Hungary

Drink Like The Czars – Barta Pince

25 July 2014

Barta PinceIn addition to touring the wonderful Erzsébet Pince while exploring Hungary’s Tokaj region, I had the fortune to visit the equally delightful Barta Pince in the tranquil wine town of Mád. Barta Pince (“pince” is Hungarian for “cellars”) moved into its current home only in 2009, but the building itself dates back to the 16th century, with a newer second floor added in the 18th. This floor had yet to be fully renovated as of my visit (see right), and it retained its supremely atmospheric vaulted ceilings covered with faded, flaking paint above deeply worn wooden floors.

The winery gets its fruit from the Öreg Király dűlő (Old King vineyard), which is the second-highest vineyard in Hungary, according to Barta’s sales manager, Anita Balogh (below right). This vineyard produced some of the best fruit in the region, but the communist authorities were not impressed by the vineyard’s steep, difficult-to-work topography. They “barbarically” chopped down the vineyard, Balogh related with understandable emotion, and let the land return to scrub brush and eventually forest. Not content to leave well enough alone, the communists turned the other side of the hill into a quarry, an atrocity akin to converting one of Burgundy’s top vineyards into a strip mine.

Anita BaloghThe owners of Barta Pince bought the Öreg Király vineyard in 2003 and slowly reclaimed it from the forest. They discovered that about three quarters of the original stone terraces remained miraculously intact, and the Furmint and Hárslevelű vineyards make use of these ancient terraces today. The height and grade of these 100% organic vineyards requires that most work be done by hand, just as it has been for centuries.

I sat down with Balogh in the elegant dining room of Barta Pince, just off the complex’s shady garden courtyard. The wines proved to be packed with vibrant fruit and racy acids. After my tasting at Erzsébet Pince the day before, I had expected nothing less.

2011 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint: What a delightful, elegant wine. It had bright aromas of honey and white pepper, a luscious texture and honeyed apple fruit. Beautifully controlled, the wine maintained balance with refined white-pepper spice that slowly gave way to a mineral finish.

2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint: The following vintage had an open nose of honey and green peppercorn along with some citrus. It still felt lush on the tongue, but it seemed much drier, with an almost saline quality. It didn’t feel as exquisitely refined as the 2011, but perhaps it just needs another year in the bottle to mature. These are quibbles though, arising only because the 2011 was so clearly at its peak.

2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Hárslevelű: Barta made only 900 bottles of this complex varietal wine, which had ripe, full aromas of peaches leavened with stone. It felt big and round, but the fruit resolved into tart acids and a dry finish of minerals and even a touch of wood. Quite a journey.

2012 Egy Kis Édes Furmint: Bottled just five weeks before I tasted it, Barta’s least-expensive wine smelled enticingly floral. It tasted sweet and fruity, but lemony acids and floral overtones kept things well in balance.

2011 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint Muskotály: A blend of 60% Muskotály (Muscat) and 40% Furmint, this late-harvest wine had an entrancing aroma of perfumed white flowers and peaches. Ripe and rich, it was redolent of white peaches, with softly limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Barta Tasting2012 Öreg Király Dűlő Furmint Muskotály: In 2012, Barta tweaked the blend to 50% Muskotály and 50% Furmint. It had a fresh, spicy, floral aroma, but the flavor was a little darker. Lovely orangey acids balanced out tones of honey, dates and figs.

2010 Öreg Király Dűlő Late Harvest Furmint: Barta had to wait later than usual to harvest the grapes for this wine because of the rains. Balogh called the aroma “pure quince.” That doesn’t mean a whole lot to some of us (I must admit that I don’t encounter quince on a regular basis), so I’ll describe the smell as peach pie with a hint of green peppercorn. Very sweet and honeyed, this wine had well-balanced orangey acids and notes of green tobacco giving it a lift.

2008 Öreg Király Dűlő Szamorodni: This sherry-like wine is aged in barrels for 20 months, and the botrytis-affected aszú grapes are not removed, deepening and concentrating the flavors. After tasting it, I can understand why a Hungarian president once ordered 1,500 cases of the wine. I loved the nose of honey and old wood, and though the wine exhibited fantastic richness, it was perfectly balanced. I must sound like a broken record by now, with all this talk of lush richness balanced by zesty acids, but that combination never gets boring. Flavors I noticed included pie crust, wood, peach and fig.

