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Wine Tour Hungary 2018

A summary of the Wines of Hungary UK June trip including winery profiles visited in June 2018

Hungary has one of the oldest viticulture traditions in Europe. Although it is widely considered that most grape vines were introduced into the fertile lands that lay along both sides of the Danube by Roman conquerors, the Hungarian language testifies to an even more ancient tradition. The Hungarian word for wine, bor, is the only one in Europe that does not derive from the Latin ‘vino’.

Hungary’s continental climate is ideal for wine production. Much of the country is a volcanic-terroir hotspot, with two thirds of the country lying on volcanic soil as demonstrated by Hungary’s many natural spa-springs.

This small landlocked country embraces 22 wine regions, with differing microclimates, terroir and varieties, producing a volume of wine comparable to that of Bordeaux.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw many upheavels. The phylloxera outbreak in the latter half of the 19th century devastated the vineyards in Hungary, just as elsewhere on the continent and when the vineyards were replanted. In the second half of the 20th century, high yields were important. Today there is a big focus on reduced yields, vineyard sites, clones and best varieties resulting in a dynamic shift towards terroir driven, high quality wines around the country.

Three different groups of varieties can be found.

International varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernets and Pinots used either on their own or blended with local varieties.

A wealth of indigenous varietals such as Furmint, Hárslevelü, Juhfark, Kéknyelű, Kadarka and Kékfrankos as well as a growing interest in local varieties which almost disappeared after phylloxera and under Communism, are fast becoming the talk of the town, raising the interest of both sommeliers and wine experts in search of something new.

Equally local to Hungary are the large number of hybrid varieties such as Irsai Oliver, Cserszegi Fűszeres, Zenit to name but a few….

Eger wine region

The Eger wine region (5,400ha) is located in the Northeast of Hungary at the foot of the Bükk Mountains, which protects the region against frosts in winter and cools down the summer heat. It is an area of unique possibility, where the cultivation of both red and white grapes is widespread. The climate of this wine region is rather cool, which shows in the wines’ elegance, fruit, exciting acidity and silky tannins.

Eger’s soil has a lower layer rhyolite tuff of volcanic origin dominates, covered by hard, deep brown soil rich in clay. The slopes have a combination of lime, slate, zeolite, marl and sandstone, or a combination of these can be found. The composition of the soil plays an important role in creating a fine aroma and determines the structure of the wine. Accordingly, slopes with different compositions of soil make it possible to produce different, uniquely characteristic wines. Volcanic soils tend to produce wines richer in minerals with a firm structure while wines from the thick, clay-rich soil tend to be fuller-bodied. Eger is home to Nagy-Eged-hegy, the highest grape-producing hill in Hungary, at an altitude 501 metres. Its 10ha of vineyards have lime-rich soil and south-facing exposure produces fine wines.

History of wine production would appear to be pre-historic. A 30-million-year-old grape leaf fossil, the “Vitis Hungarica” was found here on the side of Kis-Eged-hegy, next to Nagy-Eged. Vines have been cultivated in the Eger area since the time of the Árpád dynasty (1000-1301 AD), and, like other wine regions in the country, the role of foreign monks, mostly from France, and the church proved to be crucial. Around 1010 A.D. King Istvan (Stephen) founded the Eger Bishopric, giving the whole county’s tithes to the Church to create further incentives for wine production.
Until the Turkish occupation (1541-1699), only white grapes were grown (despite the myth of red wine and bulls blood!), and white varieties remained dominant until the 19th century when red varieties, especially Kadarka, became more popular and Eger became internationally recognized for its famous red wine, Egri Bikavér.

Phylloxera eradicated nearly all vineyards in Eger in 1886 and most red grapes were introduced to the region when the vineyards were replanted. Traditionally the wines were aged in wooden barrels, stored in cellar in the local caves carved out of the rhyolite tuff.

