Hungary for change
Hungary has an admirable wine-producing tradition about which we have written far too little (even if a search for 'Hungary' produces 135 articles...). Of course there is the long article about Hungary in your online Oxford Companion, and an even more out of date overview here in our Resources section. The most recent set of tasting notes was Modern Hungary - tasting notes published in March 2008. Victoria Daskal's 2008 article about Dry Furmint was, I suppose, supplemented by my recent comparison of the wines of sister properties in Vouvray and Tokaji, Huet and Királyudvar . Nowadays, wine lovers outside Hungary may hear almost more about Hungarian oak than Hungarian wines.
I have been very remiss in not publishing the following notes from a tasting at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London last March organised by Gábor Cseke, Hungarian sommelier working at Andaz in London. He gathered these wines together purely out of pride in what has been achieved in Hungary since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. The Hungarian wine business has had to learn to be independent of the Russian market that used to soak up so much of its produce, and many small estates have been emerging. (Gábor himself has bought some land in Zala, west Balaton, and plans to plant Riesling and Pinot Gris there eventually.) Hungary's main export markets today are apparently Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden and the UK.
He told us how Hungary has the 19th biggest area of vineyard in the world, and is the 14th biggest producer, thanks to vineyards in the middle of the Carpathian Basin, surrounded by high mountains. The climate here on the Pannonian Plain can be very warm, although the nights are often reasonably cool and the growing season can be a long one.
There were 22 historic wine regions but in 2006, in a nightmare move for those of us responsible for wine reference books, the government grouped them all into six bigger wine regions: Észak Dunántúl (North Transdanubia), Balaton, Tokaj-Hegyalja, Dél-Pannónia (South Pannonia), Duna (Danube), Észak-Magyarország (North Hungary).
Rather surprisingly to me in view of the warmth of Hungarian summers, apparently chaptalisation by one degree alcohol is allowed. Grapes have to have a potential alcohol of 11% at harvest for table wine but need higher ripeness for higher categories of wine. They don't usually have to add acid, and it's not allowed for better quality wine.
Most wines are varietal but premium wines tend to be blends or, as they are often called in this part of the world (Austria too) 'cuvées'. About 60% of Hungarian wine is white, and often quite spicy and full bodied. The whites are more distinctive and arguably Hungarian in character, but the reds are apparently easier to sell. The most famous red from Hungary is arguably Egri Bikaver. Older readers will remember it being sold in the UK as Bull's Blood. Nowadays Egri Bikaver can be made only in Eger and Szekszárd and a right old mishmash of local and international varieties is permitted.
The wines are listed below in the order they were presented. I found all the reds very clean, well balanced and fragrant - although the prices in Hungary, given below, seemed pretty steep to me. None of the wines seemed too hot or alcoholic though. Prices described as exCellars refer to the price an individual at the cellar door would pay, not trade buyers.
The photo shows vineyards near Badaczonytomaj on the north shore of Lake Balaton, looking towards Mount Badacsony, courtesy of Mick Rock, Cephas.
Hilltop-Neszmély, Premium Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Neszmély (Northern-Transdanubia) 16.5 Drink 2008-10
Quite dense nose with excellent acidity and a hint of fiery peachiness. Doesn't taste like 100% Sauvignon - already Magyar! Certainly very unusual. Hand picked. Vinified in stainless steel and inoculated with 'special French yeast'. No wood. From the biggest producer in Hungary, filling 7 million bottles a year, 90% of them going to the UK, to M&S supermarkets, for example. 13%
Györgykovács, Imre Hárslevelű 2006 Somló (Lake Balaton) 17.5 Drink 2008-11
Made from one of the country's signature grape varieties - very promising. Hungary's smallest wine region with just 500 ha and very distinctive basalt soils. This producer has just one hectare and all is done by hand. The wine was decanted. Mineral scented, quite intense. Very rich nose but bone dry palate with real intensity. Opens up slowly in the glass and can last four to six years in bottle, apparently. The producer swears he has nothing to sell - just a few bottles in the cellar destined for the Pope! Quite chewy. Very distinctive and impressive.
