Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hungarian wines: Not just for dessert anymore

When the Soviet Union divided up production responsibilities for the Eastern Bloc, Belarus was put in charge of making tractors, while Soviet planners told Hungary: "You make wine."

Naturally the Communists botched the details of making good wine for the same reason that extreme capitalists do: They concentrated on volume and easy farming. But that doesn't mean their initial decision was wrong. Hungary is one of the best places in Central Europe to make wine.

However, the country is only beginning to create new winemaking traditions, because the old ones were just about forgotten during more than four decades of Communist rule. The wine world was very different in 1939, the last time before the '90s that individuals could easily make wine for sale in Hungary. For example, crisp, fresh whites as we know them today didn't really exist in an era when electric refrigeration wasn't universal.

A lot of money has poured into Hungary in the last 10 years because wine lovers realize that Tokaj Aszu is -- with apologies to Sauternes -- the world's best dessert wine.

What most of us are less familiar with are Hungary's dry wines.

 There's no shame in this: the category was entirely Communist mass-produced Egri Bikaver until the '90s, and has only emerged in the last decade. While some of the grapes are familiar, they're often called by names that are strange and hard to pronounce. (I just today learned how to pronounce "puttonyos" ... but I think I forgot already.)

But for members of the "balance backlash" -- people seeking wines with lower alcohol and full flavors -- Hungarian wines are well worth getting to know, especially because they're still surprisingly cheap for their quality.

I attended a tasting for just sommeliers and me -- my favorite kind of tasting -- recently in San Francisco held by Blue Danube Imports, which is easily the leader in bringing dry Hungarian wines to the US.*

I was floored by the deliciousness of three wines, all under $20. I won't say the wines were all hits; one cultish brand (Bott) I simply didn't understand. But the ones I did like were exactly the kind of thing I want to drink more of.

Here are my favorites:

The Kadarka's on the left
Overall favorite:
Eszterbauer "Nagyapám" Szekszárd Kadarka 2009 ($18)
John Szabo, a Toronto sommelier also making wine in Hungary, says "everything east of Szekszárd is one large sand pit." This is where the Communists had vast fields of grapes grown in rows spaced wide enough for those Belarussian-built tractors. But they didn't have vast fields of Kadarka. It's delicate and difficult to grow, and was not popular with the Communists, so it's only now coming back.
Wines like this make me want to try more Kadarkas. It smells like Gamay: underripe red currant, some cherry, black pepper and paprika. The aroma mixes like a stew when you swirl it. If you like a good cru Beaujolais, you'd like the taste of this: red currant and cherry fruit, light body, minerality and noticeable paprika. It finishes with light cherry and iron, and gets more appealing the more you drink. It took me a while to move on to tasting the next wine. 13% alcohol.

Also loved:
Pfneiszl Sopron Kékfrankos 2009 ($15)
There's a great story behind this wine. The Pfneiszl family live in Austria, but is of Hungarian descent. Three burly Pfneiszl brothers call themselves "the Shiraz brothers" for their success in making bold, masculine Shiraz in Austria. Their younger sisters, Birgit and Katrin, decided to make wine in their ancestral homeland, and they went at it completely differently, insisting on organic viticulture with minimal intervention and spontaneous yeast fermentation.
Kékfrankos, better known elsewhere as Blaufränkisch, is the main red grape of Hungary, and though a workhorse, it responds to terroir. In the Alpine hillside vineyards owned by the Pfneiszl sisters, it resembles a good Barbera, with juicy cherry fruit, some tobacco notes, fine acidity and some iron minerality on the finish, a common characteristic of Hungarian wines. Barbera is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world, and if you like it -- I sure do -- you'd like this. Just 12.5% alcohol.

Szöke Mátra Irsai Oliver 2010 ($12)
Irsai Oliver (pronounced "Ir-shay O-lee-vair") is a cross of two Muscats, so naturally it's aromatic: it reminded me of Gewurztraminer. White wines from the mountains of Mátra (just 30 minutes drive from Budapest) have been around for 1000 years, but they were much different from this because it depends on modern technology: stainless steel fermentation at cool temperatures. But it's not exactly industrial: it's made by a father-and-son team.
The aroma is like a dusty rose garden, with some notes of black licorice. It's crisp on the palate, with melon fruit, minerality and a distinctly salty finish. It's a unique wine, not intense, but complex and food-friendly. And man, what a deal at $12. 12.5% alcohol.

Attila Gere Villány "Kopar" 2007 ($60)
Philosophically, I would be more pure if I disliked this wine. Gere is a 50,000-case producer, which makes him huge for Hungary, and importer Frank Dietrich said he's perhaps the best known Hungarian winemaker internationally, which accounts for the ambitious price; it's even costlier in Europe. This is a Bordeaux blend of 52% Cabernet Franc with 46% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. The name "Kopar," which means "barren," comes from the extinct volcano where the vines are planted. It's international in style, and at 15% alcohol, it's huge compared to almost everything else from Hungary.
But you know what? It's tasty. It's rich and fruity, with plenty of dark cherry and a current of iron on the finish. There's good tannin structure, and until I looked at the label I wouldn't have guessed the alcohol percentage was that high. It bugs me that if any Hungarian red gets noticed by the mainstream wine press, it will be this one, not something made from indigenous grapes. But I won't deny its quality.

