When one thinks of Hungarian wine, one normally envisions glorious evenings finished with a very lovely 500ml bottle of some rather sweet nectar from the region of Tokaji in North-west Hungary, served in a small glass as a substitute to Port? That very notion that all Hungary is known for is its sweet wines, can surely be signed off to the history books, right? Honestly (as a Sommelier) I tend to agree. Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a glass of 5 or even 6 Puttonyos Tokaji as much as the next person (more on that shortly), but one has to wonder the other offerings out there these days apart from that? Because Hungary is, we might say, Europe’s new frontier.
Time for a quick history lesson
The wines of Hungary have been revered for centuries. Hungary was once part of the elite royalty of Europe and as such had a special place amongst the rich and powerful. The country has seen a varied history, part of it being within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It wasn’t too long ago that Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary was sending the late Queen Victoria a bottle for her birthday. Her love of that wine has transcended generations – we brits love Tokaji.
Hungarian wine has seen a renaissance in recent years, a lot of which has to do with the general public wanting drier styles. Wines that speak of a place, history, but also that are fresh and flavoursome, and not sickly sweet. When it comes to grape varieties, Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, Zeta (a crossing of Furmint x Bouvier), Kabar (crossing of Hárslevelü x Bouvier) & Kövérszóló are all common white varieties. The most found black grapes are Kékfrankos, Zweigelt, alongside the main Bordeaux counterparts.
My favourite wines however are made from either Furmint or Hárslevelü. Both can make fantastically dry styles with the latter being intensely aromatic, floral and with a lingering acidity – which leads me nicely to one of my favourite producers within Hungary at the moment, (even if she is originally from the Loire Valley in France).
It all started back in 2002, when Stéphanie Berecz and her husband Zsolt Berecz founded the estate, Kikelet. They currently produce from 5 hectares within the Tarcal sub-region of Tokaji. Tarcal, being one of the most southerly villages within the appellation has been sought-after for many a year, and with a myriad of terroirs available, it certainly produces some world-class wines. The average age of the vines is approx. 50 years-old now, with viticulture following organic principles wherever possible.
One of their wines that really speaks to me is the Hárslevelü from the Lónyai Dűlő vineyard, 2017. The Lónyai Dűlő can trace its origins back to 1670 and covers 1.6ha.
The wine itself is intensely aromatic (now being served by the glass at Henrock by Simon Rogan), full of charm, character and elegance. Intensely floral, zesty, clean and fresh. A perfect way to start a meal or enjoy in the sunshine.
Not, however, to back out of a challenge, they also make a sweeter (if not more traditional) style of wine too – Szamorodni. This is a traditional blend of Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains. An interesting style of dessert wine, not nearly as sweet as a “Aszu”, yet it is made from grapes that have been affected by botrytis grapes. With approx. 120g per litre of sugar it has freshness, and clear-cut character that means it can often be more approachable with your lighter desserts and even some cheeses. These wines are aged for nearly 2 years before being released and are certainly worth looking out for within the region of Tokaji.
Now, for those wishing to seek further, there are also a host of red wines to try, many of which are made from a selection of local varieties, including one of my favourites – Kékfrankos. This grape is sort of a local hero and could be known as the region’s flagship red varietal.
One winery working with Kékfrankos in a rather decent fashion is Heumann. Erhard & Evelyne Heumann are a couple from Switzerland & Germany, respectively, who decided to settle down within the Villány region of South-West Hungary during the 1990’s. With over 95% of their vineyards qualifying for DHC Villány status, their award-winning wines are certainly ones to look out for. Their aim was to create styles of superb quality, but at a price point that would be accessible to the average consumer…. And I have to say, their wines are delicious.
They own most of their own vineyards within the region’s prime spots, most of which sit on clay – with some pockets of limestone and dolomite. Their yields are roughly 30/40 hl/ha – well below the maximum 70 hl/ha I allowed by the DHC), meaning that quality is extremely high throughout their range of wines.
Some people describe this part of the world as “the Bordeaux of the East”, and its not hard to see why (but don’t tell the French that). These wines are very drinkable, full of charm, character and elegance, and, quite importantly, affordable.
A Heumann wine that I particularly like is their Kékfrankos Reserve.
I have always had a soft spot for this grape, and this one is no exception. Their vines are reaching 17 years of age and the complexity of the wine is starting to show. The grapes are destemmed and then fermented in stainless steel. The wine is then aged for 22 months in 500 litres Hungarian Double Barrique.
The result is just lovely. Soft, with plummy (Merlot-like) characters, hints of sour red fruits and spices. Mineral, slightly floral and with toasted, vanilla & cedar flavours coming from the oak influence, which is very well integrated. The palate is elegant, with juicy tannins and a concentrated fruit character.
Hungary has always been a great love of mine. Their winemaking history can be traced back to the Romans and the modern examples can be, in my opinion, hailed as some of the best in the world. They are wines with character, sense of place and tenacity, full of charm and life…. yet compared to your other comparable regions, say Burgundy or Sauternes, are considerably cheaper also.
Hungary really is Europe’s frontier. With a host of different styles available and more characters than you could fit into a West End musical. This is a country whose history, and future, are certainly one to look out for.
Cheers, and Happy Drinking!!
This is a guest-post by Charles Carron Brown
Charles is the editor of thenaturalsommelier.com, an online blog to promote small artisanal, British, organic, biodynamic and natural wines from the unbiased perspective of a British Sommelier. Charles currently works as the Head Sommelier of Henrock by Simon Rogan , where he promotes sustainable wine practices on the wine list, and empowers smaller producers where possible. In his spare time, Charles loves the outdoors, reading and enjoying a pint at his local.