Category Archives: Wine

Raising the profile of food and wine in Székesfehérvár

2019-01-12 12.34.53Sitting in the Hatpöttyös restaurant in Székesfehérvár, Viktória Fáncsi of the Pántlika winery laments the state of gastronomic culture in the city. This city of 100,000 inhabitants about forty-five minutes drive from Budapest once played a greater role in Hungarian life. During the Middle Ages, it was capital of Hungary and the first Hungarian kings were crowned and buried here. It boasts the ruins of one of the largest basilicas in Medievel Europe. However, nowadays it’s only the ninth largest city in the country and, perhaps due to its relative proximity to the capital, there’s a dearth of quality gastronomy and wine.

’There are over sixty restaurants’, says Viktória, ’but they mostly have the same wines, from Bortársaság. Nobody offers anything local. Anyway, many of the restaurants come and go relatively quickly.’ In terms of wine, there’s a Borhaló and one wine merchant, but nothing more. She’s been involved with trying to raise the food and wine profile of the city for the last ten years and has now organised the Nagy Fehérvári Bormustra (a walk around wine tasting event) for the fourth time. She tells us that on one of the previous editions, one lady called her up and asked her how far they would have to walk and what kind of shoes she should wear – a good indicator of how inexperienced the locals are regarding this type of event, which is practically a weekly occurrence in the capital.

We’re having lunch at the Hatpöttyös restaurant, a bright spot on the city’s 2019-01-12 12.40.03gastronomic horizon. Not only is the restaurant somewhere where you can always find a vegetarian option on the menu, it is the second restaurant in the country to be staffed mostly by disabled employees. It’s a serious undertaking – the restaurant serves up to 170 meals a day, including deliveries – and already has plenty of regulars who subscribe to its daily menu. This always includes a vegetarian option and something more traditional; they’re trying to bring back some old-fashioned dishes as well as do more trendy things.  Although only open at lunchtime (11-4, Monday to Saturday), the restaurant also does outside catering and organises wine dinners. They’ve laid on the food for today’s Bormustra too. Véra Nagy, the owner, tells us that all the servers working here are self-taught, none have done an apprenticeship. The chef, Imre Halasz, not self-taught, serves us up an example of what the restaurant is capable of – a salmon tartar tart with rocket, sweet potato soup with bacon chips, chicken breast roulade with herbs and goat cheese, served with pureed parsnip and roasted baby veg, and finally a chocolate brownie and mousse with fruits of the forest. Not bad for somewhere whose main profile is their lunch menu! Although they do have a chef’s dish or two each week.

We taste some local wines with and between courses. Véra apologises for the chunky wine glasses, saying that they don’t serve much alcohol during the week and they only really need them for big groups of pensioners at the weekend – and they don’t really seem to mind. Local wines, in this case, are wines from around Fehérvár (a short form of the longer Székesfehérvár), Etyek-Buda and Mór. Viki points out that there are increasingly good wines to be found around nearby Lake Velence.

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Weighed down by our delicious yet generous lunch, we head off to the Bormustra, 2019-01-12 17.18.39being held just a five-minute walk away. This year, there were a total of 25 wineries taking part – the usual suspects like Géza Balla, Koch, Holdvölgy and Etyeki Kúria – including 11 more local ones. Despite Fehérvár’s apparent lack of wine culture, Viktória told us she had no problem selling the 350 tickets and has enticed along four local restauranteurs for the trade and press tasting to try and get them to include some local wines on their wine lists.

As usual at these events, time was too short to taste as much you’d like. However, we managed to taste wines from Mór, Lake Velence and Pannonhalma.

Small family winery, Friday, from Mór showed a range of Ezerjó wines, including a sparkling and a rather oaky version, and two Chardonnays. They had used less oak on the 2017 than the 2016, so it was more balanced. They called themselves Friday, as it’s the best day of the week, said Gergely Németh, the owner.

Staying with Mór, Geszler winery showed their Mámor Ezerjó 2017, aged in untoasted oak. The idea being to bring back the old style – balanced, fresh and crisp, with well integrated oak and lovely acidity. We also tasted their Zenit 2017 (Ezerjó x Tramini), beautifully aromatic with a touch of residual sugar. Their aromatic Irsai Olivér 2017 and Vertes Kincs (Chardonnay-Zenit blend) were also very attractive wines.

Sáfrán winery, also in the Mór wine region, had a Csabagyöngy 2018 – which I’d never tasted before as a varietal wine. They say that they can pick this very early so it’s a good bridge between two vintages. It was floral, bright, aromatic with plenty of zesty lemon and a touch of white pepper. Perfect fröccs material.