Cellars at Barta Pince2008 Öreg Király Dűlő 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú: Tokaj became famous in the courts of Europe for its aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one. You can find Tokaji Aszú ranging anywhere from 3 to 6 puttonyos, and basically, the higher the number of puttonyos, the richer and sweeter the flavor. This extraordinary wine has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter. With all that sugar, could it possibly be as balanced as the wines above? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

That’s two spectacular tastings in a row! And I found yet more on my tour of Tokaj, tasting wonderful wines at Gróf Degenfeld and Szent Tamás. But after reading about Erzsébet and Barta, you get the idea. The wines of Tokaj, to put it simply, rank among the very best in the world. I don’t mean that they rank among the best in their price range, or that they rank among the best in Central Europe. Tokaj’s wines are some of the world’s most beautifully crafted and extravagantly delicious. Period.

And what a joy and privilege to taste them in Tokaj itself! The wines of Tokaj have been famous since at least 1700, when the region was classified. But the region feels undiscovered, which makes visiting it an unusual and singular delight. If you have the means, go. Go.

Drink Like The Czars – Erzsébet Pince

12 July 2014

Vineyards near TarcalEastern Europe has only one historically great wine region. Many parts of Eastern Europe are capable of producing top-quality wine, certainly, but Tokaj in Hungary stands in a class apart. Its vineyards were classified some 150 years before those of Bordeaux, and its wines were coveted by the Russian and French royal courts for generations.

But Tokaj had a rather rough 20th century, to put it mildly. It had yet to fully recover from phylloxera when World War II hit, and when peace finally came, the communists took over, nationalizing wineries and putting quantity far ahead of quality. Fortunately, some winemakers in Tokaj stubbornly stuck to tradition, producing excellent wines against all odds and passing down their knowledge to the next generation.

Nowadays, Tokaj is no longer recovering from phylloxera, nor war, nor the depredations of communism. Tokaj has unquestionably returned to full, triumphant health. If I learned anything during my two-day stay in Tokaj, I learned that. Tokaji wine is no longer the “legendary” wine of the czars. There’s nothing legendary about it anymore. The wine exists. It is there, in all its regal glory, ready to be tasted by anyone willing to visit.

Erzsebet PinceWine lists in Budapest typically have several options from Tokaj, but nothing compares with going straight to the source. I started with a winery named for Czarina Elizabeth, Erzsébet Pince.

Its cellars, built into a hillside in the town of Tokaj itself, date back to at least 1743, but just five houses down, the cellars bear an inscription dating back to the 16th century. They smell of sweet, old wood and are caked in layers of beneficial black mold, which helps maintain a constant level of humidity, explained owner Hajni Pracser. Her parents started work for the state wine company in 1974, and they founded Erzsébet Pince in its current form in 1989 (its first vintage, however, was not until 1993). They now produce about 10,000 bottles per year, and plan on working up to a maximum of 20,000.

If you can find an Erzsébet Pince wine, don’t hesitate to buy it. We sat down to a tasting on the terrace of Pracser’s winery/home, and each of the wines I tried was a delight:

Erzsebet Pince Cellars2012 Lunée: This cheerful 100% Muscat Blanc had aromas of honeydew and orange peel. There was the expected sweet Muscat fruit on the palate, but it was very light on its feet, with tart, lively acids.

2011 Zafir Dűlő: A blend of 60% Hárslevelű and 40% Furmint, which are classic blending partners in Tokaj — the Hárslevelű adds perfume and softness to the spicy, fiery Furmint. Its name refers to the Zafir vineyard (dűlő), set on a south-facing hillside near Tarcal. This privileged location yielded a predictably excellent wine with a nose of fresh wood and peach pie. It had honeyed fruit, focused acids, some white pepper and notes of oak. I wrote, “Scallops, please!”

2012 Zafir Dűlő: The following vintage had more of a pie-crust smell topped off with citrus, and the flavor had a more distinct orangey note. Again, balanced and zesty.

2012 Estate Furmint: This brilliantly light-gold 100% Furmint comes from the top-quality Zafir and Király vineyards. There was that lovely citrus in the nose again, along with brioche and something floral. It felt very elegant, with notes of bread and fresh white fruits. Sharply focused acids kept everything tightly in balance.

2011 Betsek Dűlő: The Betsek vineyard outside Mád is very stony, in contrast to the clay-heavy Király vineyard. That minerality appears clearly in the finish of this wine, a blend of 90% Hárslevelű and 10% Kabar, a new crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier. It smelled rich and round, with an unusual note of caramel. Aromatic and fruity, the wine felt round and juicy, with lemony acids, a bit of funk and something that reminded me of a baked good, like a danish. The stony finish left no doubt, however, that this is essentially a dry wine.

2012 Király Dűlő: Király is one of Tokaj’s top vineyards, and it shows in this 100% Furmint. It had a light brioche and lime aroma, and notes of white flowers and honey. Bright acids maintained strict balance, and the finish kept going and going. A delight.

