The Renaissance of Hungarian Bubbles

20th February 2024

The Renaissance of Hungarian Sparkling Wines

An introduction to the sparkling wines in Hungary

I still remember the first glass of Hungarian sparkling I had ever had. We have to go back roughly 10 years, around 2014. It was a Hungaria Extra Dry ‘The Blue Label’ I had at the Gay Hussar, a renowned Hungarian restaurant back in London that is now, unfortunately, closed forever.

Even then, as a first approach, I thought I was already tasting something on a very good level. Little did I know that Hungaria is one of the most commercial brands, and only later found out that the country had much more to offer.

On my first visit to the country, only a few winemakers were producing high-quality ‘Pezsgő’ (as the classic method is called here) and I could literally count them on my hand.

With much of my personal happiness, after 7 years residing in Hungary, I witnessed an outstanding increase in production and consumption of sparkling, as of now, it is hard to find a winery without some bubbles in their portfolio.

The Birth of Hungarian Sparkling

Even if it seems like Sparkling wine could never be the flagship drink of Hungary, its history within the country goes back a few centuries and it was all started by one man: József Törley.

Back in 1882, after collecting a good baggage of experience in Reims, he decided to open a business in his home country. He found the perfect place in Etyek, just outside Budapest where he started planting vineyards. Both soil and climate were very similar to the one he used to work in France.

He also found a processing plant in Budafok, where he could not only produce but also store the wines in its limestone cellars. To this day, the location in Budafok is still operative and it is now also a museum.

Amongst other innovations, Törley was the first in Hungary who introduce disgorging by freezing.

By the turn of the century, everyone around Europe was drinking Törley, even in Paris, and the winery got the title of ‘official supplier of the emperor and king‘.

After more than 125 years the winery is still leading the domestic market, producing around 12 million bottles per year, maintaining its iconic state.

The Dark times

Under the Soviet government, cellar could not be privately owned anymore. Everything was controlled by a company run by the state which had its headquarters on the shores of Balaton Lake. The main goal was sadly quantity over quality.

The 90s and 00s: A New Dawn

After the fall of the wall, producers started slowly and shyly to get back on track. From the beginning of the 90’s one man was on a mission to bring back sparkling wines to a high level. You can’t talk about Sparkling Renaissance without mentioning Vencel Garamvári. Based on the south side of Lake Balaton (Balatonboglar) he owns around 85 hectares of vineyards having many grape varieties both white and red.

In 1996 another cellar in Budafok was acquired where the best grapes were sent to produce Méthode traditionnelle. Except for the classic duo of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the winery uses also Pinot Blanc and Furmint, one of the flagship grapes of the country, which they harvest both in Balaton and in a small plot they have in the infamous region of Tokaj.

For almost 2 decades the winery has brought the best quality in the market, always with an eye to old traditions, in recent years they have reached 100.000 bottles of Bubbly Wine.

Vencel Garamvári photographed by Németh András Péter

If Garamvári enhanced the quality of Sparkles in the nineties, another important figure who helped Hungarian bubbles to be put on the map at the turn of the century is József Kreinbacher. He founded his estate in 2002, in Hungary’s smallest wine region, the volcanic Somlo. Here, the goal from the beginning was to produce high-end Sparkling wine able to rival prestigious international producers.

With the collaboration of Christian Forget, cellarmaster of Paul Bara in Champagne, they can craft wonderful Champagne-like wines with a distinctive Hungarian vibe. In fact, the key grape behind every blend at Kreinbacher is none other than Furmint.

This ever-versatile grape behaves incredibly well when grown in the region’s basalt soil, giving a wonderful edge to the wines with its mineral character, and fresh citrusy and white flower notes.

The mix with the 2 classic grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is as natural as it can be, and every bottle in their portfolio should be tasted side by side with the great Frenches!

The Kreinbacher Estate from their website – Photo Credit: HOOH Studio

Honourable mention goes also to Fehérvári Borbirtok, a family winery that has its roots deep into the core of Somló. Even though the family history dates back to the 500s, the winery itself is relatively young, as it was renewed in 2019. Even if the youth is often a synonym of inexperience, this is not the case, as a team of national and international experts has been built to craft the best wines possible.

Kamocsay Ákos, a renowned Hungarian winemaker and David Bourdaire, owner of Bourdaire-Gallois in Champagne are teaming up to bring on the spotlight another strong winery from this volcanic hill.