Moving just to the north of Lake Velence to Pázmánd, Nagy Gábor és társa, whose vines are next to those of József Szentesi, showed us a lovely Zenit 2018 with plenty of tropical fruit, a beautifully restrained Sauvignon Blanc 2018 and a Kékfrankos 2018 tank sample, still fermenting a little, but shaping up nicely. We had tried his lovely Riesling 2015 with lunch, which was already developing attractive petrol notes.

Apró Kertek have 1.8ha in 8 or 9 small parcels, hence the name ’tiny gardens’. They had an intriguing blend of Csókaszőlő, Kékfrankos, Kadarka and Neró. The grapes came 25-30-year-old bush vines from three different vineyard parcels hence the name 3 Kert 2017. A juicy, bright very quaffable fruity wine with plenty of acidity, silky tannins and flavours of plum, cherry, spice and floral notes.

The Csóbor winery from Agárd on Lake Velence showed two very attractive traditional method sparklers, vinified by Szentesi, a Brut Natur from Riesling and Chardonnay which was fresh and crisp with an attractive mousse and a Brut from Zőldveltelini and Riesling with plenty of zesty green fruit.

We finished up in slightly further afield Pannonhalma with beautiful lively, mineral Riesling 2016 and bright, plummy Merlot 2015 from the Cseri winery and a very drinkable fruity Kékfrankos 2017 with plenty of crunchy cherry and cranberry from Babarczi winery.

So, blinded as we may be by the bright lights of more prestigious Hungarian wine regions, it’s worth seeking out wines from smaller wine regions that often fly under our radar, such as Mór, the Lake Velence part of Buda-Etyek and the more northerly region of Pannonhalma.

2019-01-12 14.34.28Oh, and if you happen to find yourself in Székesfehérvár during the day, do pop in and enjoy Imre’s cooking and the welcoming service at Hatpöttyös restaurant. You won’t be disappointed and certainly won’t leave hungry!

*Trip to Székesfehérvár organised by Borsmenta.

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The magical world of Vida’s Szekszárd

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The new labels for Péter Vida’s wines were launched in Budapest this week. Collaborating with a top Spanish graphic designer, Xavier Bas, the labels signify a new phase in the life of this Szekszárd winery.

Since winning Winemaker of the Year in 2011, Péter Vida and family have been working vida5hard in the vineyard and winery, replanting vines and revamping technology with the goal of producing top quality wines that reflect the Szekszárd’s terroir. Péter admits that the first years leading up to this were not always easy; however, they are now poised for a change of image and a tightening up of their range.

vida1A year ago, they decided to change their image as it was frustrating that their labels didn’t show what they wanted to say about their wines. They sought someone closely aligned to themselves and their ideas and found internationally acclaimed Spanish designer Xavier Bas. They sent him some of their wines to try. He was won over and soon came to visit them in Szekszárd.

Xavier said that he discovered three things there:

  • The labels didn’t show anything about Péter Vida, winemaker and family and their love for wine and its creation. It’s very difficult to communicate anything, he feels, if the winery is not unique and real.
  • The labels didn’t reflect the concrete, specific character of Szekszárd and its roots and landscape. They didn’t show the spirit, work, villages, grapes and forest.
  • They had a complex and diverse range of wines.

At the same time, they also realised with so many wines, their message about Szekszárd and the winery was being diluted, so they decided to pare the number down to just seven, broken down into three categories, which should all, of course, be connected to Szekszárd.

The first category, aimed at the supermarket shelves, should be popular, light and quaffable and comprises a rosé and two reds – Tünderrózsa (’fairy rose’), a light, fruity yet elegant rosé from Pinot Noir, Kékfrankos and Kadarka, Tündértanc (’fairy dance’), an elegant Kékfrankos-based blend, supplemented by smooth Merlot and Ölelés Merlot (’embrace’), a vibrant, elegant Merlot, an important grape for the winery.

The labels for this range feature fairies and conjure up the magical world of Szekszárd with fairies dancing in its forest and valleys. They are enchanting and eye-catching, perfect for attracting the attention of the casual consumer and connecting with them. Péter says that when you drink Tündertanc and close your eyes, you can see fairies dancing.

The second category are the Szekszárd wines, that is those wines considered the true reflection of the region and permitted to use the specially designed Szekszárd bottle – Kadarka, Kékfrankos and Bikavér. The labels here are different but demonstrate commonality and relate to the Szekszárd landscape.

