Posted April 12, 2016
Are you Hungary yet?
About the size of the state of Maine, Hungary is a landlocked country in Central Europe. It's not often thought about for wine - not these days, anyway. Moreso for paprikash and goulash. When you think of Hungary, do you think of Harslevelu or stuffed peppers?
What the h*** is Harslevelu?
Surprise! Hungary is home to the world’s oldest wine classification system and one of the world’s oldest designated wine growing regions. Be part of the Hungarian wine rediscovery.
Do you remember high school geography?
When was the last time you looked at a map, a real world map - not the map on the screen of your phone - to see how to get to the restaurant for dinner? Do it. NOW. You can easily go to Google Maps, or your preferred map provider. If you are super cool, you will pull down a globe from your attic.
I wish I had a globe.
Hungary is a landlocked country. To the north is Slovakia, to the west Austria and Slovenia. Croatia and Serbia are to the south and Romania to the east. Surrounded by land, with only rivers to moderate localized climates, Hungary is decidedly continental, with hot summers and cold winters. Through the center of the country, the Danube River runs north-south, dividing the country into eastern and western halves.
If You Know How to Make Wine, You’re In
Wine has been made in Hungary for...er...well...quite a while. During his reign, King Bela IV (1235-1270), made wine production a top priority, inviting into the country anyone with relevant experience. Hey, you, know how to make wine? You’re in! Welcome to your new home.
Then, in the 1870s, phylloxera, this mighty little louse, originally from the U. S. of A., devastated Hungary's vineyards. This tiny pest destroyed whole vineyards throughout Europe. In response, growers began grafting vines to resistant rootstock sourced, like the louse, from the U.S. of A., and replanting. In Hungary, this effort started in the Great Plain in the country's south. This region still turns out a large percentage of the country’s wine. Production was on the rise...
...but the phylloxera epidemic was closely followed by political turmoil through two world wars and a communist government. Not until the 1990s did capitalism return to Hungary. Only then did Hungarian wine quantity and quality increase. Exports rose consequently.
So that’s why I haven’t heard of them.
Essentially, yes. Now, you see Hungarian wines more and more on store shelves and wine lists. Lucky you.
It’s amazing how Hungarian wines fell off the radar. Consider the most famous Hungarian wine, Tokaji Aszu. This dessert wine was highly sought after throughout Europe. It was one of the most prized wines on the continent! But that was, you know, waaay before you or I were born.
Located in the eastern part of Hungary, the Tokaj Wine Region is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (it made the list in 2002). Tokaj has volcanic soils and a unique microclimate.The nearby river provides the warmth and humidity necessary at harvest time to promote noble rot. Without this rot, there would be no dessert wine.
Wait, hold the phone! You need rot for dessert wine?! It’s complicated. Stay tuned for the low-down on dessert wines.
Records from as early as the 1400s provide evidence for wine production in Tokaj. At this point, production most likely centered around dry wine production (though I can’t guarantee that from personal experience). In the 1600s, a vineyard classification system based on wine quality was developed, the world’s first such system based on quality. Later, in 1737, Emperor Charles VI decreed Tokaj a closed wine region, designating boundaries and thereby limiting the wines that could be labeled Tokaji.And yet we hear more about the First Growths in Bordeaux and the Premier Crus of Burgundy. Silly Francophiles.
Tokaji Aszu is supremely age-worthy, rich and intense, balanced with acidity. The main grape variety is an indigenous white called Furmint. This white can be made in a dry style as well. (Please note, and take this to heart: a variety, in and of itself, is not sweet. It’s up to the winemaker whether or not the grape is made into a sweet wine or a dry wine...really, it’s up to the yeast eating the sugars and producing the alcohols, but we like to think the winemaker has some control over the fermentation process).
When fermented to dryness, Furmint is full-bodied and mineral-driven, like many of Hungary’s white wines. These wines are muscular and energetic, capable of standing up to hearty Hungarian food and reflective of Tokaji’s volcanic soils. Try pairing with pork dishes or sausages.
Across the Blue Danube
Across the Danube, on the western side of the country, you find another phenomenal region for rich, minerally whites. Somlo. Or, as the local name deems it, the forgotten hat of God. The slopes of the extinct volcano are now covered with vines, mainly of indigenous varieties, including Juhfark and Harslevelu. Somlo’s basalt soils endow these white wines with a smoky mineral quality. Rich and full, Harslevelu offers a Viognier-like floral character. This wine is smooth, round and smoky, custom-made for hearty fare. Try with roast fowl or, as recommended by Wine & Spirits, roast veal.
This is going to be a good year
With such mouthwatering acidity, Hungarian whites need food, particularly rich food. One of the main tenets of wine pairing is contrast. The dazzling structure of a Hungarian white cuts through the creaminess of richly styled dishes. It’s just so perfect, as the wine’s mouthwatering acidity cleanses the palate after a bite dripping with butter, cream, cheese…
Try a couple Hungarian wines. Test out your own pairings. Let me know what you think of Furmint with falafel! And please, send some pics to @WineLib_StacyB.
$19.99 per btl