Bull’s blood – Eger wine
At the foot of the Bükk mountains lies the town of Eger, one of the most beautiful and most frequently visited in Hungary. Its attractions include not only its history and artistic sights, but its world-famous wines, Egri Bikavér and Egri Leányka. The former, widely known as Bull’s Blood, is a potent, dry red wine that owes its deep ruby color to the grape skins which are fermented together with the grapes. It is a blend of several grape varieties. The main variety is Kékfrankos (Lemberger), which has replaced Kadarka, the grape formerly used. Its fine bouquet is nurtured by maturing with expert care and skill. Cabernet and Kékoporto, and occasionally Merlot, also contribute their share to the unique bouquet of Bull’s Blood.
The wine must bear the state-registered band around the neck, and cannot be sold without it. This was introduced to guard against imitations; it is the guarantee that this bottle of Bull’s Blood genuinely comes from Eger. The region has other excellent wines to offer, apart from Bull’s blood. These include Egri Medoc Noir and Egri Tramini Egri Leányka in particular, an outstanding white wine, deserves attention. The Hungarian grape variety Leányka (meaning “maiden”), which is found only in this area, ripens early.
Its berries have a high sugar content, and the wine made from it has a slight sweetness and the scent of honey. Eger’s cellars are almost as famous as the wines themselves. Beneath the castle and great stretches of the town, there extends a network of passageways, formerly used for storage (especially of wine) or as a place of refuge in times of war. There are wine cellars throughout the area. The most famous place to find these is the “Valley of the Beautiful Women” (Szépasszonyvölgy), which has dozens of wine cellars side by side, serving the wines of the region. Originally, the cellars were simply carved into the rock. The wineries were then built in front of these.
It is said of the winemakers of Eger that they would be quite happy to spend their entire free time in the wine cellar. There used to be a special reason for this, up until about 30 years ago: it was considered improper for their wives to cross the threshold, so they werre forbidden to do so.
This provided a little peace for the men, whose wives could only stand at the door and try to persuade them to come home. Many visitors to wine cellars take the opportunity of enjoying an extensive wine-tasting session. The winemaker pipettes the wine from the cask into glasses, then waits to see if more of that wine is wanted, or if it is time to proceed to the next cask.
Calabashes, the hollowed-out fruits of the bottle gourd, were once used for this purpose. The plants were grown between the vines. Today, the decorated calabashes simply serve to adorn the winery walls; (bottle) gourds have long since been replaced by the glass variety for reasons of hygiene. The winegrowers were legally granted the right to serve wine at the end of the 18th century. That was when the custom of selling wine literally by the draft originated. One draft cost 50 kreutzer, about five cents. Having paid, the customer was allowed to drink as much as he could swallow in one draft.
This custom has died out. However, in this region where wine has been grown for more than a thousand years, another tradition does survive: the proprietor always pours wine into his own glass first, but instead of drinking it, he pours it onto the ground. People unfamiliar with the custom might think he is rinsing the glass, but if asked, he will explain that the dead, too, should have their share.