Hungary

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.

The name takes a little unpacking to understand. The Királyudvar winery is located in Tokaj, a renowned wine region near Hungary’s northern boundary. Although this region is most famous for Sauternes-like Tokaji Aszú, a lusciously sweet wine made from botrytized Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes, this Furmint/Hárslevelű blend is sec, or dry. Sweet wines from Tokaj have been prized for centuries, but dry table wines are a relatively new phenomenon.

Because Furmint grapes are particularly susceptible to the botrytis fungus (noble rot), they’re ideal for Tokaji Aszú, but much harder to use in dry wines. Rather than use chemicals to tackle the botrytis, Királyudvar found a hillside vineyard called Percze where botrytis sets in very late in the season, allowing the grapes to fully ripen before being affected by the fungus.

The resulting dry Furmint delighted all of us at the table. It had a rich, enticing and exotic aroma of overripe pear and perhaps a touch of camphor. Others smelled dark berries and even bubble gum. The lush texture and honeyed flavor reminded me of why Furmint and Hárslevelű work so well in Tokaji Aszú. Ample acids provided refreshing balance, and I loved the clean, minerally finish. The acids also stood up well to my version of “Fisherman’s Soup à la Szeged,” though the pairing didn’t make any sparks fly.

I felt nervous about my $8 bottle of Egri Bikavér, also known as Bull’s Blood, Hungary’s most famous red wine and the only Hungarian red I could find. As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, this Kékfrankos-based wine from Eger (halfway between Budapest and Tokaj) “has been notoriously variable in both quality and character” since the 1980s. My gamble did not pay off. This wine tasted like vanilla-soaked wood, and not much else. It was undrinkable. Fortunately, the Furmint could hold its own even against the beef pörkölt, a thick stew with onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and spicy paprika.

I wish that more of Hungary’s finer reds would make their way stateside. Unless you have a reputable source, sticking to whites will be safest. If you do see a dry Hungarian white, I strongly recommend giving it a try. It will likely have been made by a forward-thinking winery and crafted with care. And if you do happen upon a well-priced bottle of Tokaji Aszú, for goodness sake buy it, and bring it over immediately.

SUMMARY

2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec: A delightful and unusual white, with a rich aroma and rich flavors tempered by food-friendly acids and attention-grabbing minerals. Drink with light cream- or olive-oil based sauces, or even lightly spicy Asian cuisine. Chill well before serving.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this bottle at Binny’s in Lakeview (in the Austrian section) for $20. Ignore the website’s description — it’s not a dessert wine. It’s fruity, but unquestionably dry.

 

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…)

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