Five years on: Hungary’s red wines

For most wine drinkers outside Hungary, the country is synonymous perfectly decent but inexpensive Italian look-alike whites (Pinot Grigio especially) or possibly the country’s wonderful sweet Tokajis on occasions where the boat is well and truly pushed out. Increasingly though, when you visit the country, it’s the country’s red wines that bring out a sense of that fierce Magyar pride. If only there were a frequent taster loyalty scheme, I would be well on my way to gold standard with 4 trips to Hungary and numerous tastings under my expanding belt (Hungary’s food is not exactly lightweight) in 2008.

xStatistically, Hungary is a white producer with around 70% of its total production coming out white, though this is changing. It’s the south, especially Villány and Szekszárd, which is best known for its reds, unsurprisingly as this is by far the warmest part of Hungary, though there are pockets of high quality reds all over the country. Following my earlier look at Hungarian reds for wine-pages five years ago, this was a great chance to catch up.

Red Soils in the Sunset

xSzekszárd hasn’t quite reached the heights of reputation of its southerly neighbour but it has a lot to offer. It covers around 2,500 hectares on the slopes of the Szekszárd hill and has that rare but highly prized soil: ‘terra rossa’. These rusty brown soils are rich in iron and overlay limestone bedrock – into this are carved numerous cellars and tunnels, giving great soil above and great winemaking conditions below. What holds the area back is that most growers are tiny and only a few are of decent commercial size.

Ferenc Takler is the best known and he runs his family winery with the help of his two sons (the ninth generation here) and recent EU investment has paid for an expanse of shiny stainless steel and tourist facilities. Takler is warm and passionate about his wines, and his philosophy is of miniscule yields and picking later than anyone else to ensure full ripeness. The result is in some cases distinctly powerful alcoholic wines, which are much admired locally and in the USA, but I prefer the elegance and balance of his lighter wines like the Kékfrankos Reserve which took top prize in Hungary’s best wine competition in 2008. He also produces a velvety Bikavér, lovely fresh rosé and appealing Kadarka too.

xNot far away is the winery of larger than life figure of Zoltan Heimann, another giant of a personality and great spokesman for the wine industry. It soon became clear that the power behind the throne is wife Aggie, or “The Boss” as Zoltan describes her (pictured left). She has a an unusually (for Hungary) delicate touch with her Pinot Noir, picked from cool north facing sites, and also makes delicious Sagrantino and Tannat. These go into a blend called ‘Babar’ – the idea of which is to blend together concepts of east and west, reflecting Hungary’s position at the crossroads of Europe.

A Smile in the Vale of Tears

Just an hour further south lies Villány, Hungary’s hottest region, and whose name apparently means ‘Vale of Tears’, referring back to its rather bloody history as site of many battles with Turkish invaders. Today the town is a sleepy little place (except for the sound-track of endlessly barking dogs) dotted with tiny white painted cellars, but surrounded by some of the most dramatic vineyards I’ve ever visited, with evocative names like Jammertal (place of screams) and Ordögárok (Devil’s trench).

xHere some of Hungary’s best and most famous producers have found their home. What these guys share is a true passion for wines, though they have come into it from different directions, with several of them pioneering a new approach after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Jozsef Bock (right) typifies this – his family have had vineyards here since 1734, but lost everything to the state after World War 2. Bock himself was an engineer who arrived in wine due to a deathbed promise to his father to look after his beloved plot on Jammertal. He has added to the original tiny plot and today has 52 ha. He basks in the glory of pioneering varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, and being the first in Hungary to do Bordeaux blends, but is also looking forward with an impressive single vineyard Syrah. Local Portugieser and the Cabernet Franc based ‘Capella Cuvee’ are the winery’s other great strengths. There’s a small panzio (hotel) and restaurant serving local cooking on the winery site too.

xAtila Gere (pictured with daughter Andrea) is another notable figure, who came into wine from forestry. A committed beer drinker, he dared to suggest to his father that his wine was worth selling in bottle not bulk, and was given the job of putting his effort where his mouth was. Rich, luscious wines with power yet elegance are his hallmark – Solus Merlot and Kopar Cuvee are both impressive and undoubtedly among Hungary’s top wines. My favourite is the pure Cabernet Franc Selection made in a joint venture with Austrian Franz Weninger – clear evidence that Cabernet Franc can do something really special here.

