Balaton Wines: The New Hungarian Revolution
Although white wines dominate the scene, particularly the floral Olaszrizling, the south shore of the lake is producing some remarkable wines that add a new dimension to international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. A distinctly spicy, deeply Hungarian personality.
Budapest exudes Modernity, a cosmopolitan and lively character, and the stunning and perhaps overwhelming weight of its history. Despite its multiple wars and revolutions, the city’s imperial stance is undeniable. The arts, gastronomy, and wines thrive in a city that boasts various sometimes highly ornate and asymmetrical architectural styles. Every year, over 4 million tourists stroll along the bank of the Danube, this literary river that separates Buda from Pest, filling up colorful restaurants and bars. and while watching the Buda castle that overlooks the hectic to-and-fro of the city, we opened a bottle of Tokaji Demeter Furmint 2008, a deliciously dry, fresh wine, a symbol of the before and after, and a true representative of the new winds of Hungarian winegrowing.
Hungarian wines are experiencing a new revolution. After sleeping on their laurels for nearly half a century, they are now awake, renewed and seeking to quench the unbridled thirst of the soviet empire. Tokaj, it most iconic region and the cradle of the world’s most sublime sweet wines, now welcomes change and innovation, occasionally leaving the noble rot aside, to produce dry, fresh and vibrant wines. The small region of Somló located at the foothill of the namesake volcano, perseveres in furthering the mineral character of its wines by bottling Furmint and Hárslevelű of striking quality. And the Balaton regions, only a hundred kilometers from Budapest, perk up to produce juicy whites and some of the best reds in the country.
Lake Balaton is rightfully known as the Hungarian ocean. With 77 km in length and roughly 7.8 km in width, this is the summer destination of choice among Hungarians and many of their neighbors and, at the same time, the meeting point of four important wine regions: Balatonfured-Csopak Badacsony and Balaton-Felvidék on the north and Balatonboglár on the south. Both shores feature dramatically different characteristics. Geography is more rugged on the north shore. With a volcanic backdrop, this region gives birth to white wines bursting with mineral, expressive and light wines but perhaps not as complex as the great wines of Somló.
In Badacsony, for instance, the most widely grown cultivars are Olaszrizling and Rajnai Rizling. For the most demanding palates, those constantly seeking for unusual wines, there is the briny Kéknyelű, the favorite wine Sándor Márai, the great Hungarian writer. Owing to the efforts of wine pioneers like Huba Szeremley, this native cultivar reaches unsuspected heights and an aging potential that can easily stretch past a decade.
Balaton-Felvidék offers less intense, yet unique wines as well. According to the Hungarian expert József Kósarka, the most popular wines in this region are produced from Cserszegi Fűszeres, a white hybrid grape between Irsai Olivér and Tramini created half a century ago and now exclusively grown in Héviz, reputably Europe’s largest source of spring waters. “Known as ‘the unpronounceable variety’ in the British market, this cultivar produces light wines with intense and complex tropical fruit and elder berry aromas, and a delicate sweet finish,” he explains.
Balatonfured-Csopak has excellent terroirs for white wines and some ideal for reds with a shorter ripening cycle like Merlot and Zweigelt, which are mostly grown on the Tihany peninsula, home of the abbey built over 1,000 years ago where the first documents written in Hungarian were found. However, the most widely planted variety is Olaszrizling –also known as Welschriesling, nothing to do with the German battleship–, along with cultivars like Szürkebarát, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc. Perhaps the most interesting wines in the region are the fresh and pungent Olaszrizling from István Jásdi, made with indigenous yeasts and whose alcohol content does not exceed 13%, or else the more structured blends of Olaszrizling and Furmint.
A LITTLE RED WINE KINGDOM
While the north shore is the land of whites, in Balatonboglár, reds dominate the scene and rise as the most interesting and well-accomplished wines in Hungary. Its heavier, yellowish and sandy soils bear a high percentage of gravel, trickle down to the lake and offer the ideal exposure for cultivars like Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot to ripe to perfection. These wines aged in French and Hungarian oak barrels boast a seductive spicy character, as well
as remarkable juiciness and deep mouthfeel, the most renowned producers of which are Vencel Garamvári, János Konyári and Ottó Légli.
We stopped at the beautiful and modern Konyári winery where we could not only enjoy wines, but also the scenic landscape. Led by János Konyári and his
son Daniel, the philosophy of this winery is to treat grapes with great respect and cleanliness, managing the entire winemaking process gravitationally. Their wines transmit all the typicity of the south shore of Lake Balaton, which has been shaped by humidity and the summer temperatures that naturally flirt with red varieties. True as well that some whites attain excellent sugar/acidity balance, like their Loliense 2011: a very floral Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay and Olaszrizling blend with citrusy tones, a slight metallic touch and pungent acidity.
It must be said, however, that this is a kingdom of reds that open an unexplored and promising road for Hungarian wines. As an aperitif, Jánoshegyi Kékfrancos 2011, a light yet extremely spicy red of outstanding personality; Sessio 2009, a deep, salty-peppery Merlot-Cabernet franc blend; Páva 2009, a powerful but gentle blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Petit verdot hailed by Hungarian critics as the country’s most elegant red wine; and a great novelty: Konyári 2009, a firm, vibrant and complex Cabernet sauvignon with promising aging potential.
Even though Hungary is and will continue to be known for its whites, from its Badacsony or Somló of exulting mineral character to its mythical Tokaji
Aszú, the color and flavor palette of Hungarian wines grows wider with a new generation of red wines that have a voice of their own. Either by fostering international varieties or by rescuing neglected cultivars like Kékfrancos, Hungarian wines express a unique personality that pairs well with spicy flavors from all over the world due to their exotic aromatic nuances and exceptional freshness.
Hungary continues to honor its ancient traditions, native varieties, and high-quality barrels, but, now awake from a long nap, it is embracing a new era.
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