Hurricane delays and late container planning be damned, new arrivals from Hungary, Austria and Romania have finally landed in California. From out west in Sopron and Carnuntum, down in Somló and Lake Balaton, further still to Szekszárd, heading back northeast to Tokaj, and finally all the way over to Romania’s Minis region, these wines are a validation that the farming, winemaking and understanding of terroir are getting better and better year after year.
The Reds: Wetzer, Muhr-van der Niepoort, Heimann, Eszterbauer and Balla Géza
Only 10 years in, but using maps from the 1840s to find the best vineyards, Peter Wetzer’s 2016 vintage is our Hungarian foil for Cru Beaujolais. It doesn’t taste like Beaujolais, but the balance of spice, earth and structure makes the same person happy. Just about an hour north in Austria’s Carnuntum, the 2015 Samt und Seide from Muhr-van Der Niepoort has more limestone than Sopron’s slate, and is proof of how reflective of terroir Blaufränkisch can be.
Further south in Szeskszárd near the Croatian border, we finally have some Kadarka back in stock. Once the most planted red in Hungary and a muse to composers like Franz Liszt (Hungarian Rhapsodies…), it nearly disappeared during Communism. Producers like Heimann and Eszterbauer have been tirelessly working on clonal and massale selection to bring this grape back to life. Proof of Kadarka’s genetic diversity, the 2016 Heimann is impossibly light and flavorful and the 2016 Eszterbauer “Nagyapám” is dark yet light on it’s feet. Kadarka’s reach and diversity was once so vast, that it’s also called Cadarcâ in Romania. Located near the village of Păuliş, originally named “Wine Princess,” Balla Géza’s 2016 Cadarcâ (and his Fetească Neagră for that matter) is the darkest and most concentrated of the lot but still has the remarkable levity of the variety.
The Whites: Demeter Zoltán, Kikelet, Apátsági, Fekete Béla, Csendes Dűlő, Káli-Kövek, Patricius and Balla Géza
Starting along the northern shores of Lake Balaton, affectionately known as the “Hungarian Sea,” is where fertile soil, basalt fragments (crazy high amounts of potassium) and ripe exposures meet. In other words, bright, smoky and salty whites. On the western end in Badacsony, Csendes Dűlő has both a honeyed aromatic 2015 Hárslevelű and a razor sharp and salty 2015 Kéknyelű. A little further east and away from the water’s edge in the Káli Basin, Káli Kövek is making intensely layered Olaszrizling (aka Welschriesling). Both of his wines (2016 Rezeda and 2016 Köveskál) share a weight, roundness, saltiness, and wildflower-ness that scream Lake Balaton.
Just about an hour north is the hardened Basalt “witness peak” of Somló. Later picked, barrel fermented and aged, and balanced with oxidation and residual sugar, these are white wines where no red wines are necessary. The new 2015 Furmint from Apátsági is that impossible balance of picking late for concentration and still having plenty of acidity to keep the wine refreshing. From Fekete Béla (Uncle Béla), we got the very last restock of his 2012 Juhfark, Furmint and Hárslevelű. The 2013s will be ready in the Spring.
Back up in North-Eastern Hungary near the Slovakian border, we have some special and rare offerings from Tokaj. Benchmarks for both dry and sweet, Zoltán Demeter’s 2016 Birtok Furmint and 2016 Szerelmi Hárslevelű are the product of 20+ years of fine tuning the dry wines of the region post Communism. The Birtok (estate) comes from the Hold-völgy, Veres and Boda vineyards with a splash of aromatics from Szerelmi. The 100% Hárslevelű from Szerelmi, a mere 1526 bottle production, is something everybody should taste. Just on the other side of Tokaj Hill is the village of Tarcal and Kikelet Winery. Stéphanie Berecz has taken these loess heavy soils and made some of the most texturally elegant dry Tokaj we’ve found. Her 2016 estate Furmint has sweet acids, salt and length. We also got a small restock of her 2013 traditional method Hárslevelű from the 45 year old Lónyai and Kassai vineyards.
Rounding out an otherwise entire lineup of dry volcanic wines, is Balla Gèza’s Mustoasa de Măderat. Light, bright, aromatic, and dry, this is one of those wines that can be on the table from start to finish and reset you in between.
The Botrytized: Samuel Tinon, Patricius, and Demeter Zoltán
This is where things get a little preachy… Whether late harvest, dry or sweet Szamorodni or Aszú, our hope is that these kinds of wines can break free of the back of the dessert menu and work their way into pairings, as aperitifs, or with anything umami and fatty. For the light bodied non-oxidative approach, the 2016 Katinka Late Harvest from Patricius or the slightly more oxidate and rich 2016 Late Harvest from Zoltán Demeter are both amazing wines to start a dinner. The 2008 Dry Szamorodni from Samuel Tinon (aged until dry under a yeast veil, no maderisation or fortification) hints at both Sherry and Vin Jaune, but still has the honey and minerality of botrytis and volcanic soils. As for Aszú, the 2013 Patricius is again the non-oxidative approach while Tinon’s 2007 embraces it. Both have a concentration, vibrancy, and focus unique to Tokaj.