Until the end of the 20th century, Egri Bikaver, under the English translation of the name, Bull’s Blood, was made as a mass-produced table wine and Egri Bikavér undoubtedly become the best-known Hungarian red wine of the time. Since the 1990’s, wineries have worked hard on improving quality and on remarketing Eger wines. In 1993 new appellation guidelines were laid down and in 1997 the territory was demarcated, covering 5,160ha. Eger has now established itself as one of the most exciting regions of the Hungarian wine revival. Blends have always been traditional in this region, and Bikavér is a blend based on Kékfrankos. Pinot Noir is also widely planted.

A new blended white wine was created in 2010, Egri Csillag, based on Hungarian aromatic varieties such as Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling and Leányka.

St Andrea Winery

Winemakers | György Lőrincz and György Lőrincz Jnr
UK availability | Matthew Clark and the Wine Society

Father and son owners György Lőrincz and György Lőrincz Junior are also the winemakers making award winning wines as well as prizes for winemaker of the year (2008) and winery of the year (2016). The Lőrincz’s believe Eger is one of the most exciting wine regions of Hungary. They create terroir-specific character wines based on tradition and, at the same time, follow the requirements of today’s quality winemaking. Varieties, like Olaszrizling, Hárslevelű, Furmint, Kadarka and Kékfrankos take priority here. They seek to understand their terroirs, to improve cultivation and to adjust our winemaking according to the needs of different varieties. St. Andrea wine estate grows wine in four different locations, and in nine different vineyards and slopes. In most of these terroirs one can find volcanic remains of rhyolite tuff. The top layers are of different depths and density but in most cases contain a considerable amount of clay.

Gál Tibor Winery
Winemaker | Gál Tibor
UK availability | Bibendum

Tibor Gal Senior was one of Hungary’s best known winemakers abroad – working for prestigious Italian producers such as Ornellaia, Aia Vecchia and La Roncaia. In 1993 he started his own project, Gal Tibor. He chose the very best locations for his vineyards, planting 40ha of grapes in the Eger region over a period of five years.
The winery grew steadily over the next few years, and by 2002 they had produced over 300,000 bottles of wine. Following Tibor Gal’s death in 2005, his family took over the estate in his stead. The same year of his death, he was nominated for the Wine Oscar Award in Germany – the most prestigious award for winemakers in the world. In 2011, Tibor Gal Junior took over as chief winemaker and manager of the winery, continuing and evolving the family philosophy and passion for creating regional wines of exceptional quality. His aim is to produce terroir-focused wines, continuing his father’s legacy while utilizing modern technology and contemporary methods. They take an organic winemaking approach, although they’re not yet certified. The grapes are hand-harvested, no chemicals are used in the vineyards and there is minimal intervention in the winery. Their primary goal is to let the vineyards speak for itself in every bottle they produce – expressing the unique landscape, soil and climate from where the grapes were grown.

Kovács Nirmód Winery
Winemaker | Istvan Polyák, Kent Barthman
UK availability | Boutinot

Nimrod Kovács was in industry in America for many years, before embarking on a new career in wine. This new winery founded in xyz, is already well established, winning prizes and receiving recognition both in Hungary and in the US. Strongly influenced by the wine styles of Burgundy, and the strong historic connections between Eger and Burgundy, a fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are included in the portfolio, as well as premium wines from the Nagy-Eged-hegy.

Kovács Nimrod Winery is situated in seven continuous cellars on the historic Verőszala Street in the town of Eger. Back in the 18th century, there were hundreds of wine press houses in Eger, very much like Nimrod’s, which were erected above their respective cellars to handle onsite processing of the grapes. After the grape juice fermented, the wines were stored in barrels in the cool cellars below. Guided by this tradition, they continue to make wine in a similar way, but aided by 21st century technology.

Ostoros Winery
Winemaker | Károly Adamovich
UK availability | Seeking Importer / the Wine Society

Family-owned Ostoros is the largest producer in the area. Owner Soltész Gergő says that this winning combination, allows them to produce a wide selection of outstanding price-quality ratio wines.
Within a short distance of only 6 kms from Eger the best situated vineyards take advantage of the volcanic soils of the nearby stretching Bükk Mountains and unique climate as well as the ample sunshine cast on the territory due to the closeness of the Great Hungarian Plain. 170 ha land is estate owned and the viticultural activities of another 200 ha in the hands of small private holders are also integrated by Ostoros. The estate grown and bought in yield of about 6-7 tons of winegrapes result 40-45 hl wine per year. 5 million bottles are filled their bottling plant each year to represent Ostorosbor on the shelves of major Hungarian stores.