As I previously mentioned, apart from the ‘forefathers of Pezsgő’, right now it is almost impossible not to find a winery without one bottle of bubbles.

Zsuzsanna, the owner, explaining her family history during a tasting

Sparkles all over the country

Outside of Etyek, Lake Balaton and Somló, there are other regions worth mentioning.

The uber-famous Tokaj is getting on pace, producing more and more intriguing wines, with Sauska putting huge efforts to rival the classic cellars.

If we move to the northwest of Hungary we also find Mór region and Paulus winery, relatively young but extremely ambitious, producing their sparkles only from native grapes: Generosa, Királyleányka, Ezerjó and Cserszegi Fűszeres.

Worth mentioning that so far, only regions with a predominance of white grapes have been included in my list.

To my surprise ‘red regions’ such as Villány and Eger took on the challenge and many producers jumped on the bubbly train. Funny enough, one of my favourites and one of the first sparkling bottles I have tasted is the Marcell, a traditional method from one of the most iconic wineries of the Villany region.

József Bock is the godfather of red wines in the region, or may I say in the whole country.

The Marcell is a more than valid example of an unusual place for bubbles.

Pál Molnár, owner of Paulus Winery – Photo from Paulus Website

Not everything that has bubbles is Traditional Method…

Traditional Method holds the banner for the best bubbles you can find in any country, Hungary included.

Nevertheless, other kinds of bubbles are available in the market and are available to be tasted in the land of the Magyars. Outside of ‘Pezsgő’ there is also a modest production of what we call in Italy ‘Frizzante’ (FUN FACT: some Hungarian labels have it on them also). Simply put, it is the wine with artificially added CO2.

In Hungary, it is divided into 2 categories: Gyöngyöző and Habzóbor with the difference being only the bar pressure put in each wine: the first must be below 3 bars whilst the latter can be between 3 and 5 bars.

Holdvölgy, a wonderful winery in Tokaj, best known for its oak-aged dry whites and wonderful sweets is producing an easy-going, yet enticing bottle called ‘UPPP’, yes with 3 P’s.

With wonderful packaging, the mission of this Gyöngyöző is to grasp the attention of young wine explorers who are approaching this world for the first time but also to reach the palate of those traditionalists who want to be impressed by a great quality/price product.

To this day their motto, taking forward the Tokaj dream‘ is rigorously followed, bubble by bubble.

Holdvölgy winery labyrinthine cellar

Last but not least we have the Ancestral Method or Pétillant Naturel (often just abbreviated as PétNat) This more natural style of bubbles is getting trendier as time goes by. Many producers closer to organic and natural farming are embracing it and started to produce good volumes in recent years. This more natural style of bubbles is getting trendier as time goes by.

Many producers closer to organic and natural farming are embracing it and started to produce good volumes in recent years. Kristinus is a young estate on the south of Balaton, a few kilometres from the lake itself. Since its inception in 2013, Owner Florian Zaruba’s goal has always been turning to biodynamics.

In 2018, they began cultivating strictly following bio rules, and then in 2022 they finally got certified by Demeter. In their intriguing assortment, they include also 4 PétNats all of them varietals: Zöldveltelini (Grüner Veltiner), Sárgamuskotály (Yellow Muscat), Zenit and the omnipresent Furmint.

A winery to keep under the radar will be very interesting to follow its evolution.

Kristinus owner Florian Zaruba explaining his work in the winery during my last visit

From my first trip here, a lot has changed and will keep changing.

We are on the ascending side of the parabola.

We live in a great time, where you can go anywhere in Hungary and taste great Bottles.

And it’s only the beginning…

Cheers! Salute! Egeszsegedre!

Map of the Hungarian wine regions mentioned in the article

Map Design by Dóri Illés

The Tastings

Garamvari Brut Nature 2018

  • Classic blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Balaton.
  • For me, Brut Nature is where Sparklings shine, and can be compared to the great French.
  • It offers a refreshing experience with its clean, long-lasting bubbles and a well-balanced blend of mineral and toasty notes. The citrus, zesty green apple and freshly baked brioche add layers of flavour. A good balance of acidity and medium alcohol and nice persistency enhances the overall appeal. A sparkling wine worth savouring.
  • ABV: 12%
  • Food Pairing: Raw fish starters, creamy-fruity desserts.

