Outside of Western Europe, many wine-producing countries are often stereotyped by one type of wine: New Zealand by Sauvignon Blanc; Argentina by Malbec…and so forth. It’s a sign of maturity, in the market and in the wine regions themselves, when we start recognizing individual regions of a country and their distinctive character -- Marlborough, Central Otago, and Hawkes Bay, or Marlborough Pinot Noir instead of Sauvignon Blanc, to use New Zealand as an example. I say “outside of Western Europe” advisedly, because as Eastern Europe’s wine-producing countries turn toward the American market I think we may start to see the same thing happening. When we do, I think it will happen for Hungary first.
That’s largely because Hungary has had a flagship, signature wine for longer than any of its neighbors, namely, Tokaji. The region’s reputation goes back centuries, and despite the hardships of the twentieth century, it survived the Soviet-satellite era. I remember my college’s early music group returning from tours in Hungary in 1990 (the program’s instructor was Hungarian) with the uniquely shaped 500ml bottles; they were the first wines that made me think, “I need to remember this.”
They also brought back Egri Bikaver -- “Bull’s Blood” -- a Hungarian red that, if Tokaji is the “Wine of Kings, and King of Wines,” would best be described as “Wine of Jesters, and King of Hangovers” for its rusticity (at the time; some more recent examples are more enjoyable). At the very least it was a sign that there was vinous life in Hungary beyond Tokaji. Foreign investment poured into Tokaj, restyling and revitalizing the region, but it was some time before the country’s 21 other wine regions would receive much love from the outside world.
Though only a few of those regions are represented on the shelves here. Very broadly speaking, one can trace a line along the northern edge of the Carpathian basin, starting from Tokaj in the northeastern corner of the country running through Budapest and north of Lake Balaton to the Austrian border; important names include Tokaj, Somló, Balaton, Sopron, and Eger. These are mostly cool climate, white wine regions -- or in Somlo’s case, even sparkling -- with some reds in Eger (whence comes the aforementioned Bulls Blood) and Sopron, which lies across the border from Austria’s Burgenland. Red wine country is at the Basin’s southern edge, where VIllány and Szekszárd are standouts.
If all those names -- and we’ve been mercifully spared too many of Hungarian’s plethora of diacritical marks -- are a bit overwhelming, it gets worse. Hungary, like Portugal, is awash with unfamiliar grape varieties alongside those regional names, though there is probably a greater portion of international varieties among Hungary’s vineyards. For now I think varietal names are going to be a better quide to wine style than the regional names; not because of a lack of regional styles, but due to a lack of sample size to really come to any conclusions vis-a-vis terroir.
Among reds, the standout is Kekfrankos, known in Austria in Blaufrankisch and in Germany, Lemberger. Very broadly speaking, I’ve found the Hungarian rendition to lean a bit toward the earth and black pepper spice rather than riper, broader fruit, though the characteristic cherry aroma is generally still present. If Kekfrankos is Hungary’s deeper, fuller red, Kadarka is its lighter, more Pinot Noir-like cousin (speaking metaphorically; there is no genetic connection): Earthy, lighter in color, and difficult to grow (thin-skinned, and sensitive to rain). While plantings have been declining, some producers remain keen.
Among international varieties, Cabernet Franc seems to do very well in Hungary, and there are some producers giving Pinot Noir a go. Blending is an popular practice, both among wine makers and in the market, which is where knowing the regions comes in handy; the warmer Szeksard and Villany regions naturally produce fuller reds than in, say, Eger or Sopron.
Hungary’s native whites are even more distinctive, and there are fewer international varieties to distract one from them. First among them is Furmint, a primary grape in Tokaj and increasingly available in a dry style. Dry Tokaji has always been a large portion of their production, but until recently most of it was sold either domestically or in other former Soviet Bloc nations. The best of them are firm and age-worthy, and comparable to white Burgundy in their elegance and focus. Harslevlelu, another grape used in Tokaji and elsewhere, is more floral and aromatic, with softer acidity. Olaszrizling (Welshriesling) is actually the country’s most planted white; totally unrelated to “proper” Riesling, it lacks the latter’s floral character and tends to show notes of almond or apricot stone. As with their reds, Hungarians are not shy about blending their whites, either.
One of the great virtues of Hungarian wines--both white and red--is that they don’t go to extremes of high alcohol and high oak, on one hand, or toward an austere, overly acidic profile at the other extreme. The whites are typically textured, and firm, or in the case of more aromatic varieties, fresh but rounded. The reds are similarly balanced. If there’s a Hungarian tradition that we should be glad has survived the twentieth century, it’s not just the undeniable allure of Tokaji’s sweet wines, wonderful as they are; a national predilection for well-balanced wine is always to be welcomed.
Some producers to try:
Almost all current producers of dry Furmint make sweet Aszu wines as well. The age-worthiness of the better sweet is well established, but the top dry, varietal Furmints can also age very well. Several producers are also bottling single vineyard wines, based on research on the region’s most highly regarded vineyards in centuries past; these dry wines demonstrate the character of these sites far more than the sweet wines, where production methods can overshadow terroir.
Dobogó: Owned by Isabella Zwack; Zwack Unicum is Hungary’s national bitters, similar to Jägermeister or an Italian amaro. The 2012 Dry Furmint is on the lighter and more mineral side of Furmint’s typical expression here.
Kiralyudvar: Owned by Tony Hwang, who also owns Chåteau Huët in the Loire Valley; that connection shows in their line, with a Sec and Demi-Sec bottling, as well as single vineyard wines; the Lapis vineyard 2009 is in a gently sweet, late harvest style, elegant and long.
Chateau Dereszla: A small addition of Muscatand a hint of residual sugar bring out a fruitier expression in their (nonetheless) Dry Furmint.
Szepsy: Istvan Szepsy is one of Tokaji’s leaders, the local face who helped create the Royal Tokaj Company. His single-vineyard dry Furmints demonstrate the full potential of the grape and the terroir; the challenge is waiting for his wines, which can be austere in their youth, to open up and reveal their complexities. His Harslevlelu wines can be more generous when still young.
Demeter Zoltan: Alongside Szepsy, possibly Tokaj’s greatest dry wine producer and another believer in single-vineyard wines; he owns plots in nine different First Growth vineyards across the region. His wines are also more expressive in their youth. Also makes some expressive Harslevelu wines.
Bott: A small -- five hectare -- husband and wife operation. Their Határi Harslevelu captures the grapes grapefruit and floral character superbly.
Sauska: Has vineyards and wineries in both Villany and Tokaj; their Furmint, from the latter, is excellent, but it’s their Villany reds that stand out against those of their compatriots. The wines are more modern and ripe than some, but still balanced and classically styled. Their varietal Kekfrankos and Kadarka make a great compare-contrast between these two Hungarian grapes, and their blends such as Cuvée 7 (a Bordeaux blend made in two versions, each from different sub-regions) are also remarkably good.
Weninger: Franz Weninger is Austrian born, and the family produced wine in the Burgenland, before Franz’s father bought vineyards in Sopron in 2000. Biodynamic, and a specialist in Kekfrankos, Weninger’s wines exemplify the grape’s spicy character, whether in their simpler bottlings like the Kekfrankos Balf, or more serious versions like Steiner.
Pannonhalmi Apatsagi: A Benedictine abbey founded in 996; investment to revive the winemaking here began around the turn of the millennium ( the most recent turn of the millennium). Production includes a wide variety of whites, including some creative blends (for example, the Hemina includes Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir vinified as a white, and Viognier) as well as some light reds, notably Pinot Noir.