Smoke on the water – Hungarian Wine House tasting

Colourful labels on the Hagymasi Pinceszet stand

Colourful labels on the Hagymási Pincészet stand

Any bon-viveur worth their salt will be familiar with Hungary’s most famous vinuous export – Tokaji Aszu. This luscious yet refreshing nectar has assured Hungary’s place on the international wine map for the last 400 years. Additionally, those of a certain age may remember when Eger Bikavér (AKA “Bull’s Blood”) was king. Sadly this deep-hued, spicy red wine became devalued during the 1980s and 1990s, and has all but vanished from the shelves in the UK. But, as I learned at a tasting organised by the Hungarian Wine House last week, there’s considerably more to Hungarian wine than just Tokaji and Bull’s Blood.

Five producers were showcasing their wines, ranging from smaller family wineries to a large Tokaji producer, and covering almost every corner of the country where quality wines are made. It was heartening to see one organically certified producer amongst the five, and also to try several of the many indigenous varieties still cultivated.

Hagymási Pincészet are located in the Eger region – home of Bull’s Blood, and indeed they produce a pretty sterling example (We tried the 2007) with tangy red fruit, crunchy tannins and good acidity. I also enjoyed the 2010 Egri Csillag, a white blend of Olaszrizling (AKA welschriesling), Leányka, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. The winery makes a number of red single varietals, most of which I found too heavy on the oak, for their relatively light bodies. More interesting was the 2007 Merilyn, produced from Menoir, a red variety with a beguiling scent of thyme, mint and candied cherries. Two red blends, the 2007 Föld és Lélek (“Earth and Soul”, Cab. Franc, Syrah and Kadarka) and 2003 Egri Bormester (Cab. Sauv, Pinor Noir and Menoir) also impressed – certainly the addition of some Cabernet or Syrah helps bolster up the rather more delicate indigenous varieties.

birgit pfneisl

Birgit Pfneisl

Birgit Pfneisl is now the head winemaker at her family’s Pfneiszl vineyards, in Sopron to the far west of Hungary. Following conversion to organic farming methods in 2004, the 2009 and 2010 vintages are the first to be organically certified. Birgit told me that in almost all cases, they use only indigenous/wild yeasts. The Pfneiszl basic range are well made wines for everyday drinking. I found them likable but think they may be a hard-sell in the UK, considering their price points (£10-£13 a bottle). Stepping up to the premium range, the 2007 Kékfrankos (“kettö007″)  hails from a difficult year, but has a fresh, herbaceous character, with hints of black olives and coffee. I did wonder whether more of the Kékfrankos character would have come across with less oak (the wine sees 22 months in a combination of new and old barrels). That theme continued through to the 2008 Impression Rouge “Smoke on the lake” (Dare I say the colour of this wine was Deep Purple?), a Merlot/Cab. Sauv./Kékfrankos blend which had an attractive rounded texture, and similar herb and mocha character but just too much wood obscuring everything. As it had only been bottled a few weeks before this event, it would be worth trying again – who knows, maybe the overt oak will settle down.

robert mayer portugesier label

Róbert Mayer's Portugesier

Birgit also produces a special Cuvée “Wide World (Távoli világ) 2009″, which is described as her CV in a bottle. The field-blend of Shiraz, Carmenere, Malbec, Zinfandel and Sangiovese (!) comes from experimental plantings of varietals Birgit encountered on her travels, whilst studying and gaining experience around the world. It’s a lovely idea, and the wine is accomplished, fruit-laden and fairly full-bodied – but perhaps inevitably, not quite the sum of its parts. Apparently the Malbec is also under threat, as the local deer population have taken a shine to it. Perhaps they know it’s a good combination with a venison steak?

Moving from the far West to the far South, I loved Róbert Mayer‘s 2009 Portugieser, with its quite fascinating savoury spice (cloves?) aroma, ripe red fruits and fresh, vegetal palate. His Szt. Bertalan had an intriguingly “funky” nose, but the palate was rather hollow. The 2008 Cabernet Franc had attractive sweet spiced fruit, but – again – overly heavy oak treatment.

Jozsef Ludányi’s dry white  Cserszegi Fűszeres 2009 (Cserszeg Spice) had appealing aromatics, crisp melon fruit and a refined mineral finish. However, I question his decision to christen a range of wines “excellent”. Yes, there’s “Excellent Red”, “Excellent White” and “Excellent Rose”. Unless they really are (I’ll leave you to guess), this naming scheme is doomed to derision.