Tasting at Erzsebet Pince2011 Late-Harvest Kövérszőlő: This variety, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like Erzsébet produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine. 

2004 Szamarodni: Aged for four years in a 500-liter oak barrel, this wine takes on an oxidized, sherry-like character. It smelled of honey and wood but tasted very dry, with lemony acids and more notes of wood. Woodsy, yes, but balanced nevertheless.

2010 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: Very simply, the more puttonyos in a sweet, Sauternes-like Aszú wine, the higher the sugar content and the richer the flavor (see more specifics here). Six is the maximum, and as of very recently, five is now the minimum (you can still find three- and four-puttonyos wines from past vintages, however). This wine saw two years in new oak, but it retains a very light color and most important, an underlying freshness. It had the classic green honeyed aroma, and richly honeyed fruit balanced by orangey acids. Even so, as Pracser noted, “Your palate is left dry.” No mean feat, considering the sugar content. If you think you don’t like dessert wine, this one might just convert you.

2003 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos: A vibrant amber, this vintage had a darker honey aroma, but it was leavened by some freshness underneath. Thick and rich, the wine had notes of butterscotch, cream, tropical fruit and apricots, kept somehow in balance with prickly acids. Fantastic.

1999 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: At this age, the wine had turned a shiny caramel color, and the aromas had turned towards brown sugar, burnt caramel and molasses (Pracser also pointed out leather and plum jam). Flavors, too, became more complex — orange marmalade, tobacco, even mint. The wine felt rich and deep, yet still very light on its feet. What a joy to drink.

1993 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos: This wine, from Erzsébet Pince’s very first vintage, had mellowed in its age, with dark, dusky flavors of caramel and candied orange. Yet it was still quite lively, with round acids and some soft tannins on the finish. Even after 21 years, the wine still felt wonderfully alive.

Wine writers who discuss Tokaj love to relate how the czars defended their shipments of Tokaji wines with special detachments of cossacks. But really, when you’ve got wines like these, is it any wonder?

Encounters With Unicum

5 July 2014

UnicumI figured at some point during my stay in Hungary it would rear its head, but I was quite taken aback to be offered a shot of Unicum Zwack at 10:00 a.m., right at the beginning of my food tour of Budapest. Unicum is not my preferred morning beverage. I held the glass with equal measures of trepidation and resignation.

I first encountered Unicum in Budapest in February of 1999, where I bought a bottle having no idea of the nature of its contents. Even then, unusual wines and spirits interested me. I brought the distinctively spherical bottle home and tried a glass after dinner with my parents. It reminded me too much of bitter, cloying Jägermeister for me to drink more than half a shot. My mother quite enjoyed it, however, and I recall she kept the bottle on her nightstand for a time, taking a medicinal sip before bed.

And indeed, Unicum started out as a health tonic, created by Dr. Zwack, physician to the Habsburg Imperial Court, “to alleviate the royal family’s digestion problems,” according to Food, Wine, Budapest by Carolyn Bánfalvi. It increased in popularity until World War II, when the factory was destroyed. The Zwack family rebuilt it, just in time to have it expropriated by the communists in 1948. “Péter Zwack returned to Hungary in 1989 to rebuild the family business,” Food, Wine, Budapest goes on to say, “and he was among the first in Hungary to buy back a business from the government.”

Since then, Unicum once again has been produced with the true recipe (the communists had a fake), which involves a secret (of course) blend of some 40 herbs and spices. Or maybe more.

Which brings us to the present, with me holding a glass of the stuff at 10:00 a.m., having eaten nothing but some runny scrambled eggs and a paprika-spiked breakfast link. I hoped that the rumors of digestive benefits were true, and gingerly took a sip. And hey, it wasn’t so bad after all! Yes, it tasted bitter and felt syrupy, just like Jäger, but it tasted spicier and more citrusy. Indeed, it almost felt balanced. Despite the early hour and the dubious contents of my stomach, I happily downed the rest of the shot.

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Aware that its flavor won’t appeal to everyone, Unicum has recently come up with two alternative versions of the spirit which don’t taste as bitter. I didn’t try either one on its own, but I did discover that a daring mixologist at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace had created a cocktail showcasing Unicum Szilva (Plum). How could I resist?

A mix of Unicum Szilva, plum pálinka (a plum brandy with a grappa-like mouthfeel) and lime, the Sza-Szi cocktail tasted very purple and dusky, but citrusy notes from the lime somehow managed to keep things balanced. It’s not a cocktail that will appeal to die-hard Manhattan or dry Martini drinkers, but I had no qualms about finishing it off. If you find yourself in Budapest, by all means order one. The bar is spectacular, and you’ll be drinking something you won’t find on any other cocktail menu in the world.