₤9.20 retail (in Hungary)
Dr László Bussay Szürkebarát 2006 Zala (Lake Balaton) 17 Drink 2008-10
Szürkebarát = Pinot Gris. This producer is basically a doctor but has 5.5 ha on the border of Croatia and Slovenia in an area better known for table grapes. Heady, quite fat, very perfumed and alcoholic. Peachy again, off dry. Big wine! Aged in 900-litre Hungarian oak. The wettest wine region in Hungary - 800-900 mm of rain a year - so there is never any shortage of acidity. Massive impact initially and then no enormous persistence.
Villa Tolnay, Tavasz Rajnai Rizling 2007 Badacsony (Lake Balaton) 16.5 Drink 2008-10
Rhine Riesling. Tavasz means spring. Stainless steel made, half with stems. The idea is to bottle it early, in spring. Bright, correct Riesling character with very crystalline acidity and a little bit of residual sugar surely? 2007 was a very good year for Riesling in Hungary. Exotic fruit salad on the nose. Seems quite alcoholic.
Villa Tolnay Olaszrizling 2007 Badacsony (Lake Balaton) 16 Drink 2008-09
Olaszrizling = Welschriesling. Smoky nose. Lower yields for these non Tavasz wines. Pressed without stems and fermented in large Pfalz oak coopered in Austria and made by a Swiss. Aged for 6-9 months. Basalt mountains leap up from the plain. About 4-5 g/l RS deliberately. Mineral nose and then peachy and some (to me) curious oak. Slightly oily/musty.
Dr László Bussay Olaszrizling 2007 Zala (Lake Balaton) 17 Drink 2009-12
Balaton region. Welschriesling. Very low yield and fermented in large oak. Spring flowers on the nose. Slightly bitter on the finish but with masses of personality and real structure - this wine has a beginning, middle and end! Juicy floral stuff with great acidity. 13.5%
Maurus Winery Ezerjó 2007 Mór (Northern-Transdanubia) 16.5 Drink 2009-12
Fiery grape found only on the Great Plain. Recently established winery. Actually I don't find this especially fiery. Some rather sour apple skin notes and the small barriques seem to have left their mark. Cooler tasting than I expected from an Ezerjó. As though the producer has deliberately tried to dampen down the fires of this variety. TA 7.9 g/l, RS 5.7 g/l, 26 g/l extract.
István Szepsy Furmint 2006 Tokaj-Hegyalja 17.5 Drink 2009-14
2006 was a very good vintage. A blend from seven vineyards. They made five different 2006 Furmints and this is the entry-level wine. Vines are almost 30 years old and aged in large used Hungarian oak casks. 'Furmint is very different from Riesling or Chardonnay.' Very varied bunch and berry sizes between different plant materials. Furmint ripens late October and is very hard to pick because the botrytis is so rampant. Dry Furmint is challenging to make. Very noble and concentrated nose - intense and complex. Lightly peachy, very intense, without any obvious oak and massive acidity and extract. Great balance. Something a little like polish - in a good way. Szepsy's first dry Furmint with their own name was a 2003 (though they had made a Kira... in 2002.)
₤14.70 UK wholesale? UK importer Top Selection
Zoltán Demeter, Kakas Furmint 2007 Tokaj-Hegyalja 17 Drink 2009-12
This producer has four hectares. Handmade wines. He exports mainly to the US. Makes only 20,000 bottles a year. Kakas is the vineyard. A little lighter than the Szepsy blend but with the firm, chewy spine of Furmint with great extract and acidity. Lots of minerality though less dense than the Szepsy.