A considerable proportion of their wines cover indigenous Hungarian white varieties such as Leányka, Muscat Ottonel (Ottonel Muskotály) and Müller-Thurgau (Rizlingszilváni) which undergo modern vinification processes.

Tokaj wine region

Grape varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muscat, Kabar

The region (5,723 ha) is a historical wine region located in northeastern Hungary and southeastern Slovakia. Located at the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains, along the Bodrog river and at the confluence of the Bodrog and the Tisza Rivers, the Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2002. The World Heritage property and its buffer zone together cover the administrative area of 27 settlements (covering 88,124 ha in total). The entire landscape, its organisation and its character are specially shaped in interaction with the millennial and still living tradition of wine production.

The climate here is mild, and generally warm and temperate with hot summers, cold winters and long sunny, foggy autumns. This mist comes from the effect of the two rivers Tisza and Bodrog’s crossing, which is where Tokaj sits.

Documented history of the wine region since 1561 attests that grape cultivation as well as the making of the ‘aszú’ wine has been permanent for centuries in the area surrounded by the three Sátor-hegy (the Tokaj-hill, the Sátor – hill of Abaújszántó, and the Sátor-hill of Sátoraljaújhely). The legal base of delimitation of the wine region is among the first in the world and dates back to 1737 when the decree of Emperor Charles VI (Charles III, King of Hungary) established the area as a closed wine region. After the Phylloxera epidemic only three grape varieties were grown for a long time in Tokaji, which were Kövérszőlő, Zéta (Oremus) and Gohér. Each grape variety is suitable for botrytis.

The use of the puttonyos grading system became common by the early 19th century to distinguish between aszú (dried botrytis grapes) wines according to sweetness and concentration. These were historically divided into four levels of sweetness measured according to the number of barrels (puttonyos) of aszú grapes included in the wine: 60g/l for a 3 putts Aszú, 90g/l for a 4 putts Aszú, 120g/l for a 5 putts Aszú and 150g/l for a 6 putts Aszú.
However, a new quality criteria has been introduced for the aszú category. The new Tokaj Product Specification (TPS) has been adopted in early 2013. The driving objectives of these recent changes are to strengthen aszú as the highest category of Tokaji sweet wines and tighten appellation controls, as well as to simplify the range of Tokaj wine styles for easier understanding by consumers. Further amendments are expected to follow in the coming months and years.

The name aszú is now restricted to the former two highest categories, 5 putts and 6 putts. The new aszú category begins at 120g/l, up to the domain of Eszencia, starting at 450 g/l. The underlying idea is that an aszú should be a rich and highly concentrated wine, and this amendment only reinforces a common agreement that the wines truly representative of the aszú category have always been those in the former 5 or 6 puttonyos categories. The puttonyos grading system is abolished: With the new TPS referring to aszú in general without any puttony-based subdivisions., although the indication of a puttonyos number remains within the producers’ discretion, but, contrary to current practice, many are expected to leave it off the label when the first 2013 aszús hit the market in 2016 at the earliest.

All aszú is made using the traditional method of macerating separately handpicked botrytised berries in a base wine or a base must. In terms of winemaking, barrel ageing requirement has been lowered from a minimum of 2 years to 18 months for aszú wines. No aszú wine can be released before 1st January in the third year after the year of harvest, which is to say, the overall (that is, barrel plus bottle) ageing requirement remains 3 years.
The minimum total alcohol level has been raised to 19% abv for aszú wines from 16.11% abv for 5 putts and 18.53% abv for 6 putts. There is a minimum of 6 g/l TA.

