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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 turf.

 
 
Tibor Gál

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 said.

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 (88+).

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).

 
 
Zsolt Tiffán

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 types."

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).

 
Ede Tiffán  

Tiffán's voluptuous 2000 Pinot Noir, the first vintage from vines planted in 1997, features richness, concentration, complexity and chewy tannins (92–93). A Bordeaux blend, Cabernet Franc is responsible for the power and complexity of 2000 Grande Selection (91–92), according to Zsolt Tiffán: "Cabernet Franc has found a natural home in Villányi."

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 michael@accountingfortaste.ca.

 

 

 

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