Kreinbacher Égoïste 2017

  • A prestige cuvée made with half Furmint and half Chardonnay, 5 years on the lees and aged for 60 months.
  • Bright yellow, Fresh and Citrusy aromas from the Furmint with structure and richness from the Chardonnay, the best of both worlds.
  • ABV: 12%
  • Food Pairing: Starters, raw meat/fish, white meats

Kreinbacher Extra Dry en magnum 2018

  • The newest Vintage released, 59% Furmint, 22% Pinot Noir and 19% Chardonnay, 3 years on the lees and aged a minimum of 36 months.
  • Golden colour, mature yellow stone fruits, honey, almond and toasted bread.
  • Wonderful smooth bubbles and long-lasting aromas.
  • My go-to is sparkling whenever I have the chance to taste some bubbles.
  • This Kreinbacher is what I would introduce to a first-time drinker of Hungarian bubbles, always a hit.
  • ABV: 12%
  • Food Pairing: All courses

Sauska Tokaj Extra Brut en magnum NV

  • A blend of flagship varieties Furmint and Hárslevelű with a predominance of the first one.
  • Grapes are harvested in some of the best plots in Tokaj, and then the wine is matured in bottles for more than 36 months in the limestone cellars of Budafok.
  • As usual, Magnums bring out the best out of wines and this Extra Brut is not an exception.
  • Elegant, decadent, powerful wine with energetic bubbles.
  • Crisp, intense with grapes showing their best features: minerality, delicate flowers and fresh stone fruits.
  • ABV: 12%
  • Food Pairing: Oysters, fish plates, white meats

Fehervari Reserve Brut Rose NV

  • The only spot for rose is taken by this delightful bottle from Fehervari.
  • A blend of Furmint 49 %, Hárslevelű 36 %, Pinot Noir 4 %, and Chardonnay 2 % with an addition of Pinot Noir red wine for the colour.
  • Vivid pink colour with fine bubbles. Fresh red fruit fiesta: cherry, raspberry and redcurrant.
  • Shy notes of lime peel and grapefruit are followed by hints of rosehip.
  • Medium finish for this flavourful and complex wine.
  • ABV: 11,5%
  • Food Pairing: Aperitive with charcuterie or seafood, Sorbet.

Paulus Generosa Extra Dry NV

  • The first ever sparkling made with this peculiar Hungarian grape.
  • Extra dry, with a Moscato-like feeling.
  • Vibrant bubbles, light straw yellow colour with rich aromas of pear and peach, daisy flower and a shy touch of honey.
  • Easy drinking enjoyable wine.
  • ABV: 13%
  • Food pairing: Poultry dishes with some sweet elements

Bock Marcell Brut 2012

  • The name of the wine is a tribute to the owner’s firstborn grandchild.
  • Thanks to its bright golden colour and flavour profile, this wine is the closest one from a Franciacorta, and honestly, one of my favourite sparkling.
  • This vintage was a Blanc de Blanc even if in more recent years they started to go for the blend way.
  • Silky bubbles, with distinct oak-driven flavours of toasted bread, vanilla, almonds and butter.
  • Some fruits appear in the background such as lemon and mature pear.
  • A very well-crafted gem.
  • ABV: 13%
  • Food Pairing: All Meat and fish, pasta dishes

Holdvölgy ‘Hold and Hollo’ UPPP 2021

  • A funny blend of Zéta and Hárslevelű from the winery’s second brand.
  • Flowers and fresh fruits mix incredibly well with the dynamic bubbles.
  • Cantaloupe melon, lime and lemon peel, grapefruit, and peach sorbet embrace with more green notes of apple, pear and that ever-present elderflower.
  • After a little while, the bubbles got a bit smoother and delicate, and the off-dryness kicked in giving an almost sweet and durable finish.
  • ABV: 13%
  • Food Pairing: Aperitive, Fruit or Cream based dessert

Zöld Veltelíni Ancestral 2020

  • A Gruner Veltliner like no other, it shifts between its typical aromas and something completely new.
  • Fresh and vivid bubbles, and aromas that goes from chamomile to mature peach to conclude with a fine minerality and an acidic closure of citrus.
  • Intense feeling with a razor-sharp and clean finish.
  • ABV: 12,5%
  • Food Pairing: Pork meat dishes, Pasta dishes with eggs (Carbonara)

Marco Barbieri

Italian wine lover, tasting wonderful grape juice all over Hungary. Instagram @an_italian_guy_in_hungary