Zsirai Winery
Winemaker | Zsirai Katalin|
UK availability | Jascots

„Creation, attention, thoroughness, values, preservation, perseverance, love, joy, beauty, charm, simplicity, sensitivity, sensibility, uniqueness”
(Csaba Zsirai, 1961-2011)

The winery is managed by two sisters, Kata, the winemaker and Petra. The beloved father raised the girls along these principles, and he established the Zsirai Winery based on them. These are the values we follow when fulfilling his dream and his legacy. When he became owner of the winery, he was driven by his love for nature and purity, his respect for preserving heritage and his affection for Hungarian wine. This made him set out on a path that established our family’s presence at three of the most significant Hungarian terrains today.
They own cellars at the Tokaj terrain in Mád, the Villány terrain in Palkonya, and on the southern slope of the Somló terrain in Somlóvásárhely.
Only produce wine from the grape they grow themselves. They believe that the secret of good wine is excellent soil, proper selection of grapes varieties, diligent care, and a good year.

Barta Winery
Estate Manager | Károly Barta Chief Winemaker | Vivien Újvári
UK availability | Corney and Barrows

One of the results of war and Communism in Hungary has been the break in continuity in long established family domains. The big names we see today have only been around for 30 years or less. Karoly Barta has approached setting up his two new domains with an eye on heritage, history and quality. Since 2003 he has been buying up the steep, terraced vineyards of Öreg Király (old King) site in Tokaj and re-planting. In the village of Mád he has been restoring the beautiful old 17th century property, once owned by Prince Rákóczi, as the Barta Tokaj headquarters. The old part of the house has been stunningly restored, preserving the old wall paintings and atmosphere and the rooms are available for those wishing to visit the area.

The winery is organic and has become a popular tourist spot for wine lovers, and buyers, visiting the region.

Use of “spontaneous fermentation almost exclusively … trusting the natural yeasts found in the grapes and cellar to do their work”. Winemaker, Vivien Ujvȧri, has worked around the world doing vintages in Napa Valley, at Saint Claire Family Estate in New Zealand, and in Australian before returning to Hungary in 2013 and the Barta Cellar in July 2016.

The Barta aszú wines are deceptive with delicate fresh perfumed fruit and floral characters hiding great richness and intensity. The sweet Szamarodni a wonderful balance of ripe sweet fruit and a core of firm mineral acidity. The dry Furmints and Hárselevelű show that these varieties are up there with the top international classics.

Area of owned vineyards | 25 acres First dry Furmint vintage | 2007 80 % of vineyards planted with Furmint 2 different dry Furmint varietals made every year.

Somló wine region

Somló, the smallest of Hungary’s 22 wine regions. It is a giant on the Hungarian wine scene. Its uniqueness is immediately apparent as you approach the 435-metre-high Somló Hill; a sawn-off, flat-top volcanic peak that rises dramatically out of the surrounding plain, which is topped off by the ruins of a castle.

Somló Hill was created when the surrounding land was carried away by erosion while the igneous basalt tuff stood firm. The region also comprises two other hills: named Kissomló (Small Somló) and Ság Hill. The soils are predominantly based on that prized volcanic basalt and tuff bedrock which sometimes goes all the way to the surface. Loess, Pannonian sand, ferrous clay and black ‘nyirok’ soils make up the topsoil.

Somló is densely planted with vines on 550 hectares of bijou plots that yield powerful acid-driven age-worthy wines from indigenous varieties on perfectly situated vineyards, which often ensure ripe fruit. Somló is highly fragmented in terms of ownership of those plots.

While Somló, located in Hungary’s northwest about half an hour’s drive from the basalt Balaton lakeside location of Badacsony, has the Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes in common with Tokaj, there’s also Olaszrizling which can certainly match the usually more illustrious aforementioned pair for quality in this terrific terroir. However, it is the untamed, uber acidic yet highly unique Juhfark grape that is pretty much exclusive to Somló and is as distinctive as it rare.