István Szepsy, Urban Furmint 2006 Tokaj-Hegyalja 17.5 Drink 2011-17
Pale. Very young and dense and pretty impenetrable. It's all on the finish! The regular 2006 shows extraordinarliy well at the moment. These vines are more than 70 years old. The vineyard faces south east and the soils are extremely stony. There is no topsoil at all in fact. Very distinctive vineyard. Fermented in 500-litre Hungarian casks. Bottled in August 2007. 14%
₤24.20 UK wholesale? UK importer Top Selection
Dr László Bussay, Rajnai Rizling 2007 Zala (Lake Balaton) 16 Drink 2008-10
Proper Riesling. Very cool, non flashy nose. Off dry. Tastes quite old for a 2007 and a little astringent but it's certainly very pure.
Villa Tolnay Zöldveltelini 2007 Csobánc 15.5 Drink 2008-09
Grüner Veltliner. Light nose. Pleasant, balanced and nothing in excess but lighter than most Austrians.
Kreinbacher, Öreg Tőkék Bora 'Vin de Vieilles Vignes' 2006 Somló 16.5 Drink 2008-10
I'm not too sure which is the name of the producer and which the name of the wine here. Furmint, Harslevelu and Olaszrisling blend. Pure again and minerally and excellent value. Polished and creamy. Quite chewy. Not desperately complex but awfully pleasant and well balanced.
Kreinbacher Juhfark 2006 Somló 16.5 Drink 2007-09
Exciting nervy stuff with a broad spread of high-extract minerality over the palate. Just a little rustic at the edges. Now a bit astringent. Maybe better younger when the fruit is more powerful?
Györgykovács Imre Tramini 2006 Somló 16 Drink 2008-09
Traminer. Very heady correct varietal nose and a little oily with lots of perfume. Not quite refreshing enough,
₤8.70 retail (in Hungary)
Gundel Hárslevelű 2007 Tokaj-Hegyalja 16.5 Drink 2008-09
A little rustic but smoky and full of honeyed interest. Big and rich with a dry smoky finish.
Royal Tokaji Furmint 2006 Tokaj-Hegyalja 16 Drink 2008-09
Smoky nose - dry and dense. Not as intense as some but then not very expensive.
₤5.50 UK wholesale?
István Balassa,'Mézes-Mály' Furmint 2006 Tokaj-Hegyalja 17
Peachy, dried apricot nose - really exciting and tense with wonderful richness and length. New producer. Hobby winemaker. Tiny production. He also makes late-harvest wines.
István Balassa, 'Betsek' Furmint 2006 Tokaj-Hegyalja 17.5 Drink 2009-12
Very appley and exciting on the nose. Super tangy and lively and rich- almost like Chenin Blanc! I know Julia has often remarked on the similarity between Chenin Blanc and Furmint, which is strange in view of the co-ownership noted in Huet and Királyudvar.
Gróf Buttler Bikavér 2005 Eger 16 Drink 2009-12
(This winery may actually be called Buttler Gróf. Gábor tends to put first names second and vice versa.) Recently established winery. Mid crimson. From one of the most recognised vineyards. More than 10,000 vines per ha. Sweet, fresh. Cabernet-dominated nose. Very sweet and actually quite vivacious. Not at all like (how one would imagine) Bull's Blood! Spicy and medium bodied.
St Andrea Winery, Merengő 2006 Eger 17 Drink 2009-14
Egri Bikavér Superior - more demanding rules. A very beloved and innovative winemaker. Intense strawberry nose - good balance and crunchy sweet fruit. Quite tannic finish but again, very vivacious.