The old-vine Kadarka (from vines planted in 1920) is characterised by an image that is a mixture of a vine and a bonsai tree. This was inspired by their Japanese distributor once visiting the gnarly, centenarian bush-trained vines and seeing their similarity to the bonsai – both requiring care and daily work. Petér says that the image ’aims to convey the sense that the wisdom of the plant is bigger than that of humans, even if it is diminutive in size.’

vida10The Hidaspetre Kékfrankos label features the woods above the deep loess which Xavier saw on his visit to the vineyard along with a deer that Péter pointed out inhabit the woods too. The design reflects the wine’s origins and connection to life.

The Bikavér label shows the wine’s relationship to its valleys and vineyards. Xavier used an old photograph as the basis for his design.

He also changed the logo so that it expresses Péter and the town of Szekszárd – this is now the tree of life. The vine represents the main element of wisdom and the passage of time, so is a kind of tree of life.

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This is used on their flagship wine La Vida (Merlot backbone, with 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% of Szekszárd character from old-vine Kadarka). The use of the tree of life is also a great play on words, as the family name ’Vida’ also means ’life’ in Spanish.

What is also refreshing is to see that the labels put the winery’s name into the background and emphasise the wines themselves together with Szekszárd. Péter Vida Jr stresses that their aim is to promote Szekszárd and its wines, rather than just the winery.

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I’ve always loved Vida’s wines. Now I love their labels too!

*All photos courtesy of Wineglass Communication

Jani’s fantastical world

bolyki borokJános Bolyki, one of the most personable winemakers in Eger, has launched new labels for his entire range of wine. They continue the light-hearted style of his previous labels. Fantastical creatures and objects grace the colourful hand-drawn labels designed once again by Géza Ipacs.

The Bolyki Pincészet labels have always been considered as a little eccentric, with names like Indián nyár (Indian Summer) or Hazug mókus (Insincere Squirrel), so the new labels continue in the same vein, but add a certain uniformity to the range, with characters and motifs being repeated across the labels. One reason for this is that the winery is cutting down its vast range of 24 wines of last year to focus on a core product line of eight wines. Plus rosé, says János as this always sells better than beer at his festival! The long-term plan is to have only five or six wines They are working increasingly with export, so it’s difficult to communicate so many wines. Their main focus is on Bikavér, as he says that this is what the market is looking for, but the range also includes Királyleanyka, Cabernet Franc, Csillag, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

They came up with the roots for the new labels a couple of years ago when there was a circus wagon with animals at the winery, creating a fairy-tale environment for the kids. They decided to follow this direction but selected motifs that had worked in previous incarnations, so 70-80% of the motifs, such as squirrels, rabbits, hippos and zebras, are still the focal point of the colourful, somewhat surreal labels, and they all feature the quarry-like cellar in the background. The back labels weave playful tales and stories, with each wine having its own humorous story, yet linked somehow to the larger picture. He’ll be able to tell these to his kids too, as he and his wife are now expecting their fourth child. He wants the labels to say something about the winery, although he admits that you can only make labels like this if the context is serious, i.e. good wine.

The labels are being changed with the new vintage, so over the next year, Bolyki fans will be able to read the stories of the entire range, as well as taste the new vintage, of course.

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János started making wine in 2003 and by 2006 was making enough to start to sell them commercially. His father was always very critical of his wines, never actually saying they were good, but, as János quipped, he was one of their biggest drinkers! He was soon winning awards and then invested in three interconnected cellars in Eger that had previously been a quarry. He lives from his winemaking, but also organises events, such as the popular three-day FesztEger rock festival at the end of May, where János also doubles as a DJ. If you can’t make the festival, then the quirky winery itself is also worth a visit!

*all photos above courtesy of Wineglass Communication

 

Think pink!

No, I’m not going to be talking about rosé, trendy though it might be. Wine grapes are either red or white, right? Well, in fact, there are plenty of varieties whose grapes are pink-skinned, except you wouldn’t know, as many of these are used to create white wines.

Szűrkebarát
Think Pinot Grigio aka Pinot Gris aka Grauburgunder, or, as it’s known here in Hungary, Szűrkebarát, after the Cistercian monks who planted the variety in Badacsony near Lake Balaton in the twelfth century. Szűrkebarát means ‘grey monk’.

Pinot GrisGiven the oceans of thin, almost transparent Pinot Grigio that emerge from northern Italy and are quaffed around the world, you’d never guess that it’s berries are actually pink. Even the more opulent style of Pinot Gris produced in Alsace doesn’t give you any indication that the grapes have pink skins. Incidentally, the variety used to be called Tokay in Alsace until it was forced to refrain from using this name on the insistence of the Hungarians who objected to its use, as this engendered confusion with its naturally sweet wines from Tokaj, whose name Alsatians likely appropriated in the past to benefit from the former’s fame.