And so to the Tokaji – Pannon Tokaj is a relatively large-scale producer (They knock out 250,000 bottles a year) who have been in operation since 2000. You can really taste the influence of the region’s volcanic soils in their 2006 dry Furmint, which had taken on an aged-Riesling character, with a hint of burnt rubber and spiced apple. Pannon’s sweet wines provide a good comparison of both traditional and modern Tokaji styles. Traditionally, these wines were frequently made in a semi-oxidised style, with fermentation and maturation in oak barrels which were often not filled to the brim, thus allowing the ingress of air.

Laszlo Nyari from Pannon Tokaj

László Nyári from Pannon Tokaj

The 2003 Tokaji Aszú 3 puttonyos harks back to that style, with almost savoury, briney notes on the nose, leading to dried apricot and citrus fruit. The 2005 Tokaji Aszú 5 puttonyos has a more overt marmalade character and better acidity. I didn’t love either of these wines – the trade-off in fruit purity against the slight oxidative notes just doesn’t work for me. Much more exciting was the 2006 late harvest Cuvée, matured only six months in oak, rather than the three years demanded by the aszu regulations, and equivalent to a 4 puttonyos sweetness level. The explosion of fresh citrus, apricot and peach, tempered with nervy acidity was quite delicious – and at only £15, some bargain.

The 2004 Dominium Aszú 6 puttunyos has particularly pure melon and grapefruit-coulis flavours, notably different to the preceding wines. László Nyári, Pannon’s CEO, told me this character is due to the vastly lower yields for the Dominium vineyards. Finally, the 2005 Tokaji Aszúeszencia has the luscious marmalade character which I associate with the region, and is complex and very long in the mouth.

It’s probably apparent from my notes that this tasting was a mixed bag. There was lots to like – the often herbaceous and mineral characters from these largely cool-climate wines, with refreshingly low alchohol levels (11.5-12.5% in many cases), and some truly distinctive blends and grapes (I’d love to try more Menoir and Cserszegi Fűszeres). But – given how light-bodied most of the indigenous varieties are, why smother them in so much oak?

 

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Many of the wines reviewed above are available in the UK from Hungarian Wine House, who organised this tasting. A big thanks to Bálint Takács for the invite, also to Adrienn Tóth, a mine of useful information on the Hungarian wine industry in general.

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    • http://www.vinologue.net/crush/ Miquel

      We met Birgit and her sister Katrin in Sopron in 2008 and were immediately envious that they were able to start their own winery in their mid-20′s. Of course then she told us about the deer (apparently an ongoing problem) as well as some rot issues they had a year or two ago and the envy simmered down a little when the reality set in again of how much damned work a winery is.

      We quite enjoyed their vintages back then, but would definitely agree that it’s the higher-end white label wines that have the most merit. Just a shame that US importers don’t see fit to bring in anything over €15 retail from an “unknown” (ie not France or Italy) European wine region.

      • Simon Woolf

        Hi Miquel, interestingly though in 2010 (Apparently a very difficult cold, damp year) Birgit told me that their vineyards, farmed entirely organically, did a lot better than some of their neighbours. So it seems that’s working out for them.

        Simon

    • Simon Woolf

      Adrienn Tóth sent me some further insights about Tokaji which are well worth sharing:

      “I would not say that this semi-oxidised style does not happen. But probably it was not the goal but rather a not ideal situation. After a while these small sweet wines in the barrel were not able to be topped up with a similar wine. So they were left “in a piece” as we call it in Hungary. And the wines with really high sugar content and full body were able to survive this way. During the communist system I think it got worse and came stronger the style which is not acceptable today for the quality conscious winemaker.

      In my opinion the speciality of the Aszú of Tokaj does not come from this over-oxidised style but the uniqueness of the aszú berries and the wines produced from them. In my experiences today’s aszú are full of fruits when they are young, and at the background you can feel their minerality and the oak ageing notes. As they age there is a change in style which is hard to describe. All the different notes are coming together to be something strong and powerful.

      When tasting an aszú for me, the first things are not necessarily the aromas but their balance. Usually they have a large amount of sugar and acidity and it depends on the year which is stronger. So when tasting an aszú, always try to understand first the structure. Although the hardest thing is always to decide how big the body is, because of the large amount of sugar.”