In the meantime, you can find Unicum Zwack at certain large wine and spirits stores in the United States, like Binny’s, where it’s labeled simply “Zwack.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bottle on my own nightstand sometime soon — for medicinal purposes only, of course.

Juhfark Freak Out

14 June 2014

Cafe PierrotIf you’ve had Hungarian wine, you’ve likely tried something from Tokaj, long famed for its sweet whites, or something from Eger, famous (and infamous) for its Bull’s Blood. But few bottles are exported from Hungary’s smallest wine region, Somló. Importer and Hungarian wine expert Athena Bochanis of Palinkerie first alerted me to the potential of wines from the slopes of this extinct volcano, a single odd hill poking up from the countryside north of Lake Balaton. I kept its name in the back of my head on my recent trip to Hungary, hoping to find a bottle or two from Somló on a restaurant wine list.

Somló wines proved to be elusive, even in Hungary, since it’s the country’s smallest wine region. But at last, at Café Pierrot in Buda, the wine list had four different Somló selections, including a Juhfark by the glass. I can’t deny that my heart skipped a bit of a beat. I’ve tasted a lot of unusual wines over the course of three years writing Odd Bacchus, but Somló Juhfark had to rank among the most obscure wines I’ve ever encountered.

“This is a wine from Somló?” I asked the waiter, pointing to the word “Somló” on the menu, eyes widening with anticipation.

“Yes… from Somló,” he replied, also pointing to the word.

“And it’s a Juhfark? A Juhfark?” I stupidly pointed to that word as well.

“Yes. Yes. A Juhfark… from Somló.” The waiter did not point to the words this time, so as not to lose contact with my increasingly wild eyes. “Would you… like a glass? Sir?” He spoke slowly and carefully, in excellent English.

I suppose most of the tourists he serves (or the Hungarians, for that matter) do not tend to lose their composure at the sight of the words “Somló Juhfark.” Which is perhaps why, when he discovered that they had actually run out of Somló Juhfark, he dispatched a colleague to a nearby sister restaurant to procure a bottle.

Juhfark, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, is a “distinctive but almost extinct white grape variety,” and how often does one have the chance to sample a wine made from grapes at once distinctive and almost extinct? I can find precious little additional information about this variety, which translates as “Ewe’s Tail” or “Sheep’s Tail” in Hungarian, other than that it was almost wiped out because of the phylloxera louse. Come on, ampelographers. You can do better.

Somloi Apatsagi JuhfarkI did find some juicy tidbits about Somló, however, “whose wood-aged, blended wines once enjoyed a similar reputation to those of Tokaj,” the Oxford Companion tells us. In fact, if “popular memory” is to be believed, “in the imperial court of Vienna, the newlyweds drank Somló wines on their wedding night to promote the birth of a male heir to the throne,” an uncharacteristically steamy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia relates.

At last, the waiter poured me a glass of 2011 Somlói Apátsági Pince Juhfark to pair with my “Pike Perch with Old Fish Soup Sauce and Fish Dumplings,” a dish far more delicious than it sounds. The wine had a sweet, heavy aroma leavened with notes of green tobacco. Broad, orangey acids balanced the very rich, honeyed texture, aided in that effort by an aromatic quality on top. It developed slowly and deliberately and forcefully on the palate, tightening up on the finish. Paired with the fish, the acids really blossomed and the wine positively popped. Wow.

You may have trouble finding a Somló Juhfark at your local wine shop, but if you go to Hungary — and some of you undoubtedly will — this is a wine to seek out on a borlap (wine list).

The chance to sample wines like this is one of the reasons I travel. What a privilege, to drink a glass of a wine that once invigorated the Viennese court, made from grapes now almost extinct.  I paid less than $8 for that glass of wine, and I’ll never forget it.

An Exotic Hungarian Beauty

23 March 2013

Evolucio FurmintThe wines of contemporary Hungary have yet to achieve the fashionability of their Austrian neighbors. Although Hungary’s decadent Tokaji Aszú was all the rage in the 18th century — in fact, in 1707, the vineyards of Tokaj were part of “the first national vineyard classification anywhere,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine — there have been a few bumps on the road since then, most notably when the communists invaded and the state monopoly took over.

Communism tends to value quantity over quality, and during this unfortunate period in Hungarian history, much of the wine industry was devoted to exporting “huge quantities of very ordinary wine to the USSR,” as the Companion explains. Fortunately, Hungary managed to maintain a somewhat mixed economy even under the communist fist, and many individual vineyards remained privately owned, easing the transition to a mostly free-market economy.