Csaba Malatinszky (see Oct 2004) has been mentioned in these pages before, but came into wine from being a sommelier. His approach is different again, picking slightly earlier than his neighbours for elegance, aromatics and complexity. Utter attention to the tiniest details is the hallmark of his approach, and his Cabernet Franc ‘Kuria’ is superb, especially the latest 2006 release from a new vineyard site called Kovesfold.

xThe brand new Sauska winery is also impressive – the young team are being helped by a Californian Amanda McPhee and have every winemaking toy at their disposal. A team of workers even selects fruit berry by berry to avoid tiny pieces of stem (right) and the resulting wines are certainly beautifully polished – Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and a surprisingly stylish Kadarka came out best and will only gain depth as the vines mature. Vylyan is another sizeable investment, headed by the redoubtable Mónika Debreczeni. Thrown in at the deep end by her husband’s tragic death and with two young children to bring up, she has taken on the challenge of 125 hectares with great style and increasingly high quality too.

Pinot Noir was the wine that first caught my attention as a worthy trophy winner at Decanter for the 2004 vintage. It remains the winery’s star wine in my view, picked early to retain elegance and aromatics. It shows real finesse, perhaps due to the influence of a consultant from Burgundy. Zweigelt, Montenuovo and the flagship Dunennium are worth noting.

Northern Outpost

Other outcrops of exciting red wines are perhaps surprisingly in the cooler north. Tom Cannavan recently reported on Eger, so I won’t cover it again, but Sopron is an area worth exploring. On my recent visit, I was pleased to see that the vineyards really do overlook Lake Ferto (Neusiedlersee to the Austrians), and this gives a unique microclimate. Young Austrian Franz Reinhard Weninger (the son of Franz Weninger who has the JV with Atila Gere in Villány) is making some of Hungary’s most exciting wines here, and there’s undoubtedly more to come with his approach of relentless experimentation.

xThis year’s trial in his dramatic and immaculate new winery is testing the effect of egg-shaped vats on Pinot Noir – the idea being to ensure smooth circulation within the vat (no corners) as well as comparing clones, picking times and all the other more usual stuff. Franz went biodynamic with the 2006 vintage, though seems to take a sensibly pragmatic approach to this sometimes extreme philosophy. As his cellar master pointed out, many of the benefits of biodynamics can be explained by the human factor, such as paying much more care and attention to the vineyards, maintaining balanced canopies, and healthy soils. It’s certainly peaceful and green among the vines with birds of prey overhead, and carpets of wild flowers in between the rows.

Franz is an evangelist for Kékfrankos, and makes one of the country’s best in the single vineyard Spern Steiner selection from 40 year old vines. For him, the turning point in making high quality wine from this previously unregarded grape has partly been lower yields, but also realising that it needs to be handled gently like Pinot Noir, not focussing on extraction as with other reds like Cabernet. Franz also makes some superb wines from Cabernet Franc, Syrah and a deliciously more-ish Kékfrankos fizz.

Paying the Price

Hungary’s top red wines are by no means cheap – quality costs wherever you make it, and unfortunately in export terms people still have expectations of low prices from what used to be known as Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, these are wines that really can stand up against the best from anywhere and are well worth splashing out for. One of my endless frustrations in writing and talking about my Hungarian discoveries is that many of Hungary’s top wines have not been available in the UK. 2008 has seen this is changing with the arrival of new specialist merchant Mephisto Wines (Bock, Takler, and Malatinszky) on the scene, as well as new agency agreements with Astrum Wine Cellars (Weninger, Tornai) and Wines of Westhorpe (Weninger and others).