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Taming the Bull, Building the Bikavér Brand

While the winemakers of Eger and Szekszárd are still falling short of collectively hitting the bulls-eye in terms of pinning down a definitive style for their Bikavér, they do at least appear to have finally taken the bull by the horns and tamed the wine into something more refined and elegant.

An ongoing debate among Hungary’s winemaking and imbibing fraternity has long ensued as to whether Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) should be big and brooding, with high tannins, concentration and alcohol, or whether it should be lean, lithe and elegant. While the latter may be hard to equate what we may imagine to be with the thick blood of bulls, it is however a wine style that fits in with today’s very welcome preference for finesse over forcefulness, and also allows the Kékfankos grape to express itself without being bullied out by the fuller-bodied international brigade of grapes that also make up the mix.

Plenty of good and ever-improving Bikavér, which is helping to restore the bruised and battered image of this one-time bottom shelf go-to wine for British students (among others), oozed out of this year’s Eger-Szekszárd parbaj (dual). The event was held in its usual venue, the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, where the majestic ballroom provided a fine backdrop for such an encounter on March 3.

Regional Variations

The wines from the cooler northern region of Eger and the often sweltering southern region of Szekszárd are always likely to have their differences: leaner, tighter, with livelier acidity and more finesse in Eger, while it’s richer and more robust with riper fruit in Szekszárd. However, this year it was noticeable how the Szekszárdians are also pursuing poise over power, such as in the examples made by Vida, Heimann and Tüske. It was a revelation to see that that Bodri’s Bikavér Faluhely 2013 reined in the alcohol to tip the scales at 13%, which is very low for this cellar. The result is that the delicious and juicy fruit, which is Szekszárd’s prime asset, has come to the fore. “I understood the criticism,” said István Bodri, though he also suggested that the cooler vintage may have enabled such a wine to be made.

While Kékfrankos is usually the leading component of most Bikavérs in both regions, a few percent of the airy, aromatic and spicy Kadarka grape is all but a given in Szekszárd. It gives the wine a unique feel. A small amount brings lots of red fruit (to supplement that of the Kékfrankos) such as raspberry, sour cherry and blood orange, plus rose hip and plethora spices to complement the black fruit of the Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Tricky to cultivate, Kadarka was once the dominant grape in Eger and its Bikavér, but was for the most part grubbed up during communism in favor of less awkward grapes. However, Eger vintners are rapidly replanting and quite a few already have it, as they know the spicy kick is just the ticket for making expressive Bikavér – such as in the excellent Bikavérs of St. Andrea, Tibor Gál, Lajos Gál and Thummerer. Lajos Gál’s Pajdos Grand Superior Bikavér 2012 also has a few percent of the rare Menoir grape, which gives it a unique floral character. Meanwhile, the 19.5% of Pinot Noir really comes through in Nimród Kovács’ impressive Rhapsody 2013.

While Bikavér is generally treated as higher-end wine in Szekszárd, my top picks this time came from Eger, which also a tiered system of quality.

Gál Tibor Egri Bikavér “Titi” 2015 

Coming from the volcanic rhyolite tuff soils of the Síkhegy, Pajdos and Tornyos vineyards, this is based on a Kékfrankos backbone and also includes Kadarka, Syrah and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. It was fermented in an open vat and spontaneously fermented, then aged in six- to eight-year-old five hectoliter oak barrels, including French barrels.

It was bottled unfined. The oak is very well integrated in this wine, which enables this fruit-driven (especially blueberry) blend to shine, but it’s about more than fruit with its tangy spiciness.

The wine is balanced and long with smooth, medium tannins. For a long time, Tibor Gál’s wines had been suffering from a moldy note that originated from the old cellar, but that is now a thing of the past. HUF 2,790 from Bortársaság.

St. Andrea Hangács Bikavér Grand Superior 2013 

This hails from the Hangács vineyard where there’s just 40 cm of brown forest topsoil and then it’s into the volcanic rhyiolite tuff, according to György Lőrincz Jr., who makes the wines with his father.

This has long been one of my favorite Hungarian reds for it having a certain indefinable X-factor that manifests itself in its edgy earthiness. The 2013 (50% Kékfrankos, backed up by Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Kadarka) is very smooth, polished and layered with lots of red and black fruit, a plethora of spice and an earthy character.

For a wine with so much going on, it is supremely well balanced with the oak subtly integrated, adding body and spice, but not overriding the place of growth and the delicious fruit.

It was aged for 18 months in mainly used 500 liter barrels, although a small part of it was aged in new oak. HUF 5,500 from Bortársaság.