Hungary's Incredible Red Wine Revolution
by Michael Botner (June 17, 2004)
Like Canada, Hungary is first and foremost white wine country. Tokay,
Central Europe's greatest wine, leads the way. Reds have generally played
a back seat to whites, which account for 75 per cent of the total production.
Exceptions exist, like Egri Bikavér and Villány Cabernets,
but finding impressive examples, at least in Canada, is next to impossible.
"Part of the reason has to do with the philosophy of the old communist
government," said Tibor Gál, a leading grower and winemaker
in Eger. Formerly the chief winemaker for the Ornellaia Estate in Bolgheri,
he was lured back by the prospect of making world-class wines on his home
I met Gál at his winery in Eger, a charming Baroque city, and
the pivot for the famous region of the same name in north central Hungary.
The region lies in the southern foothills of the Bukk Foothills, an area
of abruptly rising hills between the Great Plain and the Carpathians.
In his Range Rover, we drove a short distance to his new property on
Nyerges Hill, where he has planted 35 hectares of vineyards with Cabernet
Sauvignon and Pinot Noir on land long neglected. I stood outside a 2,000-year-old
Etruscan tomb beneath a towering rock called the horse's saddle. "There
has always been a sophisticated agricultural system here," he said.
"It is a warm place with a special micro-climate, protected by the
surrounding hills. But the communists shut it down as it was not useful
for mass production."
On our return, we passed the famous "Afrika" vineyard, now
divided among a number of growers, the name referring to the intense heat
of its microclimate. "Despite perfect conditions for red grapes,
the communists replaced them with white varieties because they were easier
to grow on a large scale," he explained.
Back in Gál's labyrinth-like cellar, carved into the tufa rock
like many others that characterize the region, I tasted several 2002 wines
out of tank and barrel, including a spicy, grapefruity Traminer from the
Afrika vineyard, as well as an impressive Chardonnay, ripe Viognier and
rich, promising Pinot Noirs from other vineyards. Tibor Gál's 2001
Egri Laborintos Pinot Noir exhibits classic rich raspberry and earth nuances
(88), although lighter than the concentrated, richly-structured, 2000
vintage (89) of the same wine, which I had tasted earlier in Budapest.
"The best reds are produced in a triangle of land east of the Eger
river," he said. "Volcanic soils add richness and structure
to the wine and 2000 was an exceptional vintage."
His gutsy 2000 Egri Laborintos Bikavér (bull's blood) is made
from a mix of 50 percent Kekfrankos, with Cabernet Franc and Merlot, plus
smaller percentages of Syrah and Kadarka (86). A 2001 Cabernet Franc "Reserve
Tournyos" (90) from the "best part of Elat mountain"
elegant, silky with berry, cedar, tobacco and chocolate notes is
"the most promising grape in Eger," according to Gál.
|Dr. Tamás Pók
Contrasting with the flamboyance of Tibor Gál, Dr. Tamás
Pók was soft-spoken, reserved, studious. In the cellar/tasting
room of Pók-Polónyi Pince, he served a white wine, 2000
Egri Leányka & Zengõ,
combining a traditional variety with gentle acidity and a new cross offering
a sharper edge. "The challenge is to discover what varieties, clones
and rootsocks best suit our volcanic and limestone subsoils," he
Pók's 1998 Egri Bikavér, from a cool vintage, featured
a silky texture with lively fruit, and hints of pepper, earth and leather
(86). His muscular 2000 Kékfrankos displayed rich plum and black
cherry fruit, spicy oak and firm tannins (87). The 1999 Cuvée,
a blend of Cabernet and Kékfrankos from different vineyards suggested
sweet cassis, toasted oak, toffee and fine tannins (90).
Never judge a book by its cover. Though modest and unassuming, István
Tóth's winery produces splendid wines from grapes grown on his
own 2.5 ha estate as well as purchased fruit. Reds are aged for two years
in oak, at least a year in big 10 hectolitre barrels, before bottling.
