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What You Need to Know About Hungary's New White Wines

In Tokaj, Hungary, famous for its prized dessert wine, a new dry style is refreshing a country's wine scene.

The Patricius winery’s Várhegy vineyard

The Patricius winery’s Várhegy vineyard, near the town of Szegi.

I’m winding through the hills of northeast Hungary as the fall colours tangle with the fading mist. The vineyards along this country road stretch up into the hills on both sides and, although harvest has come and gone, there’s still some fruit hanging on the vines. I’m driving deep into a historic wine region, where the grapes will be made into Tokaji aszú: the legendary late-harvest wine that tastes like gardenias and nutmeg and fresh-baked gingerbread. It’s the ultimate expression of Tokaj, about 230 kilometres from Budapest near the Slovakian border, and a favourite of everyone from Louis XIV to Beethoven and Voltaire to Queen Elizabeth II.

László Mészáros; Disznóko cellars

Left to right: In the vines with László Mészáros, director of Dizsnoko winery; bottles of Tokaji aszú maturing in the Disznóko cellars.

But as I make my way to my destination, a grand Austria-Hungary-era mansion in the village of Tarcal, I’m looking forward to my first taste of Tokaj’s new wines: crisp, bright, dry whites – made mainly from furmint and hárslevelű grapes – that have started showing up on wine lists at places no less august than The Fat Duck, Per Se and Alain Ducasse. Some wine critics and sommeliers are even suggesting these wines, made from the same grapes used in Tokaji aszú, should be recognized alongside sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, riesling from Mosel and chardonnay from Burgundy as some of the best whites in the world. I’ve made the drive up from Budapest to see how a place famous for its syrupy, unctuous wines has got a fresh start.

Castle Hotel Gróf Degenfeld

Welcome to the Castle Hotel Gróf Degenfeld.

Gravel crunches under the tires and the headlights flash across the facade as I pull up to the Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel, its walls a pale lemon yellow just like the wines they’re pouring inside. I’m here to meet with members of the Confrérie de Tokaj, an eclectic band of winemakers – young and not-so-young, female and male, locals and expats – who are working to boost the quality and the profile of the region’s wines, sweet and dry. Hungarian wine has a long and rich history: the vineyards are among the world’s oldest, and were the first to be classified by quality in 1772. The nectar of Tokaji even gets a mention in the Hungarian national anthem. But the dry wines that are emerging from the region are the first innovation since the days of Franz Josef.

Wine tasting; Gábor Soltész

Left to right: Tasting the region’s contrasting dry and aszú styles; Gábor Soltész, chef at Sárga Borház.

In the formal dining room, dripping with chandeliers and hung with portraits of ancient, sombre worthies, Kata Zsirai, the stylish young winemaker at Zsirai winery, pours out a glass of her bracing, complex dry furmint. My first taste is startling: sharp with apple and melon flavours underpinned by a bright, mouth-watering acidity. This refreshing wine is clean and extracted, but with a strong sense of place derived not only from the uniqueness of the furmint (a relatively unknown grape in dry wines) but also the inherent qualities of the Tokaj soil. The first single-vineyard dry wine was made here just 15 years ago, and now Zsirai is one of dozens of winemakers producing this style. I tell her I’m impressed, but she demurs: “We still have a lot to learn.”

Wine harvest

Harvest in Tokaj should be on every oenophile’s bucket list.

Tokaj is spread over 500 volcanic hills with huge variations in soil and altitude from one vineyard to the next, changes I can almost sense as I drive the twisting roads between villages. “The grapes that grow here – hárslevelű and furmint, but also zeta and kabar – reflect terroir very well,” explains István Turóczi, managing director of the renowned Gróf Degenfeld winery, as he pours me his perfumed, mineral 2015 hárslevelű. Turóczi points out how the grapes grown on the sunnier western slopes have a different profile than those grown on Mount Tokaj, an extinct volcano that is protected from the north wind, but gets a breeze from the river. With this in mind, I can easily taste where a particular cuvée comes from. Soft wines with honey and floral aromas are made with fruit from the slopes to the west; crisper, more acidic wines come from vineyards on the sides of Mount Tokaj.

The church tower in Mád

The church tower in Mád. The town is home to several notable wineries including Royal Tokaji, Zsirai, Szent Tamás, and Szepsy.

The next afternoon, I find myself admiring that very hill on a walk through 600-year-old vineyards at the Disznókő winery with director László Mészáros. We stop at a small lookout that resembles a tiny Greek temple and gaze south, taking in a misty, vineyard-filled view that stretches across to Mount Tokaj and on to the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers beyond. But it’s the winery’s tractor barn, in the foreground, that really captures my attention. Easily the most spectacular tractor barn in existence (not that there’s a lot of competition, to be fair), architect Dezső Ekler’s swooping organic design resembles a resting manta ray or a benign alien spacecraft that has landed for a vineyard fill-up. There’s a pleasant tension between the modern architecture and ancient vineyards, fitting for a winery with a strong connection to the past and an eye on what’s to come.

