The first major change in the varieties of vine grown in the region of Eger took place during the time of the Turkish occupation.
Already at the beginning of the 16th century the as yet dominant white varieties had begun to be replaced by the red and black varieties that had been brought and domesticated by Serbian settlers fleeing the Ottomans.
This means that the Kadarka variety had already arrived and gradually spread into the vineyards of Eger from those parts of the country that were under Turkish rule during the decades prior to the lost siege of 1596.
As Károly Mártonffy, an observer from the 19th century, remarked: “when exactly the white varieties were replaced by dark ones, which this region is dominated by now is something we do not know but only suspect that it was undertaken by the Turks themselves or at least with vine-stalks brought here by them […] since we know from traditions and old records that the Turks residing in Hungary liked wine too.”
The 91-year-long Turkish occupation came to an end in 1687, which provided a new opportunity for the population of the area decimated by wars which they were not going to let go.
Eger vineyard on the slopes of Eged Hill
If the 15th and 16th centuries were the first golden age of vine growing and wine-making in Eger, then the 18th century was the renaissance.
Geographical conditions and careful and expert work, saw the vines grown around Eger in the areas known as Almagyar, Cigléd, Síkhegy, Tihamér, Ráchegy, Paphegy and Bajusz garner much praise and renown.
The best wine, however, came from Eged Hill
according to the unanimous opinion of all the available sources. The wine
coming from here was called Egri Bikavér, “Bull’s Blood”, which did not mean
the same as it does today: the name referred to the dark red colour of the wine,
a colour similar to the blood of bulls (click here to read more about the origin of the name `Bulls`s Blood`)
Up until the time of the phylloxera epidemic, the only characteristic that a wine needed in order to qualify as Egri Bikavér was to have a dark red colour. That is why the wine from Szekszard is also called Bikavér.
Wine tourism is a mainstay of Eger's economy
The vine varieties producing red wines, red as well as black vines, were classified into three groups as noted by István Sugár, an Eger historian:
Please note that most of the varieties above are old Hungarian ones but many of them did not survive the phylloxera epidemic (see leaf below) of the 19th century. They do not have proper English names. Where possible, clues have been provided in brackets.
The Eger wine district
From among the white varieties the most significant for wine-making were: Polyhos, Juhfark (“sheeps’s tail” in literal translation), Fehér frankos (White Frankish or Silberweiss) and Fehér góhér. The following varieties occupied the largest areas: Kadarka (in its different forms), Silberweiss, Juhfark and Piros bakator.
Vineyards were mixed in their patterns, meaning that several different varieties were grown in one area and these were harvested and processed together.
A vine leaf showing signs of Phylloxera
Vine dressers from Eger would refer to Kadarka varieties as wine-grapes and had a specific term for all the other varieties (they called these “abajdos”). In time these varieties were complemented by Blauer Portugieser, Merlot and Blaufränkisch, varieties introduced by German settlers.
The list demonstrates that many varieties of vine were cultivated in the region of Eger, which is further supported by the fact that the National Vine Nursery in Buda managed to collect as many as 56 different varieties of vine from Heves County. This number was exceeded only by those of Pest and Baranya Counties.
Only wealthy landowners could afford to make quality red wines. With the intention of producing quality wine they made “vinum rubrum”, that is red wine proper from grapes of a very dark colour which would lead in time to the birth of Egri Bikavér.
Egri Bikavér eventually became a Cuvée-type wine made of certain varieties of grape in given proportions.
The present-day composition of Egri Bikavér dates only from the time after the phylloxera epidemic (see leaf above displaying signs of phylloxera).
The majority of vine-growers blended their white varieties, less in terms of amount, with the red ones without distinction and the resulting wine was called “siller.”