Juhfark (literally translated as Sheep’s Tail), which currently accounts for around 12% of Somló’s total plantings, was also once prized for its supposed knack of aiding its female imbibers in the pursuit of conceiving male offspring, with Queen Victoria a great fan and frequent Juhfark drinker. When underripe Juhfark can be rustic beyond belief and aggressively acidic. At its best and when it is able to ripen fully on the best sites to bring sufficient fruit to counterbalance the grape’s searing acidity, Juhfark has impressive body, structure (built on that erect acidic backbone) and substance, revealing distinctive notes of rhubarb, banana and pineapple, and a stony character.

Kolonics Winery
Winemaker | Kolonics Károly
UK availability | Wine Society

Karoly Kolonics is a fourth-generation winemaker in the small Hungarian appellation of Somló (pronounced shomlo). Somló is a volcanic hill, the uneroded core of an ancient sea-bed volcano, standing proud on the Pannonian Plain north of Lake Balaton, with unique basalt soils.

Most growers here are weekenders, making wine for themselves, but Kolonics is entirely professional and Karoly’s passion for this area and its native grapes is second to none. He grows furmint, Hárslevelu, Olaszrizling and Juhfark (pronounced you-fark) sustainably and with great skill across his bijou estate on the south side of the hill.

Yields are restricted to ensure good fruit and winemaking is traditional in its use of indigenous yeasts and fermentation and ageing in both oak and acacia barrels.

Tornai Winery
UK availability | Looking for importer

The Tornai family has been dealing with winemaking since 1946 on Somló, a mountain that rises sharply out of the flat area. Endre Tornai, the founder, started viniculture and winemaking on a one-acre vineyard. Today their land measures 54 acres and it is the third generation now that is engaged in the everyday tasks of the wine-cellar.

Their business philosophy, besides respecting traditions, is the use of state-of-the-art winemaking and processing technologies. The Tornai Winery is one of the biggest wineries of Somló, based on several decades of experience, is the initiator and supporter of the wine-production co-operation of the region.

At the tour we have also spent some time sailing the lake Balaton and had tasted an incredible line up of the indigenous Kéknyelű from a bunch of talented young winemakers of Badacsony region. Elizabeth Gabay MW sums up the tasting as follows:

“What’s not to like? Rare indigenous variety, good marketing story, ages well, made by passionate and a young generation of winemakers who make quality wines and a clear marketing vision with the blue bottle. Win Win.” Elizabeth Gabay MW

Jásdi Winery
Winemaker | Jásdi
UK availability | None

Jásdi is a small producer of 17 hectare. Their cellar was built in the end of the 16th century, and from 1849 it served as the center of the family wine estate of the Bishop of Veszprém, János Ranolder, who established the reputation of Csopak wines. On the bishop’s holdings, the mixed white grape varieties of Lake Balaton were selected for the first time, and according to the current national oenological supervisor’s reports, the oenological work in the cellar was carried out at the highest level of the age. Here, the phylloxera, as almost everywhere in Europe has destroyed the vineyards from the 1890s. In the beginning of the 20th century, Hűvös Salamon, a wine merchant became a new owner of the newly planted plantations. His vinedresser was one of the finest professionals of the age – István Bakonyi – lived in the ‘vine dressers’ house with his 6 children. Here was born his 7th child, Károly, who later became a well-known vine grower with an international reputation, as the ‘Father’ of Cserszegi Fűszeres.

A 17 hectare estate, with Olaszrizling focus, but they grow Furmint, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc also.

Villány wine region

Villány, with its 2340 hectares, is Hungary’s most southern wine region, right next to the Croatian border. It belongs to the Pannon wine region, which is one of the seven larger wine regions of Hungary. Cannon wine region consists of four wine regions: Pécs, Szekszárd, Tolna and Villány. Its soil is mostly loess.

Villány has long and hot summers with abundant sunshine, followed by a mild winter. Thanks to this sub-Mediterranean climate wines from Villány are full-bodied and spicy and of the highest quality. The majority of Hungary’s award-winning wines are produced in the Villány region. According to archeological finds winemaking traditions in the region can be traced back to Roman times.

