A cold front had hit the country and we certainly felt the cold a little as well in the evening on the terrace where the editors got together. We reflected on the epiphany of Bikavér, the blend’s past, present and perhaps also its future. This all means nothing other than with two bottles of Bikavér…

Eger - G. Hoefnagel

1. The wind stirred the cold dawn mist and from time to time the huge camp of tents in the valley came into view. The rising sun, having finally driven the clouds apart, glinted off the legion of weapons and the stamping of the flags with their crescent moon sounded to the castle, like so many drumbeats in the valley. On 17 October 1552, 70,000 Turks were waiting below Eger’s castle walls, ready to pounce. The siege had already lasted 39 days without any significant result. Whereas the start had hinted at a brighter future for the brilliant Sultan. No sooner had the armies of the Ottoman Empire arrived at the fortress gate to the Highlands at the beginning of September when someone betrayed the castle guards and showed them the entrance to the tunnel system underneath the castle. However, the ruse did not succeed; the guards were on the lookout. Then Pasha Kara Ahmed, chief of the army, changed his tactics and, relying on superior force, launched a massive total attack.

Siege of Eger - Béla Vízkelety

Nevertheless, not even he could have expected that a total of just 2,500 people, who were protecting the walls, would fight as if all the devils from hell were on the walls. The besieging army began to retreat from the walls; there was not half the enthusiasm for skirmishes as there had been a month before when everyone had been counting on rapid success. Nobody other than the Janissaries had any wish to come face to face with the glittering-eyed, grim Hungarian soldiers or be up to their necks in the hot pitch poured down on them by the Eger women. However, something happened during the night which could change their fortunes of war. A huge blast sounded and the explosion of the gunpowder stored in the castle’s cathedral almost destroyed the inner parts of the castle. The Hungarian soldiers were obviously busy all night dealing with the fire, they were tired, lacking sleep and their gunpowder was also running low. If they were unable to take the castle now, they might never be able to do so! Finally, at around ten o’clock, after the second call for prayer, the huge army set off against the handful of stalwart defenders with earth-shaking cries of Allah! István Dobó, the castle’s captain, contemplated the attack from the ramparts. If this is the end, at least we can stand proudly before the Lord, he thought, and ordered the tapping of the barrels in the cellar. On the last day, every Hungarian will drink wine in Eger! The soldiers’ battle lust was heightened by the knowledge that it would certainly be the last battle and the fiery wine of Eger was still glistening there on their beards when the first Turks jumped from their scaling ladders to within the castle walls. The defenders fearlessly defied the overwhelming odds, while the Turks were stopped in their tracks by the red-bearded demons. The news spread like wildfire among the Turks that the Hungarian soldiers had also slaughtered their last animals and were obviously drinking the bulls’ blood before the battle as they were fighting so bravely. The Turks retreated, thus scuppering the Sultan’s plans. The superstitious army refused for 44 years to return to the walls where soldiers drink bulls’ blood before marching into battle…

Suleiman the Magnificent

2. The corridors of the Budapest University Library almost resound with emptiness. The sultry heat has immobilised people’s desire for knowledge, looking out of the open windows, only the leaves of the plane trees whiffle occasionally. There was not a soul to be found on the gravel paths, nor could you hear the buzz of insects, it was as if the entire city had fallen asleep. The summer of 1847 was particularly scorching. The student army, at other times so loud, had retreated into the depths of the cellar pubs, and those couples wishing to promenade had rather chosen resting at home in the shade as their current object of worship. The library clerk, meanwhile, worked quietly at his desk in a gloomy room. The celebrated poet, a full member of the Kisfaludy Society and a corresponding member of the Academy had already taken on this job a year ago due to his ruinously dwindling financial resources. In point of fact, the demiurge of the legendary János Háry was in need, because János Garay himself was that particular clerk.János GarayThe poet ended up far from his birthplace, but still remained a Szegszárd man. (The name of the town has been written as Szekszárd since 1903; previously, Szegszárd had been the accepted spelling.) He was just working on a poem inspired by his hometown. While the verses were flowing from his pen, he didn’t notice that it was slowly growing dark. He continued to write with verve in the twilight, only lighting a candle when he couldn’t even see what he himself had written down. When the building’s watchman knocked on the door late in the evening, the poem was already cavorting on the paper and the ‘Szegszárd drinking-song’ was born.

‘…Fill your glass and you’ll see a miracle!

Colour like bulls’ blood,

And yet the pearl, which from it

Shines as white as snow.


And the vine, on which it grew,

Is it not as green as the meadow?

Where the spirit put together most beautifully

Our beautiful home of three colours?


Come hence then, you peony!

Into our glasses, Bikavér!

Let’s drink now to sacrifice,

First of all, also to yourself!


… /  / …


Let the wine and the blood flow,

Where honour goes hand in hand

It was, is and will be for Szegszárd,

Even quite a patriot!


It was, is and will be for Szegszárd,

Until Bartina falls,

Let’s toast its homeland with this,

A glass of good wine.’