Pinot Gris is in fact a colour mutation of Pinot Noir, so a kind of red grape in a pink grape’s clothing. Its grapes range from pinky-purple to almost Pinot Noir colour in hotter sites, which perhaps explains the colour of one of the wines we tasted. A fellow taster exclaimed, “How long did they macerate it? Two years!”

Perhaps the more traditional Friulian and Venetian ramato style of Pinot Grigio, whereby the Pinot Grigio is macerated on its skins, producing a coppery coloured wine, nowadays referred to as amber or orange wine, would give us more of a hint of the berries’ clothing.

Taking a look at four very different Hungarian versions:

Centurio Szürkebarát 2017 (Mátra)
Ludányi szürkebarátIts pale onion skin colour, delicate herbal notes and spice point to some skin maceration. Attractive nose of mandarin, spice peach and orange. Full-bodied and layered on the palate with a buttery, creamy texture, Plenty of ripe fruit, spice, salinity, touch of toasty oak and a slightly warming, relatively long finish. A lovely wine. 84 (84)

Nádas Borműhely Vagy mi? 2016 (Etyek Buda)
Nádas Vagy miA Pinot Gris that’s the colour of Pinot Noir! Initially I found it very tannic and a little bitter with plenty of beautiful spicy cherry, rust and blood orange on the nose. Perhaps a little lacking acidity, but attractive fruit, beetroot and a touch of mushroom on the long finish. The points here reflect my initial taste, but on coming back to it at the end of the tasting, it had opened and the tannins no longer felt so bitter, so I would push it up a little. Intriguing wine. 80 (81)

Villa Tolnay Pinot Gris 2016 (Badacsony)
IMG_9849A pale lemon wine with plenty of autumn fruit and peach. A little rustic on the palate with slightly sour acidity and some savoury, cooked vegetable notes. A slight sweetness and warming alcohol on the finish. 78 (82)

Laposa PINO 2017 (Badacsony)
Laposa szürkebarátPale lemon with a hint of onion skin. Unappealing aromas of straw, wilted flowers and wet garden with some toasted sesame seeds. A touch of tannin on the palate with some floral and peachy notes. Savoury and spicy but lacking in acidity and too much residual sugar – a typical problem in traditional-style Badacsony Szűrkebarát. 78 (80)

Tramini
Another pink-berried variety that’s more usually found as an opulent golden wine in Alsace as Gewürztraminer and in northern Italy as Traminer Aromatico. Interestingly, it is genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc of Jura fame and Savagnin Rose, of which it is thought to be an aromatic mutation.

TraminiThe variety is known for its deep golden, full-bodied and headily aromatic wines with perfumed aromas of rose petals, lychees and exotic fruit. Alcohol is generally on the high side and acidity can sometimes be low, thus rendering the wines flabby. The name Gewürztraminer, comes from the German word ‘gewürz’, meaning spicy or seasoned, as its distinctive scent is often referred to as spicy.

Tramini under its various names is widely planted in Hungary and across Eastern Europe, where it is generally lighter, and its trademark aroma muted due to high yields. If grown on volcanic rock, e.g. Somló, it retains better acidity.

We put two Hungarian Traminis to the test, both from abbey-related wineries – Apatság meaning abbey in Hungarian.

Somlói Apátsági Pincészet Tramini 2016 (Somló)
SAP TraminiPale gold in colour with plenty of opulent tropical fruit, honey, grapefruit and stoniness on the nose. Rich and ripe on the palate with peach and quince complementing the tropical fruit along with some melon, caramel and orange. Characteristic of the variety, perhaps a little lacking in acidity, but full-bodied, complex, layered and smoky with a long, warming finish. Star of the show. 86 (86)

Pannonhalmi Apátsági Pincészet Tramini 2017 (Pannonhalma)IMG_9851
Aromatic on the nose with fresh tropical fruit, grape flower and plenty of perfume. Clean and fresh on the palate with bags of lemon, yellow rose and peach. Long finish with a touch of bitterness. 84 (83)

Korai Piros Veltelini
Fruhroter VeltlinerDespite the name, this is not the brother of Zöld Veltelini (Grüner Veltliner); it has many relations, but its green namesake is not one of them. A natural crossing of Roter Veltliner and Silvaner, it is the sibling of Neuburg and the half-sibling of Rotgipfler and Zierfandler. As a grandchild of Savagnin, it’s also related to Gewürztraminer, but the relatively neutral wines it produces bear no resemblance to their distant relation’s. Greatest plantings of it are in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), where it is known as Frühroter Veltliner; it’s also grown sparsely across the border in Sopron too, where our wine originates.