Villány is the sunniest region in Hungary, boasting 2,150 sunshine hours per year. The soil is primarily limestone covered with layers of clay and loess, rich in lime and calcium deposits. Many of the best vineyard sites, such as Kopár, Jammertal and Csillagvölgy are situated on the southern and eastern slopes of the Villány hills (highest point: Szársomlyó, 442m) and are especially valued for the optimum ripening of Bordeaux varieties, Portugeiser, Kékfrankos and Syrah.

To the west, the village of Siklós boasts some cooler sites (they do not have the insulating effect of the Villány hills) and dense limestone soils with shallower loess and clay topsoils, promoting fresher red wine styles.

Both red and white wines are produced, but the former are more significant. International varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot have gained ground in the region.

Slowly but surely over the past 15-20 years, the winemakers of Villány have been building the case for what they see as the region’s special affinity with the variety. Having established their own official ‘Villany Franc’ designation in 2014, they have set themselves the task of making the quality and character of their varietal Cabernet Franc wines known to the wider world.

While Hungary accounts for just 2% of world Cabernet Franc plantings with 1,300ha of vines (330ha of which are in Villány), it is the joint-fourth biggest producer of the grape (66% comes from France; 13% from Italy; 7% from the US and 2% each from Hungary and Chile).

Perhaps the most significant statistic from Hungary’s point of view is that it leads in terms of growth, with 67% of new plantings of Cabernet Franc happening in Hungary – a figure undoubtedly influenced by the enthusiasm of winemakers in Villány.

Gere Winery
Winemaker | Attila Gere and Andrea Gere
UK availability | Currently looking for importer

The 1980s was a decade of slowly emerging family vineyards in the Villány region. In 1978 Gere and his wife received a small vineyard called Csillagvölgy (Star Valley) as a wedding gift in. In 1986 sold he his wine in bottles and by the early 1990’s, when communism was collapsing, he was in the right place at the right time and the Attila Gere Winery was established. This generation of Hungarian wine pioneers are forceful characters, who battled Communism and its collapse to create successful wine businesses. Some, including Gere, have become legends in their own lifetime. Assisted by his daughter, Andrea, today Gere runs a thriving 50ha vineyard with a state of the art cellar using a blend of new technology and traditional methods. They also own two luxury spa hotels and gourmet restaurants, the Ermitage and Crocus in the town of Villány. The wine region of Villány lies on Hungary’s southern border with Croatia. Its south facing slopes benefit from long, hot summers, making it the hottest wine-producing region in Hungary. This hot climate has resulted in the wines of Villány becoming famous for its big New World style Bordeaux blends, such as Gere’s top cuvée, Kopar, which comes from the Kopár hill, home to the regions’ best vineyards. A Bordeaux blend, full of big ripe, opulent fruit, Kopar has become an Hungarian wine icon. His 100% Merlot Solus, is full of perfumed black fruit and powerful structure. Recognising the potential of Cabernet Franc from Villány, he has worked with Austrian producer Franz Weninger since 1992 to make powerful and intense Cabernet Franc wines. The chance to do a barrel tasting showed the range of flavours of the different terroirs and oaks which go in to creating these powerful wines. His latest venture has been to team up with an investor to produce an entry level range of varietal wines, including the delightfully aromatic Irsai Oliver and Cserszegi Fűszeres wines under the label Gere & Schubert. Attila Gere has consistently proved, over the past three decades, that he is full of drive and energy in producing wine in his beloved Villány, and the proof is in the glass.

Bock Winery
Winemaker | Bock József
UK Availability | Currently looking for importer

József Bock is a solidly built, jovial man who was one of the pioneers of the resurgence of Villányi wines. The Bock range of wines includes a number of authentic expressions of Hungarian varietals like Hárslevelű, Kadarka and Kekfrankos and a savoury single vineyard Syrah, but the real excitement comes at the top end of the range.

‘Here are ultra-premium wines made from the Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, both as varietals and blends. Bock places special emphasis on vineyard site. The top wines tend to be picked late, sometimes into early November, resulting in are powerful wines that sometimes have more in common with Amarone than the Medoc.’ Peter McCombie MW