Statue of János Garay, Szekszárd, Hungary

3. The head of the Catholic church sat down wearily in his leather chair. Nineteen years had passed since the white smoke had last risen. Nineteen long and arduous years. Perhaps a little more had even transpired out of the difficulties than he would have wanted for himself. The Lord works in mysterious ways. The former Auditor to the Chilean Apostolic Nuncio became pope very young, taking the name of Pius IX when he was barely 54 years’ old. In his first years in office, he was already caught up in conflict with the Piedmontese government and even had to flee Rome once. Now, however, in the autumn of 1865, the worries seemed even more serious. The Papal States were on the verge of collapse, the unified Piedmontese armies had already merged the greater part of its territories into the unified Italy. However, the quintessence of this whole furore, however, glorified at the head of the Risorgimento, was that ridiculous moustached and bearded blessed figure, who had now called himself King of Italy for four years. Despite Pius excommunicating him, Victor Emanuel II proved to be the stronger. The rumours that the king was actually the son of a butcher and not the descendent of the princely couple, hardly made a dent in his popularity and was no help to the papal curse either. Now the head of the Catholic state was sitting on Vatican territory and feeling awful. Although he still published his usual encyclical, in fact, a combination of persistent bad moods and illness had forced Pius into his residence. One cold winter afternoon that December, a messenger arrived at the Holy Father bringing good wishes from his friend and protege, the Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt. They had often met in the last few years and talked a great deal about reforming church music; he had even lovingly dubbed the composer ‘mi caro Palestrina’. (This refers to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a prominent representative of Renaissance church music.) This intimate rapport is one of the last surviving records attesting that Liszt did indeed accompany the pope’s singing on the piano! The item was a letter in which the composer expressed his concern over the head of the Church’s frame of mind and health. The pope quietly smiled to himself. These Hungarians must be a strange folk. They can correspond and play music, but this seems to exhaust all their lore. Then, however, the messenger remarked that Mr Liszt had also sent 50 bottles of wine, moreover from his own country, the distant Hungary. Pius only found the time late in the evening to open a bottle of the wine, but before that he read the entire attached letter from his friend, in which he discovered that the nectar had arrived from a town called Szekszárd and the locals lovingly referred to it as ‘Bikavér’, bull’s blood because of its colour and strength. Whether it was due to the wine, or something else, the pope’s good humour returned the following year. The wine came from the noble drink baron Antal Augusz’s cellar. At the beginning of the next year, the great composer gave an account in a letter to the baron about its reception: “His Holiness, as I was informed this day, takes some of the Szekszárd wine with his meals each day, and I hope that the marvellous quintessence of your vines will contribute to his long life…” Pius IX lived for more than nine decades.

Pius IX

4. In the spring of 1902, great amounts of rain fell in the countryside. Muddy rivulets slashed the town of Eger into numerous slices and people barely set foot outside their homes. Conversations in the coffeehouses, however, did not revolve around the weather, but rather a born-and-bred vintner. An increasing number of people had doubted the intellectual integrity of the gentleman in question, after he had not planted mixed vineyards – as everyone had quite rightly done since the time of their grandfathers’ grandfather – but had created a clear varietal grid. At the beginning, just those on that vineyard laughed at him, but later the town joined in too. Who had ever heard of such a thing? How would those palsied vines make a proper wine? – asked the people along the wayside. Moreover, he had also planted a new variety, which nobody had ever heard of. What on earth is Menoir? Should you eat it or drink it? The response was not long in coming. The following harvest, numerous bystanders swarmed over the Grőber estate. The estate’s strange master, Jenő, however, harvested the grapes in a particular order and then filtered varietally pure wine from them. However, this was not the end of the oddities. He then began to pour the finished wines in together. People also spent the winter whispering about this. Many fancied that they had unearthed some manner of witchcraft in the affair. What was this idiot concocting? – many of those stirring up trouble asked again. However, the results of the experiment surprised everyone, although maybe not Jenő Grőber. The finished wine, which he called Bikavér in accordance with age-old tradition, gained everyone’s liking. It was the birth of a true success story, a wine blend, which is still the basis for Bikavér. (Grőber’s wines in fact achieved great success in the 1905 Tátralomnic wine exhibition organised by the Hungarian National Association of Grape Growers.)


5. How did it all start? With those two particular bottles of wine. Well, they are here in front of us and we are slowly running out of both. One praises Szekszárd, the other Eger. We acknowledge with contented satisfaction that Bikavér does not only have a past, but, as things stand now, a certain future too. However, you are not required to note that it concerns competing wines from two wine regions. Hungary is already rather small, it would be a shame for rivalry to ruin this brand name, once again chiming out quite nicely. People may ask how it’s possible for these two things to develop in parallel with each other. Perhaps maths is the most appropriate thing here. Parallel lines meet at infinity. It’s a nice thought; we hope it’s also true for Bikavér. Until then, let’s also open a bottle from here and one from there…