Taschner Korai Piros Veltliner (Sopron)
Taschner KPVNose of grapefruit and apple with perfumed, waxy notes as well as slightly oxidised, cider vinegar character. Relatively high acidity makes it fresh and zesty, but rather lacking in fruit. A slight prickle appears on the short finish. The palate is slightly more pleasant than the nose. The wine lives up, or down, to the variety’s reputation for neutral wines meant for early drinking. 78 (78)

Hungarian pink berries, ancient and modern
And now to three varieties that few outside Hungary, and probably within Hungary too, will have heard of, let alone tasted!

Kövidinka
Jancis Robinson’s ‘Wine Grapes’ describes Kövidinka as a ‘common pink-skinned Hungarian variety making commonplace whites’. Allegedly already cultivated in the Middle Ages, it’s widely planted in Central and Eastern Europe, mainly in central and southern Hungary on the Alföld (Great Plain), an area not best known for its quality wine production. It’s a resistant, hardy chap, hence perhaps its popularity in this region known best for bulk and table wine, producing light, fairly neutral wines for early consumption.

Font Pincészet Kövidinka 2017 (Kunság)
Font kövidinkaPale lemon in colour with a waxy, peachy nose of yellow apple and mandarin with some floral notes. Rather simple on the palate with some tropical fruit and an artificial banana and pear drops note. A slightly sweet, short finish, low alcohol and lack of acidity rendered the wine quite flat and unbalanced. 78 (81)

Pintes
Another ancient Hungarian variety, believed to have been extinct following phylloxera, Pintes was rediscovered at the foot of the Mecsek hills near Pécs in 1968. Nobody knew what its original name was, so it was renamed Pintes thanks to its massive, high-yielding bunches (a ‘pint’ is a Hungarian measure equivalent to 1.69 litres). It was then officially recognised and 12 hectares planted around the country. Now only 1.5 hectares remain, accidentally ending up in the hands of the Vinum Veress winery in Csáford, who decided they would do what they could with it, despite the fact that it’s late-ripening, susceptible to disease and its wines are somewhat rustic, and so now have the honour of producing the only Pintes in the world.

Vinum Veress Családi Borpince Pintes 2017 (Zala)
Veress PintesMedium lemon in colour with a citrus and floral nose along with a touch of musty chalk. The restrained palate is dominated by grapefruit, along with its associated bitterness, and some yellow apple. Rather mouthpuckeringly sour and reminiscent of crab apples, the finish leaves you with the impression of a high-alcohol cider. 76 (78)

Generosa
A modern Hungarian crossing obtained in 1951 from Ezerjó and Piros Tramini (Savagnin Rose), tested at the Kecskemét viticultural research centre and finally christened Generosa in 2004, although it has nothing to do with the Portuguese variety of the same name. The variety is now growing in popularity, apparently having met its aim of obtaining a grape easier to enjoy and grow than Ezerjó! Kunság, Hajós Baja and Mór now boast 400 hectares of this variety, producing fresh, easy-drinking wines with peach, pear and citrus flavours.

Frittmann Generosa 2017 (Kunság)
Frittmann generosaA rather one-dimensional wine with aromas of ripe apple and stone fruit and some floral hints. Fresh, zesty acidity with a touch of sweet lemon curd and a hint of minerality. Cloyingly sweet on finish. 82 (81)

All wines were tasted blind by a group of journalists as part of a series of press tastings organised at the Kostolom borbar in Budapest by Edit Szabó of Borsmenta. The first scores are mine, the second (in brackets), the rounded aggregate of all tasters.

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It’s a sparkling June

Budapest will shortly see the fourth edition of its Grand Sparkling Tasting – ’Pezsgő Június’, to be held at the Corinthia Hotel on 16 June.

In honour of this occasion, journalists were invited to sample several bubblies along with a couple of amuse bouches at the Caviar & Bull restaurant attached to the Corinthia.

You’ll be able to taste around 80 Hungarian pezsgő (that’s Hungarian for traditional method sparkling wine), Cava, Crémant, Prosecco, Franciacorta Sekt and New World bubblies. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a special Champagne room with 120 Champagnes, including two from the Palmer house which are making their official debut in Hungary at the event.

2018-06-06 11.43.00These two Champagnes, the Palmer Brut Reserve and the Rosé Reserve, were the focal point of our mini-pre-event tasting along with Schlumberger Traditional Method Sekt Brut from Welschriesling (as Olaszrizling is known in Austria), Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, a creamy, zippy bubbly with crisp acidity and lovely apple notes. We also had the chance to try this year’s Hungaria limited edition, a Pinot Blanc Brut, an elegant, fresh wine with peach, white fruit and floral notes.

