% into 500-liter used barrels for 20 months. This is currently on sale at a friendly discounted price of HUF 2,690 from Borbolt.hu (it’s usually priced around the HUF 4,000 mark, so snap it up!)

Also from Szekszárd, Tüske Bikavér 2016 was aged in large barrels and is a tad lighter in color than most and also lighter in body, yet it has great drinkability, capturing a fine balance between freshness, fruitiness and spiciness. Made by the modest and unassuming vintner Csaba Halmai, this is remarkable value at HUF 2,650 from Bortársaság. This looks set to be my go-to Bikavér for this year, with Gál’s Titi a close second.

The brother and sister Szekszárd team of Csaba and Csilla Sebestyén consider their Iván-völgy Bikavér to be their most important wine. Csaba has long made powerful rather than elegant wines, but Csilla who worked for many years in a two Michelin-starred restaurant in Scotland and appears to have helped convince her sibling to tone things down.

Sebestyén’s Iván-völgy Bikavér (HUF 6,250 from Bortársaság, HUF 5,700 from the cellar) is a blend of Kékfrankos (50%), Merlot (28%), Kadarka (a high 12%) and Cabernet Franc (10%) that underwent controlled fermentation in open vat, then was aged for 15 months in second-, third and fourth-fill Hungarian, French and Austrian oak barrels. It exudes both red and black fruit fused with subtle spiciness to bring real complexity, with great juice, serious body and ideal balance.

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