Wine producers in Hungary are discovering the huge potential for dry wine production. For publication in week starting 4 July 2016.
The sweet wines of Hungary from the eponymous region of Tokaj were once the most prestigious, and most expensive, in the world. How vinous fashions change. The wines of Tokaj changed – in a downward direction – under Communism.
The early 1990s saw a flurry of foreign investment within the wine industry – cult Spanish estate Vega Sicilia and French insurance giant AXA among them – plus the decline of a state monopoly in favour of independent estates like The Royal Tokaji Company, behind which is English wine guru Hugh Johnson.
But Hungary can deliver more than just the sweet wines, and the past 12 or so years have witnessed the extraordinary improvement in dry (particularly white) wine production along with a move away from bulk and into quality. While for a period quality was deemed synonymous with concentration, the emphasis is now on elegance, the wines additionally benefiting from the impressive structural components offered by Hungarian oak. There’s a tremendously dynamic spirit about, experimenting with what can be made here, and in which region.
The country’s relatively northerly latitude (on a par with Burgundy) makes it suitable for growing aromatic white grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat and Pinot Gris – particularly in the northern regions of Tokaj (in the extreme north-east, not far from Russia), and Matra and Eger on the Northern Massif, with proximity to Budapest. Meanwhile, its protected, continental climate also allows for the ripening of big red (Bordeaux, for example) varieties, particularly in the south of the country (the regions of Villany and Szeszard). Officially there are 22 wine regions, but those mentioned in this paragraph seem to be the ones to pay attention to, at least for now.
White grapes such as Furmint and Harslevelu, used for making Tokaj, are capable of making great dry whites which Hungary wine specialist Elizabeth Gabay MW describes as layered, intellectual wines. RWZ DayDream 2013 beautifully blends the lean, mineral Furmint with the perfumed, lime-laced Harslevelu for a long wine with great acidity, and all the weight of the sweet version. Gabay notes that these grapes are not easy to pick when harvesting for a sweet wine, because they are literally sticky, but they are much easier to harvest for a dry wine!
Acidity complemented by palate weight and strength of flavour seem to be qualities that Hungary’s ripe and elegant wines have in common. They have a lot of appeal for a quite sophisticated audience. Consider Haraszthy Oreghegy 2013, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris with Kiralyleanyka and Zenit. It is intense with an almost dried fruit richness associated with Pinot Gris in Alsace, yet it also shows a long, fresh acidity.
Zenit is an interesting grape with its gooseberry aromas and elderflower notes, noticeable in the Kardos-Kiss Sandor Matrai Zsendules 2015. The producer Kardos-Kiss is lucky enough to be at an altitude of 350 metres, which is high by Hungarian standards, and contributes to a lovely freshness, in this wine. Zenit is a hybrid grape from the 1950s, explains Gabay. Here, as with other Hungarian grapes, “you are not trying to find a point of reference to any other grape. That’s interesting: you come to wine in a different way,” she says.
The reds are now of great interest, too. Szeksxard, both a wine region and a city, is due south of Budapest. Under Communism, vineyards were pulled up to make way for houses, and it is likely that many of the best plots have thereby been lost forever. But the search continues for some traditional vineyards, and Vida Estate is blessed to be making a 100% Kadarka from 90-year-old vines. This grape was traditionally considered “difficult” and used for bulk wine, and it is not difficult to see why it has been considered thus. This is a lovely, delicate red with overtones of wines made from that other notoriously difficult variety, Pinot Noir.
Kekfrankos – known as Blaufrankisch in Austria – has its very own style in Hungary, but Gabay thinks the future of reds may be with Cabernet Franc. Take Csanyi Chateau Teleki Villanyi Franc 2013 which is dense and concentrated but also fresh and vibrant, with coffee and mulberry notes, and a firm but ripe tannic backbone. Csanyi was formerly a huge cooperative but has been pulling back from generic production and pushing for quality. Much of Hungary’s grape growing is carried out on vast plains but in Villanyi the few hills that do exist are shared by wine growers in a mosaic of small plots, just as in Burgundy.
The country’s push for quality needs to be noted and appreciated.