Incidentally, Hungaria has been making a special edition sparkling each year for the last ten years, when they turned 55 years old. However, sparkling wine production in Hungary dates back to the mid-nineteenth century when they were churning out serious quantities first in Bratislava (then Pozsony) and then in Budafok just outside Budapest. By the end of the century, Hungary boasted  eight important pezsgő manufacturers, four of which remain today.

Our Champagnes were accompanied by some delightful creations from the Caviar & Bull’s chef. The Brut Reserve, a more modern style of Champagne, was paired with delicate sea bass with cauliflower purée and grated lime zest and the Rosé with salmon tartar with white pepper, mustards seeds, strawberry and redcurrants, perfectly complementing the red berry notes of the Rosé.

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And to complete the experience we were entertained by a spot of sabrage – the art of opening sparkling wine with a sabre. Interestingly, it was the first time I’d seen this done with a sabre rather than a shoe or any other handy implement.

2018-06-06 11.19.40Hopefully, this has whet your appetite to attend next week’s Grand Sparkling Tasting. It’s open from 2 to 10 pm, so plenty of time to taste the bubblies on offer.

You can taste sparklers from well-known Hungarian pezsgő manufacturers like Törley and Garamvári as well as those from smaller producers and wineries that you may be more familiar with for their still wines.

Etyek-Buda, considered the Hungarian wine region most closely resembling Champagne, will be present on a common stand with wines from eight producers, and if you still crave the real thing, Anett Varró-Turóczi, Champagne merchant, has assembled 120 Champagnes from both small and large houses, vintage and non-vintage, and will be introducing many small Champagne houses.

The tasting is more international than ever with seven countries and fifty non-Hungarian wines represented (other than the Champagne, of course).

If you’d also like to learn something, there will be two exclusive masterclasses – pairing sparkling wine with oysters and a presentation of eight Prestige Cuvée Champagnes. Four mini courses cover Somló terroir and traditional method sparkling, production of traditional method sparkling wine, Austrian Sekt and Spanish Cava.

And if you don’t want to miss out on the World Cup matches, there’ll be the chance to keep up to date while you’re there too!

So, if you’re truly a sparkling wine lover, make sure you head off to the Corinthia Hotel Budapest (Erzsébet krt. 43-49) this coming Saturday!

BMW test pilot turned winemaker

2016-06-05-12-00-41Crafting artisan wines on the basalt hill of Somló

If there is one region in Hungary, or indeed the world, that has the potential to hold its own against Tokaj, it has to be Somló, the country’s smallest appellation. A dormant volcano, once spewing out streams of lava under the Pannonian Sea, is now a characteristic basalt butte, topped by the ruins of castle, standing out from the flat plain of the Hungarian Kisalföld. The steep slopes of the Somló Hill are densely planted with tiny vineyards divided by stone terraces and peppered with small press houses. Poppies blow in the gentle breeze.

The wines of Somló are something special, characterised by honeyed fruits, dried herbs and exotic spice; they are heady, complex and dense with smoky salini2016-06-05 15.42.25.jpgty and minerality, sometimes developing a petrol-like intensity with age, akin to Riesling. Once you taste them, their magic will remain with you for ever. Celebrated since the twelfth century, their high acidity stabilised them so they could be successfully exported. They were a Royal favourite with the likes of Maria Theresa, Joseph and Queen Victoria. Famed in the past for their medicinal properties, they were stocked by Hungarian pharmacists and used to promote longevity and treat anaemia, high blood pressure, paralysis and liver complaints. The region unfortunately never totally recovered from the devastation of Phylloxera, later followed by collectivisation. However, it certainly has the potential to make world-class wines and regain its former reputation.

The wines gain their special character in part from the ancient basalt, volcanic soils with some sea sediment. The climate is moderately warm with just enough sunshine to ripen the grapes, the vines are caressed by winds, and the topsoil is quite thin on the top of the hill, allowing the sun to heat up the basalt bedrock, thus keeping the roots warm during the cool nights and helping to preserve a high level of acidity in the grapes. It is now mostly planted to white varieties typical in Hungary, such as Olaszrizling, Furmint, Hárslevelű. However, the region has another varietal card to play. Juhfark is the win2016-06-05-13-33-07e region’s most characteristic variety. Only grown here, it is named ‘Sheep’s Tail’ thanks to the long curvy form of the grape clusters. It was believed that if you drank Juhfark, you would be blessed with a son, so it became the favoured wine of the Hapsburgs in order to ensure their succession.