₤25 UK wholesale
Weninger, Spern Steiner Kékfrankos 2004 Sopron 17 Drink 2007-10
Kékfrankos = Blaufränkisch. Austrian owned, by Franz Weinger of Mittelburgenland. Round and smooth and slightly dusty. Good acidity - sour cherries? Light tannins. From clay soil. Just over the border from Austria's Burgenland. Very lively and well balanced. Very low yields. Fermented in open vats in both Hungarian and French oak. 13%
₤10 exCellars, UK importer Astrum
Kúria Malatinszky, Unfiltered Cabernet Franc 2006 Villány-Siklós (Pannonia) 17.5 Drink 2008-13
This winery was established in 1997 'near Croatia'. Malatinszky was the new Hungary's first sommelier and wine merchant. The Villány people are wary of this wine because it is non traditional. Fermented in stainless steel and matured in French barriques. By a University of Bordeaux graduate. Very pure, light- to medium-bodied claret style - fragrant and extremely fine even if not perhaps the most obviously Hungarian of these reds. A great wine to serve blind? Quite minerally.
₤36 retail (in Hungary) Imported by Mephisto Wine Merchants in the UK at £20 - cheaper than in Hungary.
Tamás Dúzsi, Görögszó 2006 Szekszárd (Pannonia) 16.5 Drink 2008-10
Cabernet Franc plus Cabernet Sauvignon. This producer aims to make very natural wines without any French oak flavours. A very warm region with sandy loess soils. Görögszó is the name of the (top quality) vineyard. All used oak. Fully evolved nose. No sign of any oak, nor much structure. Very soft indeed - in fact you would not be surprised to learn this had some Merlot in it. The Cabernet Sauvignon part is quite difficult to discern. 15%
Attila Gere, Solus 2006 Villány-Siklós (Pannonia) 18 Drink 2009-14
100% Merlot. Made by Hungary's red wine superstar, the red counterpart to Szepsy. Quite deep crimson. Full and smudgy and full of hedonistic charm. Vines just 5-12 year old vines. Fermented in open wooden vats. Range of different ageing casks for 16 months. Very polished and with lots of appeal. Very clean. Light soft tannins on the finish. Super refreshing.
₤38 retail (in Hungary)
Heimann Winery, Barbár 2006 Szekszárd 16.5 Drink 2009-12
32% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc plus Tannat Noir and Kékfrankos. A German family who settled in Hungary in the 18th century. A new wine on the Hungarian market. Strong strawberry aromas. Neat, refreshing tannins. Quite a bit of acid and tannin and just a bit too astringent at the moment.
Gróf Buttler, Nagy-Eged Pinot Noir 2006 Eger 16.5 Drink 2008-11
Pale rusty colour, sweet and a little jagged but correct even though there is rather a rusty-nail texture.
Malatinszky, Csaba Cabernet Sauvignon unfiltered 2003 Villány-Siklós 17 Drink 2008-13
Scented and quite exciting - very minerally. Great balance. Minerals and very tasty.
Kopár Gere 2006 Villány-Siklós 16+ Drink 2011-16
Bordeaux blend. Pretty tough and very embryonic though a rather uncomfortable sweetness.
₤25 retail (in Hungary)
Gere-Weninger, Selection Cabernet Franc 2006 Villány Siklós 15.5 Drink 2009-12
Sweet - very sweet - and a little alcoholic. Falls off a bit on the finish. Far too expensive!
₤22 retail (in Hungary)
Franz Weninger Syrah 2004 Sopron 15 Drink 2006-08?
A bit oxidised on the nose - Can't really see much Syrah character here.
István Szepsy, Aszú 6 puttonyos 2003 Tokaj-Hegyalja 18 Drink 2008-18
RS 225 g/l, TA nearly 9. It's difficult to separate the ageing and fermenting periods because fermentation lasted until May 2004. Cellar temperature just 11-12 deg C. This vintage was almost perfect because spring came very early and there was enough rain, August hot and botrytis came late Sep. Very cold air comes from the north but if the year is hot then it keeps above freezing. If the temperature falls below -5/6 deg C, botrytis development stops. We had new Aszu berries at the of end Nov unusually. All Aszu wine has to be aged for at least three years in vat. Intense apricot juice with a hint of dusty velour runner on a piano. Excellent but not obtrusive acidity. Very lovely for current drinking - dried apricots pressed and fermented...
₤50 UK wholesale?