Hungary once again exports high-quality wines, both red and white, though it’s usually much easier to find the famed Tokaji Aszú than any of the fine dry table wines being produced. Part of the problem may be that, like Germany and Austria, Hungary often labels its wines according to the grape variety used to make them. This theoretically should be an advantage in the U.S., where we’re far more comfortable with varieties than geographical locations, but it starts to get dicey when the varieties have names like Kadarka and Hárslevelű. And Furmint.

Furmint, unlike Hárslevelű, we Americans at least have a shot at pronouncing. If you happen to find a dry Hungarian white wine in your local shop, it will likely be made from this exciting variety. The Companion calls Furmint “fine and fiery,” and The World Atlas of Wine notes that when Furmint is treated like Chardonnay, “the result is dry, intense, perfumed and mineral-laden.”

The delights of Furmint are unknown to most wine consumers outside of Hungary, however, which means that Furmints tend to be excellent values. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the 2011 Evolúció Furmint is the best white-wine value I’ve tasted since I started writing this blog. The Furmint in this wine came from Tokaj (just to keep things confusing, Tokaj is the region and Tokaji is the sweet wine), where volcanic soils and plenty of south-facing slopes make for ideal vine growing. Beyond that, some sort of magic must happen in Tokaj, because they managed to bottle a thoroughly memorable wine that retails for less than $10.

I knew at first sniff I would love the Evolúció — the spicy, exotic aromas of incense, apples and ginger sucked me right in. It had lush fruit, a midsection of ginger and white pepper, and a punch of tart acids on the finish. I can’t deny that it had a bit of a watery underbelly, but it tasted exotic and sexy nevertheless.

When I found this wine at Binny’s on North and Clybourn, I bought half a case. I never do that. But with flavors like that and a price tag of just $9, I dare say I found my new house white.

SUMMARY

2011 Evolúció Furmint: Aromatic and sexy, with lush fruit and exotic spices. Chill well before serving, and pair with mild to moderately spicy chicken and pork dishes. An amazing value for the money.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this wine at Binny’s for $9.

Read about another fine dry Furmint I tasted here, an unusual late-harvest Furmint here, and a Slovenian Furmint here.

Furmint And Bull’s Blood

23 May 2012

A dear friend and talented graphic designer did me the great favor of designing my business cards some time ago, and I resolved to thank him in proper Odd Bacchus fashion. Since his paternal grandfather is of Hungarian extraction, it seemed like a fun idea to cook up a full-blown Hungarian feast for him and his wife, complete with wine pairings.

Frustratingly, sometimes it seemed that making a full-blown Hungarian feast was easier than finding fine Hungarian wines.

A number of shops in Chicago carry Hungarian wines, but too often it’s low-quality, “semi-sweet” plonk. Binny’s, for example, had a number of unpromising looking bottles in its small Eastern European wine section, to which Georgia, Armenia and Bulgaria apparently send the wines too appalling to drink at home. These countries actually all make fine wine, but it too rarely makes it to the United States.

I moved on to the Austrian section, planning to use the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an excuse to serve wine from across the border. What a pleasant surprise to find a bottle of 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec hiding in a forest of Grüner Veltliner! And how telling, that Binny’s chose to place this Hungarian wine in the high-class Austrian section, rather than in the Eastern ‘hood with its over-sweet compatriots. I snatched it up.

(more…)

The Wine Of Kings (Almost)

12 October 2011

Before Bordeaux became the standard for quality wine, there was Tokaji. This Hungarian wine dazzled the royalty for hundreds of years, becoming known as “The king of wines and the wine of kings.” Tokaj’s vineyards were classified into first, second and third growths more than 100 years before their compatriots in eastern France (Tokaj is the place, Tokaji is the wine).

Sweet wines made from Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes rule here. These wines, like fine Sauternes, owe much of their flavor profile to the botrytis fungus, known more poetically as “noble rot.” The renowned Tokaji Aszú, ranging in concentration from two to six puttonyos, is not inexpensive, but it’s a wonderful splurge.

But this is not a post of puttonyos. It’s been years, unfortunately, since I’ve allowed myself a bottle of Tokaji Aszú. Our ridiculously weak dollar has not helped its affordability.

I sampled a somewhat less royal cousin of Tokaji Aszú, a 2008 Disznókő Late-Harvest Tokaji Furmint. This wine, according to the Disznókő website, is aged but a few months in barrels, in order to preserve “intense, fruity flavours and aromas.”

Since one doesn’t run across a non-Aszú late-harvest Furmint every day, I was excited to give it a try.

(more…)