Tuesday, July 12, 2011

HUNGARY: A Promise Delivered

Wine writers like Jancis Robinson say that, "Hungary is poised to become one of the finest, and certainly best-value, producers of characterful white wines in the world". Oz Clark states that Hungary is, "ideally placed for the 21st century", and Hugh Johnson counters that "hardly any country has a national character so pronounced", "both in the old varieties and in the new". Of all the former Iron Curtain countries, it is Hungary that appears ready to take its place among the best wine producers in the world.  Grapevines have been in these rolling hills and lowlands since it was Pannonia, a Roman province. But it was the warring Maygars who followed, leaving a large cultural-linguistic imprint on the lands and vineyards of Hungary. The unique language and many traditions of the ethnic Hungarians all stem from their Magyar ancestry.
Lake Tisza, Upper Hungary

In the late Middle Ages and beyond, the unique wines of Hungary were among the most celebrated in Europe. Hungarian vineyards were among the first in Europe to be classified, beginning early in its viticultural Golden Age around 1700, with a Tokaj vineyard hierarchy system following in 1730 by the ranked classifications of its regional vineyards. With its union to the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1867, increasing amounts of Germanic varietals were planted in Hungary's ever expanding vineyards.  Then, the late 19th century brought the vineyard epidemic phylloxera and an abrupt halt to the growth of Hungary's wine trade.  Early 20th century replanting began anew with the introduction of many proven Bordeaux varietals, only once again to be arrested by decades of war. Once behind the Iron Curtain, Hungary developed as an industrial supplier of simple table wines from over-cropped vineyards with a state monopoly for their export, Monimpex.

Land locked by seven(7) countries, Hungary is almost sliced in half by the north to south running Danube. To the east flows the great Tisza River, and in between is the flat, rolling Great Hungarian Plain(Alfold) where more than half of the country's wines are produced in its sandy soils. Divided into three(3) major zones, today's Hungarian wine production is scattered among 22 defined regions, producing a wide variety of wines from time-tested native and long established international grape varieties.  Beyond the Alfold, Hungary's viticultural zones include the expansive lowlands and hills of Transdanubia in the west, and mountainous Upper Hungary in the northeast.

Adjacent to Austria's Lake Neusiedl(Ferto) in Hungary's northwest corner sits the historic region of Sopron, known for its fine red wines of international varieties. Above Lake Balaton in the volcanic soils of the northern hills lie two(2) other important international white wine regions, Asz'ar-Neszmely and Mo'r, also known for its aromatic native Ezerjo. Prominent wine regions surround Europe's largest lake, Balaton, including Badacsony, producing clean, acid-driven whites from Italian Riesling and Pinot Grist. Among the most notable is Somlo', a small region of a wind-swept, volcanic landscape, long recognized for its crisp whites and barrel-aged oxidated wines from native varieties Furmit and Haraslevelu that once rivaled regal Tokaji. Further south are two(2) dynamic regions where modern equipment, marketable international varieties and new contemporary winemaking sensibilities are becoming the norm. The Southern Transdanubia regions of Szekszard, which is known historically for fine wines produced from the red Kardarka grape, and southernmost Villany-Siklos, which has a most Mediterranean climate, both are today producing elegant, world-class wines.

The Northern Massif(Matra) range runs northeast from outside Budapest all the way to the Ukraine, and it is in the hills of Upper Hungary where we can find two of this country's legendary wines. Halfway between the capital and Tokaji sits Eger, an old Magyar tribal city.  Above a labyrinth of lava rock and tuft carved caves, Eger is the home of Bull's Blood, a famous red fruity wine that today incorporates Bordeaux varieties in its blend with indigenous Kadarka. Further northeast, at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers sits Tokaj, in the famous wine region known as Tokaj-Hegyalia.

Mentioned as early as the mid-16th century, historical documents confirm that the legendary dessert wines of Tokaj were afflicted by noble rot to predate the botrytised wines of Germany and even Sauternes! Perfectly situated at the convergence of two rivers and sheltered by the countries tallest mountain range, Tokaj is both the name of the region and the prestigeous village that produces one of the worlds great wines. The surrounding villages(28) use the descriptor Tokaji. It is the slowly fermented product of one of this regions principal grapes, high-acid Furmint, a late ripening white grape, blended in harmony with botrytised-prone Harslevelu, to create one of the greatest sweet wines in the world. Furmint is also produced in dry(labeled szaraz), called Szamorodni,  to semi-sweet styles, as the noble rot does not occur every year.
Tokaj Harvest in traditional Puttonyos basket

Shriveled grapes high natural sugars and affected by noble rot at harvest qualify the wines as Aszu, which are then mashed and added in puttonyos proportions to the base wine. Final sweetness level is measured in puttonyos, the equivalent level of residual sugar, and classified from 3 to 6 puttonyos. A fraction of  free run Aszu juice is slowly fermented each harvest to create a very rare wine that is richer than honey, Esszencia. This rare and expensive Tokaj Aszu Esszencia is barrel aged for a minimum of 2 years and is more than 45 per cent sugar!

Following its entry into the EU in 2004, Hungary has remained relatively stable and even enjoyed some commercial success with its market-based economy. Realizing Hungary's potential, Western investments(mostly European) have also come into the country, but rarely as much as needed.  Modernization of equipment, its cellar and vineyard practices are resulting in consistent qualities being found in the 30% of annual wine volume that is exported here each year. Hungary's EU regulated wine labeling shows not only appellations, but also display the many international grape varieties which are immediately recognizable to world wine buyers. As a measure of how far Hungary has come, producers here earned 29 Decanter World Wine Awards in 2007.  An indicator of its many wine industry improvements, and of how well the wines of Hungary are placed in our marketplace, a remarkable 86 World Wine Awards were earned in 2010! A promise delivered!

Hungarian drinking toast: "Kedves egeszsegere"

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