Legendary winemakers Béla Fekete and Imre Györgykovács have been crafting distinctive wines in the region for some time now, but there is another personality who has been helping to put Somló back on the map.

Partway up the hill, in the middle of the Ilona vineyard, lives the charismatic István Stephan Spiegelberg. István, as he is known by Hungarians, Stephan by Germans, was born in Berlin to a German father and a Hungarian mother. Laughing about these two names of his, he says, ‘If I’m here, then I’m German, if I’m there, then I’m Hungarian. I’m always a foreigner!’ He studied electrical engineering, but realised it wasn’t for him, so headed to Budapest where he worked as a technician for a folk-dance theatre starring Márta Sebestyen, owner of the haunting voice in the music of ‘The English Patient’. Returning to Germany, he end2016-06-05-15-39-02ed up in Munich where he worked for BMW in the research lab and later as a test pilot. They were looking for someone who didn’t like to drive, he quipped, otherwise they would most likely brake too quickly. Funnily enough, Munich is where I first met István, at a Hungarian folk dancing event, long before he rose to fame as a winemaker.

So, how does a BMW test pilot end up making wine on a volcanic butte with so little money currently that he says he can’t afford to whitewash the cellar and buy new furniture. As is typical in Hungary, István was despatched every year to spend the summer with his granny, and said granny just so happened to live at the foot of the Somló Hill, although she didn’t actually have any vines. István fell in love with this magical place and in 1993 bought a cellar constructed in 1823 with no running water or electricity as a weekend house. He became a winemaker by accident. Like many in Hungary, he began just making wine for himself. However, he had too much for himself and decided to bottle some, which soon proved popular. He started taking his ‘hobby’ seriously in 2004 and moved to Somló completely in 2007. Since 2010, he has been a superstar, he smiles, when he won Winemaker of the Year, followed by a trail of other awards. István is not only a legendary figure on the hill and in Hungar2016-06-05-15-44-55y, but also internationally, his wines have reached the US via Blue Danube and he was also named in the 2014 Top 100 List of Wines&Spirits Magazine. Yet, he didn’t study winemaking at any point, he’s self-taught, although he did get some guidance from the iconic Béla Fekete, who lives nearby. His winemaking, however, is all his own style. His wines are like him, unconventional yet elegant, stylish and multi-layered. He has always worked on experimental stuff, believing there are simply a few rules that help if you want to make good wine.

He does most of the work himself on his two hectares, although only one is currently planted. This is where he is most likely to be found, sporting his signature straw hat. He is moving towards organic viticulture and biodynamics, although he says that he wants to be somewhere in the middle, between industrial and totally biodynamic, as he believes that this does not reflect the terroir either, and Somló has a very distinct terroir indeed due to its soils, yielding wines with a distinct stony, salty character and often piercingly high acidity. István believes that wines made here lose their varietal character afte2016-06-05-15-52-13r time, increasingly reflecting the Somló terroir as they age. His wines are different from other Somló wines; they need time. He picks later than his neighbours and when we visited in early June, last year’s vintage was still fermenting. His cool barrel fermentations using native yeast can take up to one year to complete; he is a believer in slow winemaking. He still hasn’t sulphured the wines and maybe won’t even need to do so as he changed to biodynamics this year, he mentioned. They also go through malolactic fermentation, which is rare on the hill, so his wines are generally less acidic than others. Sometimes they also spend two years on their lees in barrel. He matures the wines in his cool ventilated cellar, to the strains of Gregorian chants as he believes they appreciate this. He still presses everything by hand, has very few pipes and racks manually if possible, a firm believer in minimal intervention. He uses a mixture of old and new 500-litre barrels, Austrian style but made in Hungary, buying a few new ones every year.

He greets us with his 2012 Furmint, his ‘morning wine’, he calls it, as it only has 11.5% alcohol. An attractive, structured wine with a clear salty, mineral character complementing the apple fruit. He doesn’t make it every year, as he has the least2016-06-05-15-54-40 of this variety. If he doesn’t have enough for at least one barrel, then it’ll go into a blend. His Furmint is on southwest-facing slopes along with his Juhfark and Olaszrizling; he rents another hectare on the northern side of the hill, where he has Chardonnay and Hárslevelű, which he turns into a blend.

