Before 1990, Hungarian wines were not memorable, with the exception of the sweet tokaji, sometimes described with the epithet "vinum regum, rex vinorum." The white wines, other than tokaji, were overly sweet and often flabby, the reds tended to be harsh and tannic and frequently lacked structure. All this started to change after 1990 and I am pleased to conclude that Hungary now makes some quite extraordinary wines. In October 2011, I visited four vineyards in Hungary and also tasted some additional wines. It is clear that a great deal of modern equipment was acquired and many of the Western grape varietals that were rare in Hungary before 1990 (chardonnay and sauvignon blanc among whites and pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah among reds) have been introduced and are now commonplace. Some large and established wine-making establishments are now owned by foreign interests (Royal Tokaji by British, Disznókö by French) and they make some excellent wines, although I confess that if we speak of the classical tokaji, I have a special liking for the family vinery of Hollóköi Mihály, located in Tállya (see http://hollokoi.hu. Many people have noted that the making of tokaji wine is slowly moving away from heavily oxidized wines toward a less oxidized, lighter colored version. In my opinion, this is not a matter of quality but one of style and personal preference; whatever the degree of oxidation, there is plenty of botrytis cinerea, which is what makes these wines so special. I can recommend one book highly: Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition ny Miles Lambert-Gócs, ISBN 978-1-934259-49-8; it is written in English, and it is such an authoritative treatment of the history, geography, technology and customs of the Tokaj-Hegyalja region that it is well worth reading.
But enough of the traditional tokaji wines for now. I recently tasted some 25-30 other wines, whites as well as reds, and while they were not equally pleasing, many of them were very, very good. At the Jásdi Pince in Csopak, on the North shore of Lake Balaton, I had a very pleasing Welsh Riesling (in Hungarian, "olaszrizling"), bone dry, yet with pleasing fruit. I had a chardonnay at Sauska, in Villány,which is in the South of Hungary near Pécs, which was as good as an American chardonnay without being over-oaked, which is a fault that many American chardonnays have. The Sauska chardonnay was quite alcoholic (14.5%) and still had some secondary fermentation going on in it, but it was a pleasing wine. The best dry whites we tasted were from the Szepsy vineyard, in the Northeast of Hungary, and they were truly exceptional. The wines from different tracts all had their own characteristics, affirming the importance of terroir, a concept which some people sneer at. They had a flinty, mineral-like character with, nevertheless, an intense flavor; the only other dry furmint I have tasted that comes close to these is the Oremus Mandulás. All these wines had satisfactory levels of acid and the old flabbiness is all gone.
Many of the Sauska reds were combinations: one wine ( Cuvée 13) consisted of 1/3 cabernet sauvignon, 1/3 cabernet franc and 1/3 merlot, and was somewhat herbaceous and green, while another, Cuvée 7, which reached 15% alcohol, was 50% merlot, 10% syrah, 20% cabernet sauvignon and 20% cabernet franc. It had a great aroma, but a lot of unresolved tannins and was probably also too young (2008). The Sauska operation was very modern and used the latest in technology.
At the winery of Attila Gere (http://gere.hu ) we tasted another half dozen reds, which were all good; amazingly one wine was made out of the Spanish tempranillo grape and my tasting notes say that it was tannic, with a great and muscled body and good structure, likely to improve with age. Two of the finest wines from this vineyard were the Kopar, a 15% alcohol content mix of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, and the Solus, a 100% merlot wine; both of these had excellent fruit and outstanding ageing potential. The highpoint of our visit to Villány was out visit to the Vylyan vineyard which produces amazing wines. They have an “ordinary” pinot noir which was extremely good, wonderful fruit and soft tannins, and a special pinot noir called Gombás, which was exceptional, with cherry and other berry flavors. They also make a pure merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah and they were all pleasing and competitive wines. While the wines we tasted here and at other vineyards were not what one calls “fruit bombs, ” they were all distinctive and well structured, with first class noses.
My only complaint is that these wines are largely unavailable in the U.S. Somehow, I felt, there is a real failure of marketing here. While it is true that many of the vineyards are small and so cannot afford a major marketing effort on their own (the largest we visited, Vylyan, produces about 600,000 bottles a year, Szepsy allegedly produces only 50,000 bottles). Some of the better Hungarian wines are available but you need a really good wine search engine to find them; you certainly cannot expect to walk into your local wine store and find them. For example, according to my wine search engine, Gere’s Kopar is available in only four places in California, Vylyan wines are available at some dozen stores in the U.S., but that is it. I wonder why a cooperative exporting operation could not be set up by Hungarian vintners, which would market all of their wines throughout the U.S. That would make life much more pleasant for me.