Braised beef with potato dumplings; Budapest

Left to right: A Carpathian classic, braised beef with potato dumplings, at Els Mádi; a Budapest street scene.

“Tokaji will always be our heritage,” says István Szepsy Jr., the 18th-generation winemaker and co-owner of Szent Tamás winery, “but dry furmint is the future of this region.” We’re sitting in the cozy library of the winery where, in 2000, Szepsy’s father made the first wine of this kind in Tokaj. Today, Szepsy Jr. is working on the standards that will define both dry furmint and dry hárslevelű as distinct Tokaj wine styles. His Mád wines bring together grapes from many different local growers and both wines are held in a distinct wide-bottomed, long-necked bottle that is, thanks largely to Szepsy’s lobbying, the official shape for these new dry wines, and a larger take on the half-litre bottle traditionally used for Tokaji aszú. It’s like something out of a science lab: elegant, but efficient and entirely distinct.

Baltazár Wine Bar; Royal Tokaji’s Fruzsina Osváth

Left to right: Scoot on over to Baltazár Wine Bar to sample their keen list of Hungarian wines; Royal Tokaji’s Fruzsina Osváth is a barrel of laughs.

On my final day in Tokaj, I find myself deep beneath the village of Mád, five kilometres north of Tarcal, with Fruzsina Osváth, the 28-year-old winemaker at the Royal Tokaji winery. Osváth is showing me around this ancient maze of 800-year-old cellars, where white mould blooms on the walls and underfoot. It looks like there’s been a sudden snowfall, although we’re 15 metres below ground and the temperature’s a constant 12°C. Of course, the mould is completely normal: “The wine evaporating from the barrels feeds the mould,” Osváth explains, “and the mould helps keep the humidity at the right temperature to ensure proper aging.” For kicks she kills the lights and plunges the cellar into absolute darkness. “You could get lost in here,” she says, “but at least you’d never go thirsty.”

Royal Tokaji Wine Company

Hungarian underground scene: the seemingly endless cellars at Royal Tokaji Wine Company.

Resurfacing, we leave the winery to get lunch at the nearby Első Mádi, a sharp, modern Hungarian restaurant. Instead of mould, the walls here are lined with local wine bottles and the seats are filled with local winemakers. Osváth pours out glasses of her 2015 Oddity, a clean and concentrated furmint with fresh apricot and peach flavours softened by some time spent in Hungarian oak barrels. It combines sharp acidity, complex minerality and pure elegance. It’s a taste of the future.


Borkonyha Winekitchen

Four regions, four tables

Exciting wines are being made all over Hungary. Here’s what to try, and the restaurants where you can find them.

1. Eger

DRINK
St. Andrea Áldás Egri Bikavér “Bull’s blood” from Eger is Hungary’s best known red wine. This earthy cuvée blends local grapes kékfrankos, turán and kadarka with merlot, pinot noir, and syrah.

DINE
At the Michelin-starred Borkonyha Winekitchen (picture), just around the corner from St. Stephen’s Basilica, try the tender braised veal neck with peas and radishes.

3 Sas, Budapest, 36-1-266-0835, borkonyha.hu

 

2. Badacsony

DRINK
Villa Tolnay C Cuvée This cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon blend from lush, hilly southern Hungary is matured in massive wood barrels.

DINE
Meaty slices of wild boar loin with porcini and dumplings make a savoury partner for this bottle at Tanti, a sophisticated cement-and-steel space illuminated by colourful Tom Dixon pendants.

11-12 Apor Vilmos, Budapest, 36-20-243-1565, tanti.hu

 

3. Balatonboglár

DRINK
Gilvesy Mogyorós Reserve Near Lake Balaton southwest of Budapest, Canadian-born winemaker Robert Gilvesy ferments his sauvignon blanc in Hungarian oak barrels.

DINE
Chef Anatoli Belov met Krisztián Katona in Vancouver before moving to Katona’s hometown. Pair this creamy white with the tandoori octopus at the duo’s upscale private dinner club Zoltán 18.

18 Arany János, Budapest, 36-20-430-6383, facebook.com/Zoltan18Gastro

 

4. Somló

DRINK
Kreinbacher Brut Prestige This sparkling furmint comes from Somló, a volcanic terroir in the west near the Austrian border known for its white wines.

DINE
This toasty, crisp sparkler makes for an excellent opener, alongside a fresh fines de Claire oyster with mango and mint at Esca, where chef Gábor Fehér composes artful tasting menus.

29 Dohány, Budapest, 36-20-360-0394, escastudiorestaurant.hu

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HUNGARY    

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