Hungarian Wines Today – It’s Hard to Know Where to Home In

With many reviving sectors of the lesser-known or somewhat forgotten corners of the wine world, it is easy to think there is just one region, one style or one grape. It happens often elsewhere. Just think of the US, California, Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a lot more to California wine than this one hallmark. So, it is no surprise that in a less well-known region like Hungary, stereotypes and simplifications happen all the time.

Hungary’s region with world renown is Tokaj. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s time to catch up quickly. After all, the region’s vineyards were first classified qualitatively in 1700. By 1737 the vineyards were even more decisively split into first, second, third and “other” growths.

The Tokaj region is famed for making the Tokaji wine, primarily from Furmint grapes, but typically with Harslevelu and Muskotály grapes included in the blend. Tokaji wine is traditionally sweet – very sweet, in fact – but beautifully balanced to insure that the last drop of any bottle is finished in a single sitting (assuming those assembled are properly thirsty!)

So, it is unsurprising that the sails of Tokaj have been the quickest to billow as post-Communism farming and winemaking have reverted to top quality and wineries have begun to look to the export markets. Still, there are 22 regions in this country that, at 35,919 square miles, would register size-wise in between the states of Maine and Indiana, were it a US state. For however small that may sound, Hungary is the world’s 20thlargest producer of wine. That’s “not nothing”, as they say on the street.

Cleary, more than Tokaji (a region delimited wine as well as a wine style) is made in this former Soviet-block country. Most visible today are the country’s white wines as the overwhelming majority of the country’s vineyards are planted to white grapes. However, there are some tremendously good reds, too, and it is worth seeking them out. Here are some prime examples to search for.

And you may well need to dig a bit. In a country where producers began to put their names on labels only in 1993 (thanks to communism and its collective brainwashing), at least a few producers I met felt they need not promote their wines. In this camp the prevailing idea is that the wines are good; the people will come for them. It was eeriliy “Field of Dreams” like, but perhaps that is just as well for those that relish a good hunt. Here are some reds worth seeking out.

Kiss Gábor 2013 CODE Villány Franc 15%
Bright in color, clean in character and succulent in ripe fruits, this Cabernet Franc’s perky acidity keeps its high alcohol in balance with ease. The dry, lovely and lingering finish tastes of amaro, black cherries and rose hips.

Heimann Barbár 2012 Szekszárdi Borvidék 15%
A dynamic blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Kékfrankos and Tannat, this wine’s strong Merlot and Cabernet Franc components give the wine an uncanny resemblance to Pomerol. The nose is rather unyielding now, giving the first impression that the wine needs further time in bottle to evolve. However, the well-concentrated and blueberry-driven palate is already fully integrated with smooth tannins, lifted fruit and a nicely dry and lingering finish.

Sauska 2012 Kékfrankos 14%
Everything at this Villány winery is high-end, including the exclusive focus on French oak, which is unusual in Hungary. The nose on this Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch) is as expansive as it is succulent with tones of exotic spice, used coffee grinds, game and blackberries. Though mouth-filling, the super clean fruit has bright lift and delightful energy that keeps the taster going back to the glass. Still a young gun, this has a long way to go.

St. Donat 2015 Magma 12.5%
Made entirely of Kékfrankos from the chilly peninsula of Csopak on Lake Balaton, this wine pops with peak-of-summer blueberries and hints of toasted hazelnuts. Usually released within a year of its harvest, this mouth-filling but highly refreshing and relatively light-bodied wine is ready to quaff. Nonetheless, its nicely concentrated, multi-layered and medium-plus finish suggests it will hold easily for two to three years if not longer.

Ráspi 2013 Kopár 13%
This 100% Kékfrankos wine is composed of grapes grown on slate and schist soils. Its nose is rustic in an appealing manner with enough funk and fun amid its sour red cherries to allure fans of “artisanal” wines that distinctly taste of terroir à la good ol’ dirt as well as the winemakers’ sweat. A whisper of viscosity nicely balances the wine’s furry tannins.

Weninger 2012 Steiner 13.5%
From Sopron, this varietal Kékfrankos is definitely on the “interesting” side, meaning it’s a love-it-or-leave-it kind of wine. There are full-on barnyard (aka Brettanomyces) notes on the nose and palate. Once you get past those dominant tones, it tastes of black cherries and decaying logs on a forest floor. Moderately viscous with a touch of spice, this wine finishes dry and fairly quick. It is ready to drink up.