WASHINGTON — At a recent dinner, sponsored by the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, I had the pleasure of being reintroduced to Hungarian food and wine.
I say “reintroduced” because two years ago, I spent a few days in Budapest with friends. However, since I was technically on vacation, I paid more attention to the sights than I did the wine. I am so glad that I was given another opportunity to get to learn about — and sample — wines from one of the oldest wine regions in Europe.
Hungary has been producing a diverse selection of wines for centuries, but in the wine world, it is best known for just a few select styles. The most notable wine grapes grown in Hungary’s vineyards are regional varieties.
The traditional Hungarian white wine varieties include Furmint and Harslevelu (the white grapes used in Tokaj), Olasrizling, Leankya and Keknyelu. These have been joined lately by several new crossings such as Irsay Oliver, Zefir and Zenit, a number of which have been created locally by Hungarian vineologists.
Their red counterparts are Kadarka, Blaufrankisch (known here as both Nagyburgundy and Kekfrankos), Zweigelt, Portugieser and Zierfandler, which originates from across the border in Austria.
In addition, over that last two decades, Hungary has broadened its vineyard plantings by including international varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay.
While Hungary is small — just about the size of Indiana — there are 22 distinct wine regions, each with a specific microclimate producing different tastes and styles. Hungary’s most famous wine region lies in the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains in the far northern region of the country, parts of which crosses over into the southeast corner of modern Slovakia.
The area is notable for its long warm autumns and mists that come in from the River Bodrog, creating perfect conditions for noble rot. This can contribute toward creating the botrytised (‘aszú’) grapes, for which the region is famous. These are individually picked as late as mid-November into buckets (puttonyos) and crushed to a paste.
Varying amounts of this aszú paste are then added to non-aszú must or wine made from a mix of Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Kövérszőlő or Zéta grapes, and left to ferment. The resulting wine is then aged in relatively small barrels in a labyrinth of cellars in the soft volcanic tuff, on whose walls thick blankets of fungus regulate the humidity. While it may sound disgusting, the resulting wine is comparable to some of the finest dessert wines in the world.
Furmint — which occupies almost two-thirds of the total vineyard area in Hungary — is the key grape variety associated with Hungary’s most famous vinous export: Tokaji. The varietal’s crisp acidity gives wines legendary longevity and, when blended with other indigenous varieties, Furmint can produce some of the most complex and longest-living wines in the world. Sweeter styles are rich and luscious, with complex apricot, marzipan and black-tea flavors backed by aromas of brown spices and sugar.
The totally dry (not sweet) 2014 Chateau Megyer Tokaji Furmint offers aromas of apple, stone fruit, white flowers and minerals. On the palate, abundant acidity provides a lively platform for peach, nectarine and green apple flavors on the front and middle of the tongue, while notes of lime and orange peel pop on the refreshing finish. I think it would be a hit with ceviche. $13
If I had tasted the 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Pezsgő Henye blind, I would have thought I was drinking a respectable bottle of Champagne. Made from a Furmint blend, this sparkling wine has all of the characteristics I look for in a classic bubbly, including flavors of tangy green apples, ripe nectarine, and just a touch of nuttiness on the mid-palate. A touch of ginger, buoyed by minerality and crisp acidity, keeps the finish refreshing and bright. $24
I actually had the pleasure of sampling the 2007 Vylyan Pinot Noir with friends at an outdoor restaurant in Budapest a couple of years ago. This is a fun, yet elegant, wine with pretty aromas of strawberry and violet. Flavors of red berries, cranberry, strawberry and rhubarb fill the mouth. Soft tannins mesh with hints of tea and clove to round out the medium-long finish. I think this would be a fantastic wine for Thanksgiving this year. $18 (Note: If you cannot find the 2007 vintage, the 2012 and 2013 vintages are very comparable).
Of course, the wine that Hungary is most notably famous for is its dessert wine from the Tokaji (pronounced toe-kie), where the level of sweetness is measured in Puttonyos. The 2008 Chateau Megyer Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos is oozing with candied orange, lemon peel and apricot jam on the front of the palate. Wonderful flavors of peach marmalade, toffee and buttery caramel are the stars on the luscious finish were the abundant acidity keeps the sweetness in balance. An elegant dessert wine, weighing in at 17 percent residual sugar, is a perfect match with pecan pie. $50 for a 500 mL bottle.