By Glen Frederiksen
Quick now, like a bunny — tell us everything you know about wines from Hungary.
If you are from my dad’s generation, you may recall a sweet table wine called Green Hungarian that was produced by Weibel Vineyards in California. This white wine grape is thought to have originated on the border of Romania and Hungary, where it was called Butschera, and produced large crops that were made into a low-quality, lightly sweet table wine.
By the mid-1970s, plantings of Green Hungarian in California were on the decline, as higher-quality white wine grapes replaced it.
The most famous red wine produced in Hungary is called Bull’s Blood, so called because, during the invasion of Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century, the attack on Eger castle was successfully defended by the locals against overwhelming odds.
Their fierce fighting was attributed to the red wine they were served during the siege. Rumors circulated that the wine was fortified with the blood of bulls, giving them greater strength and resolve.
Centuries later, in the mid-1900s, the poet Janos Garay is thought to have coined the term Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger. Today, local wine laws allow the use of three or more of 13 grape varietals in the making of this blended red wine. This modest red has been imported in small quantities into the United States for decades.
By far the highest quality wine originating from Hungary is Tokaji Aszu, a sweet, dessert wine. This topaz-colored elixir is produced primarily from the Furmint grape grown in the Tokaj wine region. The first mention of Tokaji Aszu was in 1571, with the first mention of the Furmint grape in 1611.
Grown on a plateau 1,500 feet above sea level near the Carpathian Mountains, occasional weather conditions accommodate a long ripening season followed by a damp period that allows the growth of a fungus called Botrytis cinerea.
This “noble rot” dehydrates the grapes and concentrates the sugars into a drop of honeyed nectar. When harvested and fermented, the result is a delicious dessert wine that rivals the best from anywhere in the wine world, including France’s famous Sauternes.
Historically, the quality of Tokaji Aszu wine was so renowned that Tokaj became the first wine region in the world to create rules for an appellation control. Guidelines were created dilineating which areas, grapes and growing conditions would be permitted in the use of the name Tokaji on the label. This was by royal decree in 1737, decades before similar rules were developed for Port in Portugal and more than a century prior to the 1855 Bordeaux Grand Cru classification.
But hold on a minute — is there more to this white grape called Furmint that produces the honeyed dessert wine Tokaji Aszu? It turns out it also makes some pretty delicious still table wines. Until 15 years ago, these were rarely seen outside of Eastern Europe. A few would show up at special tastings, but it was not on the radar of most wine consumers.
All that may be changing. There are now some small plantings of Furmint in California and South Africa. And higher-end producers of dry Furmint in Hungary are beginning to ship to the United States wine marketplace.
Classically, the dry bottlings of Furmint are characterized by aromas of smoke, pears and lime, and they have a naturally high acidity, making them quite food friendly. Although lesser known than Chardonnay and Riesling, Furmint has a noble heritage — the ancient grape varietal Gouais Blanc was parent to all three varietals. It should come as no surprise that Furmint has the weightiness of Chardonnay and the acidity and minerality of Riesling.
In the past, you would need to travel to the wine bars in Budapest to try a glass of dry Furmint. No more. Here, we have reviewed several examples that are now being imported into the United States.
2012 Kvaszinger Kanyargas Furmint, Hungary
Brilliant light straw in color, this wine smells like white flowers, leading to impressions of white nectarine, lemon-lime, citrus honey and sun-baked apple. Although fully dry, it has a sweet impression in the mouth with ample juicy acidity. The citrus notes echo in the finish.
MSRP: $20 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 87
2011 Grof Degenfeld Tokaji Furmint, Hungary
This creamy wine is made in an Old World style — dry, austere and well knit. Its woodspice and baked apple notes are nicely intermingled, inviting a plate of lemon scallops to accompany it.
MSRP: $20 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 86
2012 Barta Oreg Kiraly Dulo Mad Furmint, Hungary
The nose evokes gun powder (which dissipates with time in the glass), honey, sun-dappled apple, tangerine and lime. There’s a sense of fruit sweetness in the mouth, but the wine finishes fully dry. Lemon-herb chicken or veal Cordon bleu would make sublime pairing partners.
MSRP: $30 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 88
2011 Majoros Deak Furmint, Hungary
Deep straw in hue and quite pungent, this wine evokes woodspice, white grapefruit, green apple skin, lime, grapefruit and a hint of butter. Quite juicy in the mouth, it would pair nicely with pork schnitzel with lemon and capers.
MSRP: $40 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 88
2012 Gizella Szil Volgy Furmint, Hungary
Floral and alluring, this beautifully knit wine shows off sweet lime, apple, some minerality and a kiss of honey. The fruit flavors follow through on the palate, turning creamy on the finish.
MSRP: $55 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90
2012 Sauska Medve Furmint, Hungary
Medium straw in color and slightly effervescent in the glass, this wine has a butter toffee/butterscotch and smoky nose that’s almost impossible to resist. The wine expands in the mouth with ample viscosity reflecting the plump, ripe fruit flavors of apple and citrus. A wonderful sipping wine; no food necessary.
MSRP: $65 (May 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91