Richly structured, featuring dried cherry and raspberry fruit and spicy,
nutty oak, his 1999 Egri Bikavér takes bull's blood to a new level
Since 2000, these three winemakers have been at the forefront of developing
an Eger appellation system along with eight other producers to bring about
higher standards for permitted grape varieties, level of ripeness, maximum
yield, minimum oak aging, labelling criteria and the like. "We want
to build a new, global image for this appellation," said Tamás
Pók, "by rationalizing our thinking while still allowing each
producer to give their wines an individual character."
In search of Hungary's top red wines, I headed south to Villány-Siklós,
an area, influenced by the Adriatic to the south, with a sub-Mediterranean
climate and protected from the cold northern climate by the Villány
mountains. Not far from Pécs, Hungary's southernmost city, the
culturally-diverse area has been developed extensively for wine tourism
and boasts a well-marked wine route with guided tours, bicycle tours,
wine museums, comfortable pensions and restaurants offering local dishes.
At Polgár Inn, owned by Hungary's 1996 winemaker of the year,
Zoltán Polgár, and his wife Katalin, I tasted a delightfully
spicy, fruity 2002 primeur from a mix of Muscat and Chardonnay. Traditionally,
primeurs were used for pickling roast goose on St. Martin's feast day.
Their nearby cellar also doubles as a lively restaurant where I enjoyed
a platter of cold meats, cheeses and marinated vegetables, perfect with
a lively, spicy, intensely fruity red primeur, a Blauer Portugieser (Kékoporto)
2002, less so with a tart Kadarka Schiller 2001. I tasted two impressive
Bordeaux-style reds a supple, elegant 1993 Villányi Cuvée
Elixir barrique (89) and a youthful, very promising 2001 Villányi
Rubin Cuvée bursting with concentrated cassis fruit (89).
When József Bock modernized the family winery in 1995, he added
an inn with seven rooms. What the wines lack in finesse they make up for
in structure and character. Villányi Royal Cuvée barrique
1997, a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, boasts rich fruit and
tannins (88) and the all-Cabernet Sauvignon Bock Cuvée Barrique
1997 features huge extract and enormous tannins (89).
Vylyan is a large, state-of-the-art winery at the end of a long, dusty
road. Exceptionally low yields and use of new oak distinguishes Vylyan
from other wineries. Its best wine, 1999 Duennium Cuvée, a luxury
blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Zweigelt, is powerful and concentrated with
firm tannins (89).
I've left the best for last. Both times I visited Tiffán in the
past year, I found the reds, virtually all of their total production of
100,000 cases, impressive, powerful, often spectacular. Headed by father,
Ede, and son, Zsolt, the family winemaking tradition dates back ten generations
to 1746. "We grow a little Welschriesling," said son Zsolt Tiffán.
"But our vineyards, which comprise 20 hectares of vines, are planted
almost exclusively with red varieties, both traditional and classical
2001 Jammertal Cuvee, a blend of Kékfrankos, Kékoportó
and Cabernet Sauvignon, displays ripe black raspberries, smoked bacon
and friendly tannins (88). 1999 Cuvée Carissimae, a Bordeaux blend
sourced from the stony Kopár vineyard, offers meaty cassis concentration
and rich velvet tannins (91).
Tiffán's voluptuous 2000 Pinot Noir, the first vintage from vines
planted in 1997, features richness, concentration, complexity and chewy
tannins (9293). A Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Franc is responsible
for the power and complexity of 2000 Grande Selection (9192), according
to Zsolt Tiffán: "Cabernet Franc has found a natural home
The stellar 2000 Cabernet Franc from Domaine Mondivin, a joint venture
between Ede Tiffán and partners from Holland, proved the point
with ripe, elegant, concentrated fruit and silky tannins (95). As Ede
Tiffán said, "The style is more new world than French."
The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.