We open the door to our Budapest holiday rental and in walks Gábor Bánfalvi of Taste Hungary, pulling a canvas shopping cart on wheels behind him like the one my grandmother used to use. I’m midway through drying a dozen wine glasses I’d washed in preparation, which it turns out aren’t necessary. Gábor has come prepared.
In the cart are the eight bottles of Hungarian wines we’ll be trying this evening, plus an extra bottle of each in case any are corked, all of the glasses we’ll need for the night’s tasting, a large map of Hungary identifying the different wine regions, and photocopies of tasting notes which Gábor lays out on our dining table. Tonight Gábor is guiding us through a tasting of Hungarian wines, and, for a change, the wine tasting has come to us – we’re doing it ‘at home’.
We’ve experienced an array of wine-focused activities this year in places with strong wine cultures, such as Barcelona, Paris, Venice, Sardinia, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town. We’ve done wine tastings with sommeliers and winemakers at wineries, wine stores and wine cellars, visited wine fairs and wineries, and enjoyed wine-themed walks, wine-bar hops, and wine tours. But this is a first.
We’re so excited by the idea that it’s possible to have a wine-tasting delivered to your door that Terence sets up a camera on a tripod in the corner to document the occasion, and I get ready to live-tweet the event on Twitter. In case you missed it on the night, it went something like this… my ‘tweets’ are in italics.
For most people, Hungarian wine is all about the sweet dessert wine from Tokaj and the heavy red wine known as Bull’s Blood or Egri Bikavér from Eger, yet Gábor reveals that there is so much more to Hungarian wine as he points out the country’s 22 wine regions on the map propped up on our sofa.
#1 Hudácskó cellar, dry Szamorodni 2003 Pincészet, Tokaj region
@gran_tourismo Started with dry Szamorodni 2003 Hudacscko Cellar Tokaj region – delish, Gabor said they’re an acquired taste… @tastehungary
Tokaj, we learn, produces some six grape varieties, including Hárslevelű, Furmint, Sárga Muskotály (yellow Muscat), Kövérszőlő, Zéta (a marriage of Furmint and Bouvier grapes), and Kabar (a cross between Hárslevelű and Bouvier grapes). Furmint, Hárslevelû and Sárga Muskotály are used to create dry (száraz) white wine, while Kövérszőlő, Zéta and Kabar, which have a high sugar concentration and are susceptible to botrytis or noble rot, are used to make the distinctive sweet, golden aszú wines.
“‘Szamorodni’ means ‘as it comes’ in Polish,” Gábor explains. “The botrytized or aszú grapes are normally picked separately but with Szamorodni they harvest the healthy and botrytized berries together. Depending on the amount of aszú berries, the wine can be dry or sweet. There are three harvests altogether, the first for the base wine or dry wine, the second for Szamorodni, and the third is hand-picked. 2003 was a very good year.”
@travelingsavage @gran_tourismo how are you enjoying Budapest? I swear, you’re hitting all the places I had planned!
Gábor describes the Mátra region, at the foot of the Mátra Mountains, as a hidden treasure, producing some of Hungary’s finest whites. “It’s still relatively undiscovered and its wines are unique, almost exotic,” Gábor says.
While wine growing may have begun in the Mátra in the 11th century, according to Gábor, Communism was a major setback for the industry in Hungary.
“Communism was like a bad virus. It takes a long time to get over it,” he says. “We had a long tradition of wine-making in Hungary that was thousands of years old. Yet the Communist years were not about quality, only quantity. We’d get a figure from Moscow – how much wine they wanted – and we’d have to deliver. Now we have to play catch-up.”
“Furmint is the number one varietal here in Hungary. If Hungary has a flagship varietal, this is it,” Gábor claims. “This wine comes from the Erzsébet cellar, a family-owned winery ran by two siblings who experiment and are innovative. It’s a crisp, long white wine, with a mineral lick – it’s the volcanic soil that gives it that minerality – and it has a lot of depth and complexity, and is balanced.”
“This is a very tiny wine region of just 800 hectares of grapes owned by around 2000 wineries,” Gábor tells us. “It’s volcanic soil so the wines are all about terroir and minerality. The wines are all white and the number one wine there is Riesling.”
We like the wine a lot, but it’s definitely an unusual wine. It’s like no other we’ve ever tried before and is difficult to describe.
“What gives me great pleasure and satisfaction is when people say they’ve never tasted anything like this before,” Gábor reassures us. Phew.
#5 Konyári Cellar, Kékfrankos, 2008, Southern Balaton Region
@gran_tourismo Trying a Kekfrankos 2008, Konyari Cellar, from Southern Balaton Region. Wow! I can smell prosciutto on nose! @tastehungary #wine
“After the Russian wine market collapse at the end of Communism, Hungarian winemakers began need to think they needed to please Westerners by making Cabernet, Merlot and so on and Kékfrankos was looked down upon as a table wine,” Gábor reveals. “But foreigners would come here and they’d prefer the Kékfrankos to the others!”
“Hungarian winemakers produce a lot of single Kékfrankos wines but it’s also popular in blends, especially because of its colour,” Gábor says. “It’s important to Bulls Blood (Egri Bikavér), which is from the regions of Eger and Szekszárd.”
#6 Heimann Cellar, Kadarka, 2008, Szekszárd region
“Heimann owns 25 hectares, which is supposed to be a perfect size for a wine-growing family, and I really like this guy,” Gábor tells us. “Kadarka was the number one grape before Communism and it’s fine on a small scale but it’s not for large-scale production, as it rots easily if there’s too much rain and not enough sunshine.”
Gábor says that it’s often called the Hungarian pinot noir because of its thin skin. It’s complex, a little spicy, and elegant, and isn’t an easy wine to understand.
“The Bull’s Blood we’re trying now was produced by the vineyard’s owner, György Lörincz, who was ‘winemaker of the year’ in 2010,” Gábor says. “He’s a pioneer who is really trying to develop a new style of Bull’s Blood. During Communism Bull’s Blood was flat and heavy. This interpretation is not as heavy as what most people expect from a Bull’s Blood. It’s more interesting and complex. It was aged for 12 months in the barrel…”
@WineTravel Yes, indeed, that’s ‘bull’s blood’ in the local lingo. But most tourists would never figure it out looking at the shelves.
“We’re back to the first winery we started with,” Gábor reminds us. “This is serious stuff. It’s a complex process to produce this wine, very labour intensive. The high sugar level and acidity are in harmony. It has different dimensions, a different story, a different world. It’s a very special wine.”
Taste Hungary can bring a wine tasting to you or organize a wine tasting at their own venue. If you’re staying in a holiday rental, we highly recommend the former! They also offer scheduled wine-tasting day trips and organize bespoke wine tours. See their site for details: www.tastehungary.com