‘The king of wines’: Hungary’s highly de­sir­able and largely un­known viti­cul­ture

The China Post - - LIFE -

Wine has been made in Hungary since the Ro­mans in­tro­duced viti­cul­ture about 1,500 years ago. Serbs brought the Kadarka grape to Eger in the north of Hungary in the early 16th cen­tury. This an­cient va­ri­ety was used to make the ro­bust red later known as Bull’s Blood, to com­mem­o­rate the sup­posed se­cret in­gre­di­ent that for­ti­fied de­fend­ers at the siege of Eger Castle in 1552. The siege has be­come a sym­bol of pa­tri­otic hero­ism in Hungary.

Bull’s Blood is one of the most rec­og­nized reds from Hungary and the wine most peo­ple have prob­a­bly tasted or heard of, pos­si­bly along with the great dessert white Tokaji. But Hungary’s wine in­dus­try has much more to of­fer, hav­ing evolved con­sid­er­ably in the past quar­ter cen­tury.

Tokaji is one of the world’s great wines and once de­manded high prices around the globe. In the late eigh­teenth cen­tury King Louis XIV of France fa­mously de­clared Tokaji “Vinum Regum, Rex Vi­no­rum” mean­ing it was the wine of kings and the king of wines. The Tokaji re­gion is be­lieved to have re­ceived the first vine­yard clas­si­fi­ca­tion in the world in 1730.

Phyl­lox­era hit Hungary hard in the late nine­teenth cen­tury — see last week’s col­umn for more de­tails — which led to the in­tro­duc­tion of more re­sis­tant grapes such as Kek­frankos, the lo­cal name for Ger­many’s Blaufrankisch, plus the range of Bordeaux va­ri­eties. Kek­frankos trans­lates from Hun­gar­ian to English as blue Frank­ish, the same words in English for the Ger­man name of the grape. Kek­frankos has been called the “Pinot Noir of the East” be­cause of the way it has spread and its rep­u­ta­tion in Eastern Europe.

As in neigh­bor­ing Bulgaria, the sub­ject of an ear­lier col­umn, qual­ity suf­fered dur­ing the Com­mu­nist oc­cu­pa­tion af­ter World War II. But since the fall of the Ber­lin Wall in 1989 pro­duc­tion has im­proved con­sid­er­ably and much new tech­nol­ogy has been in­tro­duced. This pe­riod has also seen a re­newed in­ter­est in tra­di­tional va­ri­eties.

Hungary has 22 wine ar­eas, but they are usu­ally grouped into five to seven larger re­gions. This week we con­sider an ex­cel­lent vine­yard from the Eger re­gion in the north­east of the coun­try: The Grof But­tler es­tate (grof in Hun­gar­ian means “count”). An old aris­to­cratic fam­ily, the Bukolyi, de­scen­dants of the Count of But­tler, es­tab­lished the win­ery in 1999. They fo­cus on Hun­gar­ian and French grapes and have 42 hectares of vines, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Nagy-Eged vine­yard.

Apart from min­i­mal amounts of sul­phur, no other chem­i­cals are added to the wine. The fer­men­ta­tion process takes place spon­ta­neously us­ing nat­u­ral yeasts. Some wines are sealed with cork; the rest with screw­cap. It seems the screw­caps des­ig­nate drink-now wines with corks for wines in­tended to be cel­lared.

The 2012 Egri Viog­nier is a classy and el­e­gant wine. It has a min­eral fin­ish with a per­fumed nose and el­e­gant tex­ture. The back la­bel notes say some­thing sim­i­lar, and this is prob­a­bly the first time we’ve agreed so fully with such notes on any wine bot­tle. Only 1,560 bot­tles were made, which means this wine will be dif­fi­cult to find, but worth the ef­fort. It’s sealed with a cork. Egri means the wine comes from the Eger re­gion.

The 2013 Egri Chardon­nay is another qual­ity wine. White peach aro­mas waft from the class and in the mouth it has a rich and sup­ple tex­ture. This is a clev­erly made wine: The oak treat­ment is ap­par­ent but does not dom­i­nate. It ex­udes rich­ness from ex­tended lees treat­ment com­bined with good acid­ity, a cit­rus zing fin­ish and a Ch­ablis-like min­er­al­ity. This is as good as a grand cru Ch­ablis, though at a much lower price. The big dif­fer­ence is a grand cru Ch­ablis should not be drunk for at least a decade, while this wine is drink­ing well now, and will be mag­nif­i­cent in a decade. Also sealed with a cork.

The 2014 Egri Csillag has a screw­cap. This blend of mainly pinot blanc plus three other grapes feels sin­gle di­men­sional when served at room tem­per­a­ture. But when chilled it comes to­gether nicely. It’s a friendly, crisp and even-handed white with flo­ral and white peach aro­mas and nice acid­ity. It would make a fine house wine.

The 2012 Egri Bikaver, sealed with a screw­cap, is a most un­usual blend of eight grape va­ri­eties in­clud- ing Kadarka, Caber­net Franc and Kek­frankos. At 15 per­cent al­co­hol it might seem over­whelm­ing and best re­stricted to an evening meal. But its pleas­ant fruit and soft acid and tan­nins give this drink-now wine a sense of panache. We call it a gas­tro­nomic wine in the sense that given the high al­co­hol it is prob­a­bly best con­sumed with food.

The 2009 Kog­art Cu­vee has a deep ruby color with aro­mas of black­ber­ries, spices and cho­co­late and an el­e­gant sense of min­er­al­ity. A blend of Kadarka (be­lieved to be in­dige­nous to Hungary) and Syrah from the fa­mous vine­yard of NagyEged, it has lively acids and good length. The two grape va­ri­eties com­bine nicely to pro­vide com­plex­ity, with soft tan­nins and spicy aro­mas. It is drink­ing well now but could be cel­lared for another half decade.

Dr. Mi­haly Konkoly, com­mer­cial di­rec­tor for Grof But­tler, said all wines were pro­duced us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods, with the aim of pre­serv­ing the val­ues (of the ter­roir] and the ex­cep­tional qual­ity of the grapes. “Par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion is paid to the in­tegrity of the grapes dur­ing the harvest. This ap­proach is up­held through­out the en­tire wine-mak­ing process,” he said. Dr. Stephen Quinn writes about wine for a va­ri­ety of publi­ca­tions in the re­gion. From 1975 he was a jour­nal­ist for two decades with the Bangkok Post; the BBC, The Guardian, ITN, the UK Press As­so­ci­a­tion; TVNZ; the Mid­dle East Broad­cast­ing Cen­ter in Dubai and a range of re­gional news­pa­pers in Aus­tralia. Dr. Quinn be­came a jour­nal­ism ed­u­ca­tor in 1996, but re­turned to jour­nal­ism full time in 2011. He is based in Hong Kong and is the au­thor of 17 books.

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