Buy the one on the right
J&J Eger Winery Eger Kékfrankos 2007 ($25)
Szabo, the Toronto sommelier, founded this winery in partnership with a medical doctor in Eger named János Stumpf, who had been making wine in his cellar for local consumption for years. Before Szabo, "they were clean, no brett, no contamination," he said. "The wines weren't brilliant, but he was selling them in 3-liter containers." Szabo invested money, cut production and focused on the best parcels in the dry-farmed 40-year-old vineyard.
I hated the '06, which "benefitted" from Szabo's investment in a bunch of new oak barrels. "Not by choice," Szabo said. "We started a winery and needed to buy barrels. My partner had old barrels, but we're talking really old: 30 or 40 years."
The '07 shows the promise of this vineyard. It's juicy, with fruit somewhere in between red plums and Concord grapes, and noticeable spiciness on the finish. Considering the huge step up for the second vintage, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. 14% alcohol.

We tried a few other wines I will just note here briefly:
Szöke Mátra Királyleányka 2010 ($12): Nice green melon/floral aroma; a little too soft on the palate and finish.
Eszterbauer "Tüke" Szekszárd Bikavér 2009 ($25): With lots of fresh herb over dark cherry fruit, it resembles a cool-climate Chilean Cab.
Attila Gere Villány Portugieser 2007 ($15): A wine I felt like I should like -- funky, earthy, even sweaty overtones with floral notes and a light body (just 11.5% alcohol). But I didn't. Might be better with food.
Bott Tokaj Hatari Hárslevelü semi-dry 2009 ($25): Smells like an orange wine, but it's really tight and 14.5% alcohol. Cult wine in Europe, but I don't know when or with what I'd drink it.
Bott Tokaj Csontos Furmint semi-dry 2009 ($25): Nice aroma of peach skin, green melon and floral notes, but I disliked the mouthfeel and finish; it felt like drinking the dregs of a cocktail (also 14.5% alcohol). Some savvier tasters than me liked it; I didn't get it. 
Patricius Tokaj Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2000 ($40): I loved this wine -- layers of dried apples, apple cider barrels, dried flowers, clay and ash -- but this post is about everything but Tokaji Aszú. We already know how great those are. Still, I'll take this over any Sauternes at this price.
Patricius Tokaj "Katinka" Tokaji Aszú Late Harvest 2008 ($25): Honeycomb, floral notes, green and white fig, raisin. Quite sweet, not cloying. Lovely wine.

All in all, a very interesting tasting, albeit one that had me calling Apple to ask about my new iPad: "Hey, how do I get special characters in Pages?" The next time I attend a Hungarian wine tasting, I hope to have keyboard shortcuts for all those accent marks.

* (This is a sponsored post, but not an advertorial. For the distinction, read here.)

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Sylvie Paquette said...

Great review, but I confess my favourite part was when you were trying to figure out how to get the proper accents on your iPad! It cracked me up, but made me proud as a Hungarian that someone outside the culture could understand how important they are. Thank you!

W. Blake Gray said...

Sylvie: I confess, I eventually gave up and wrote the post on my MacBook. But as a legacy, my iPad now has a Hungarian keyboard option.

Tasting these wines just made me want to taste more.

Anonymous said...

not the most elegant workaround but I always use typeit for the accents I can't create (ő and ű).

howard ting said...

Hi Blake--

long time no see/talk! I've recently been exposed to many Hungarian wines, as I visit there every summer. This past summer, I had the fortunate opportunity to be there during the Budapest wine festival, and tasted a lot of wine from various producers. Here are some of the producers that I really enjoyed:

Sauska--7 Siklos--very much reminded me of a Brunello

Ikon Tulipan--merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon blend

Szepsy--well-known for incredibly high-end (and expensive) Tokaj aszu wines and he makes some delicious rich white wines also. A must try...

I was also told based on my preferences that other producers worth checking out include Loliense and Heimann, but I'll save those tastings for my visit next summer.

I think some of the reds have come a long way toward being at a high international standard.

Lee Newby said...

Yes Tokaji 5 putts can be a great wine, it was on my WSET blind tasting last June in the older oxidative style, the newer less oxidized style is my preference, but a great Niagara Riesling Icewine is the greatest dessert wine in the world ;)

SUAMW said...

As an immigrant from the Soviet Bloc, I can tell you there was a lot more Bulgarian and Romanian wine (and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) being consumed than Hungarian wine.