His Olaszrizling, he says, is generally liked by Germans and Scandinavians. The minerality of the hill tempers the lower acidity of the grape, and the ubiquitous Hungarian variety gains uniqueness when planted on Somló, becoming more structured and delicate with an oily texture and a savoury, herbaceous character.  The Chardonnay is clearly a Somló wine, with the terroir and its mineral saltiness overriding the varietal. The Hárslevelű is a rich, full-bodied nectar of honey and peach with salty, stony undertones, and the Juhfark, the region’s flagship variety and the key variety for István, is rich and full-bodied yet elegant, with honey and perfumed quince complemented by salinity. The showstopper, however, was István’s 2011 Naszéjszakakák, ‘Wedding Night’, its name honouring Juhfark’s lege2016-06-05-13-36-08ndary attribute which may well be needed on the night in question, a beautifully balanced blend of Juhfark, Hárslevelű and Furmint with spice, honey, rich, ripe fruit and serious stony salinity.

István has two houses, idyllically surrounded by vines and fruit trees. He lives in one and rents the other to tourists. He also has two cellars, one filled with barrels and demijohns of fermenting wines where the wines age gracefully with their musical accompaniment; lit by candlelight playing on the sculptures which decorate its old walls, visiting it was quite an experience, as was the roasted suckling pig served in the other cellar, where he hosts larger groups for tastings, also illuminated by numerous candles gracing the wrought iron chandelier. It’s certainly worth a detour up the hill to meet István and sample his wines.

Prestige Reserve Club Awards

Prestige Reserve Club is an organisation devoted to supporting Hungarian wine and promoting its image. It not only confers awards to premium wines which represent outstanding quality on a semi-annual basis, but also supports other endeavours in the Hungarian wine world, such as wine events, restaurants, wine hotels, marketing initiatives and winemakers, giving awards in these areas. However, if there is a year where there is no deserving candidate for the award, then it will not be awarded.

prestige3The award for wine marketing for 2016, which was first won by Kreinbacher for its introduction of sparkling wine, was scooped up this year by Balatoni Kör (Balaton Circle) and accepted by Bence Laposa. The Balatoni Kör was a small group of businesses which grew into a regional project with community products, a regional brand with its own design, labels and unique, homogenous image. Initially conceived by Bence Laposa, Gábor Kardos and Tamás Kovacs, Balaton Bor now consists of a complete quality classification for wines made from Olaszrizling from around the lake. The long-term plan is to offer an alternative to the state quality system. 21 wineries qualified to make Balaton Bor this year. Indeed, it is already seen as a brand, guaranteeing the quality of basic wine. The example was given of a consumer simply asking for a glass of Olaszrizling as Balaton Bor in a restaurant without even mentioning the winery or variety, thus already showing respect for the brand.

The Wine Event award was picked up by Borjour Magnum. Borjour, a youthful prestige-5organisation, brainchild of Sebestyen Nagy, Gábor Toth and Sara Megyeri, which just grew and grew. The event, held each February, now attracts around 2000 visitors. Size matters here, as they also organise smaller events throughout they year entitled mini, classic and extra. They have been operating now for ten years to positive feedback from consumers and wineries, but to date had won no awards, so were delighted to have their success recognised by this award, say Gábor Toth, who picked up the prize.

prestige-7Bock Hermitage in Villány won the Wine Hotel award. This hotel, winery and restaurant offers its guests affordable, good quality rooms and meals in a pleasant, intimate atmosphere. The hotel is also active with events, e.g. the Villány Franc conference held in November.

The Wine Restaurant award was won by the St Andrea Wine and Gourmet Bar in Budapest. This is an award for a restaurant which concentrates not only on the food, but also on what wines are on offer, whether the staff are knowledgeable about wine and combines this with fine dining. St Andrea Wine and Gourmet Bar is personal and thoughtful dining experience prestige6offering ‘Hungarian flavours open to the world’. It is, of course, connected to the Eger St Andrea Winery.

The Hedonist award went to Péter Fritt of Best of Budapest. Presumably related to how much me has had to consume, in both food and wine, to assess restaurants over the last 22 years. His award was a glass so big that it has capacity for three bottles of wine!

prestige2The Winery award went to Tokaj’s Disznókő. This is a clear and objective assessment of the quality of the winery and its wine; it is foreign-owned, so in this case, there can be no subjective association with a ‘figurehead personality’. Many winemakers have worked here, so there is no tight association with one particular winemaker; indeed teamwork is extremely important at Disznókő. There were many who believed that they would never be successful with such a name – Disznókő means ‘pig stone’ in Hungarian. However, they have been proved wrong, even taking risks such as selling an Aszú which could not be sold as an Aszú as is it didn’t meet the requirements, so confident were they in the quality of their wines. For them, Aszú is king, as this is why Tokaj has been famous for many centuries.

Following the award ceremony, those present were able to sample the wines that had won awards in 2016. Click here for a the lists of those winning Medaillon d’Or and Vinum Bonum awards