Hungarian wines (Part 1)

Hungarian wines vineyardEditor’s note: The Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper regularly visits wine regions across the world in an effort to bring back the best options for diners. Recently, he visited Hungary to learn more about the unique Hungarian wines available. Many of these will soon be on the menu at The Bristol Bar & Grille. In this first part of his two-part series about Hungarian wines, Harper gives some history of the region and suggestions on the best producers. Part 2 will focus on the specifics of the Tokaj Aszu. A dessert wine that is a favorite of Harper’s.

The beautiful capital city of Hungary is Budapest. Buda and Pest were once separate cities physically divided by the Danube River. They are now unified by several bridges, including the lovely Chain Bridge. That makes it easy to go back and forth between the two. Budapest is safe, very affordable, lively and home to fewer than two million of the 10 million people living in Hungary. A member of the European Union since 2014, Hungary is located at the juncture of numerous cultures of Central Europe. When you visit, spend two or three days in the capital city. You should also allow the same amount of time, if not more, for the classic wine region of Tokaj. Tokaj is a two-hour drive from Budapest in the northeastern part of the Hungary. This is exactly what I did. I am thankful for it.

Budapest, but in particular Tokaj, is quickly recovering from the stifling communist regime. That ended in 1989. Before this time, Tokaj was well-known as a high-quality and classic dessert wine region. The dessert wine Tokaj Aszu is said to be a wine of kings and a king of wines. In Part 2 we will talk more about Tokaj Aszu. Now we will talk about the dry wine revolution underway in Tokaj. The indigenous Furmint grape is leading the way.

Dry Furmint is emerging as the standard barrier for dry white Hungarian wines. This white wine is showing huge potential. It should, as they simply do not make red wine in Tokaj. Furmint possesses everything you would like about a dry white wine. It has a refreshing crisp acidity. It has vibrant fruit such as lemon, apple, mandarin orange and apricot. All of these combine in a medium-bodied frame with a balancing bitterness. It is both refreshing and structure-adding. It takes to very light oak treatment well. It is also delicious without it.

The region of Tokaj became a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 2002. I certainly agree. It is a naturally beautiful place, from the confluence of the Bodrog and the Tisza Rivers, to the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains. The mountains add a generally hilly topography that lends itself to the terraced vineyards and beautiful vistas.

Hungarian wine cavesThere are 27 villages in Tokaj. You may see them on the label of Hungarian wines. The most likely and important trio is the eponymous Tokaj, Mad and Tarcal. Most of the wineries are small, family owned and operated. In this historic area it is ironic that the oldest winery we visited was just 23-years-old. The average age of the wineries visited is just under 13 years. Private ownership has only been allowed since the fall of communism in 1989. It is truly remarkable how far the region has come. Despite the youthful wineries, the region is riddled with a vast matrix of caves. The caves date as far back as the 15th century. Some of the caves are less than six-feet-tall. Others exceed 12-feet in height. Some are short in length and concise. Still other caves are a labyrinth and would require a map to successfully traverse. Most are snapshots in time complete with the legendary black mold. The mold is allowed or even encouraged for the most part as it helps maintain a consistent level of humidity.

Best producers for Hungarian wines

There is simply not enough room to write about all the quality producers in Tokaj. While the list below does not include them all, I encourage you to try Dobogo Winery, Holdvolgy Winery, Basilicus Winery and Majoros Estate, as well as Kvaszinger Winery. Visiting the wineries is a very pleasant experience. The Hungarian people are friendly and hospitable. They have an excellent sense of humor and love to show you their wines. Difficult to find and difficult to pronounce, these wines will reward your efforts.

BARTA WINERY
Founded in 2003, the Barta Family owns one of the most important, high-quality vineyards in Tokaj known. It is known as Oreg Kiraly Dulo or the Old King Vineyard in the village of Mad. Atilla Homonna is the winemaker. I recommend Furmint Old King Vineyard (Oreg Kiraly Dulo) 2012. It is dry and crisp with the flavors of apple, lemon, lime, mineral and a light herbal tinge. It is all in a medium to full-body that is tasty and delicious.

GRÓF DEGENFELD WINERY
Founded in 1996 and owned by the Count Degenfeld family. Degenfeld Hotel is the place to stay in the region. It is located on the same grounds as their vineyards and winery. That makes it a great place to visit its forward-thinking winemaker Vivien Ujvari. I recommend Furmint Estate 2014. It has honeysuckle, yellow apple, apricot, mandarin orange and ginger with a light mineral favor. They combine in this fresh, dry, medium-bodied wine with light oak aging.

ERZSÉBET CELLAR
Founded in 1992 and owned by the Pracser Family. Every family member involved has a degree in viticulture and oenology. That includes Hajnalka Prascer. She is the intelligent and affable estate manager. Hajnalka’s husband Ronn Wiegand is a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. He   also helps at the winery. I recommend Furmint Estate 2012. It has tasty mandarin orange, apricot and peach that is dry, crisp, complex and full-flavored. An intense yet refreshing wine with delicious minerals in a medium frame.

BÉRES ESTATE
Founded in 2002 and owned by the Beres Family. The estate benefits from the family business acumen of Beres Drops. It is a globally known nutritional supplement. Awarded Hungary’s most beautiful winery in 2015. I recommend Furmint Estate 2014. It is fresh, lively and crisp. It’s bursting with citrus, green apple and light white peach with a medium body and a finish that is both vivacious and persistent.