A first visit to the region of Eger for buyer Sebastian Payne MW to discover Bikavér, the Bull's Blood of old
Returning to my own wine roots
Buyer Sebastian Payne MW has fond memories of importing Bull's Blood when he first started out in the wine trade so was intrigued to rediscover this wine in its new guise as Bikavér
My first job in the wine trade was office boy and general dogsbody for an enterprising shipper called Fred May. He brought in an eclectic mix of German and French wines, but also had the exclusivity to import Hungarian wines which was, under the communist regime, run by Monimpex.
Our best sellers were Bull's Blood, followed by Balaton riesling, furmint and szürkebarát (pinot gris). We shipped the wines in casks of good Hungarian oak and bottled them underneath the arches of London Bridge. We tasted and analysed a sample from every cask in the office when it arrived so I got to know the wines well. Quality varied but when it was good the red was an excellent full-bodied drink, and rather better than the Hungarian bottled version, sadly pasteurised at source, which was sold to Hungarian restaurants like the Gay Hussar.
It was good business but the commissars who ran Monimpex eventually decided they wanted to increase the volume dramatically and transferred the agency elsewhere. Hungary is primarily a producer of white wines and without much great demand for quality, Bull's Blood quietly declined and its small but solid reputation too. We can't have been the only ones to be sceptical about the origin of the wine that came in under the Bull's Blood name at this point.
Eger landscape – photo courtesy of Caroline Gilby MW
Exodus to Eger
Veronika and her brother Tibor Gál are now bringing their late father's winery back on track
So it was exciting last year to be part of a small group making a serious visit to Eger to see the people who are successfully rebuilding the reputation of Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood) in defiance of the mass-produced, run-of-the-mill stuff, that sadly still gets exported.
Wine writers Oz Clarke and Anthony Rose, both excellent tasters, were part of the group, as was Caroline Gilby MW (who was also inspired to write an article for us on our website here). I have known Oz since the days when I worked for Fred, and he and Charles Metcalfe ran a small wine business before his singing career took off (Perón in Evita etc) and he started publishing ground-breaking wine books.
Though I have been to Hungary on many occasions, this was a first visit to the region of Eger for me and many in the group.
The stars of Eger – Tibor Gál & St Andrea
Tibor Gál, a 'flying winemaker' who made Ornellaia 1998, was probably the first to revivify Eger wines. He died tragically in a car crash in South Africa in 2005, and for a time his winery lapsed, but now his son and daughter, with new investment are back on track.
Eger has some 60 different grape varieties on its volcanic soil in an area of 5,600 hectares, only a twelfth of Hungary's total. They make an attractive blend Csillag (which means 'star'), but I was particularly charmed by their light red Kadarka (kadarka is the name of the grape variety). Spicy, fresh and appetising, it's made using white-wine technology. Their Egri Bikavér was good too but it was outshone at our next stop, the St Andrea winery, for me the star of the district.
Sebastian was particularly charmed by the light red from the kadarka grape (photo courtesy of Caroline Gilby MW)
Father and son, both named György Lörincz, make terroir-specific wines from four separate locations and from nine different vineyards and slopes, working with exceptional precision and care. 70% of the vines are on volcanic tufa so roots delve deep into the soil.
The stars of Eger, father and son (both named) György Lörincz
Here they look for finesse as much as power and their best reds need six to eight years to show their potential. But Aldas Egri Bikavér from the warm 2015 vintage already has the charming sweet ripe fruit, while the single-vineyard Hangács 2013 wonderfully evokes thyme and spice with rich powerful flavours just opening up. The carefully judged blend is 50% kékfrankos, 17% pinot noir, 16% merlot, 12% cabernet franc and 5% kadarka from Hangács.
A most impressive result here and with undoubtedly more to come from a father-and-son team striving for excellence. We even had a sneaky look at an eight-year-old nebbiolo, a trial wine not yet for sale, which shows this idiosyncratic grape can work well outside Piedmont.
I was hugely impressed with what we found in this north-eastern corner of Hungary and delighted to ship some wines for a High-Grade Hungary feature in the first Fine Wine List of 2018.