Here is Colm FitzGerald’s, editor of The Paprika Project, visit to Füleky in Tokaj, Hungary; sure to make you want to go and try these fine wines!
The steady putt of the riverboat’s engine put me at ease. It was my first time navigating a boat that didn’t have an outboard engine and I was nervous—all alone with the small craft’s wheel in my hands. I was in north-east Hungary, cruising along the Bodrog River in the famous Tokaj wine region. On the top deck, the other passengers—my wife Anita, the captain, his wife and Hajnalka Szabo and György Brezovcsik from the Füleky Winery—soaked up the early summer sun. The captain, a fit tanned man in his 60’s, handed over the wheel moments earlier. Soon, I was completely at ease captaining the boat. Thick cottonwood trees lined either side of the slow moving brown-green river, cool air blew into the open cabin and an egret swooped across the water ahead. Aside from the occasional pair of rowers sliding past in their sculls, we were all alone. Serene, beautiful and meditative—it was the perfect way to spend a June afternoon.
Before our river cruise, Hajnalka and György (we’ll call him Gyuri from here on) brought us up the Tokaj Hill for a tour of their Teleki vineyard. “This ensures the highest quality,” Hajnalka said, explaining why some of their grapevines are tied to single wooden posts instead of wire rows. “It allows us to plow with horses and for the vines to receive the most heat.” Here, in Hungary’s most prized terroir, Füleky grows Furmint grapes for their dry white wines and decadent Aszu dessert wines. From our vantage point, on the south-facing slope, we could see for miles across the surrounding flat landscape. The hill itself, an iconic symbol of Hungarian wine, was a green sea of rolling grapevines under the bright midday sun. Gyuri, Füleky ’s winemaker, was in his element as he inspected the new-green grape buds. “If the flowers have fallen off by June 10th, we’re off to a good start,” he said, seeming pleased.
Established in 1998, the Füleky Estate is named after György Füleky, founding member of the First Tokaj Wine Grower’s Society. With nearly 62 acres of vineyards in some of the region’s most historic appellations, Füleky is serious about their wine. Minutes from the Bodrog River in the town of Bodrogkeresztúr, one finds their recently renovated 18th century baroque mansion. The impressive structure was painstakingly restored in adherence with local laws regarding historical sites. While this larger, pale-yellow building dominates Füleky’s stone courtyard, it’s their other recent renovation that gets all the attention. Füleky acquired the property in 2006 in a ruined state. Incorporating an original medieval wall with modern stone and oak they’ve created a remarkable new building. This asymmetrically roofed winery was awarded ArchDaily.com’s Industrial Building of the Year in 2011. Initially I didn’t see what the hype was all about, but once my eyes caught the roofline, I became fascinated by its ship-like angularity.
Following our vineyard tour on Tokaj Hill and our boat ride along the Bodrog River, we arrived at the main event—the wine tasting. After 5 months in Hungary, I was beginning to acquire a real taste for good Furmint and couldn’t wait to try Füleky’s take on this classic Hungarian varietal.
On the steps of the mansion, overlooking the courtyard’s acacia and chestnut trees, Anita and I were served a simple yet delicious Hungarian stew as we tasted wine. Using a traditional cauldron, Gyuri had slow cooked pork trotters in a rich sauce of onions, peppers, tomatoes and paprika. Served over noodles made by Gyuri’s mother-in-law, the stew was a beautiful accompaniment to the wines. “Winemakers are usually good cooks,” Hajnalka told us. From this one experience, I have to agree.
Our tasting was elegantly presented and the wines outstanding, yet the atmosphere was decidedly relaxed as we experienced the best Füleky had to offer. Here are my tasting notes:
Tokaji Sargamuskotaly 2013: This was perfect in the afternoon heat. Fermented in stainless steel to maintain its clean floral notes. Light and dry, refreshing apricot notes with fiery acidity. Beautiful floral nose that doesn’t overwhelm. A little light for me but Anita liked it so much she brought a bottle home.
Tokaji Furmint 2012: An estate wine blended from Furmint vineyards in Mád , Szegi and Tarcal. 50% aged in oak barrels, 50% aged in stainless steel. I experienced honey, acacia and an acidity offset by mustiness. Floral and fruity, slightly sour on the nose. A very balanced, drinkable wine. As Hajnalka said, “This is a great everyday wine.”
Tokaji Kabar 2013: A semi-dry wine with an interesting story. At 30 years old, this is a new grape variety and is a blend of Hárslevelű and Bouvier. Originally and unimaginatively named Tarcal 10, Gyuri re-named this grape Kabar. One of its advantages is that the Kabar grape can be harvested early, giving the winemaker some security. Sweet acacia touches on the nose. High acidity, spice with a silky, sticky sweet finish.
Tokaj Furmint Mestervölgy 2013: Unlike the estate Furmint, this wine is made from grapes grown on Füleky’s loess-soiled Tarcal vineyard. More intense than the 2012 estate Furmint. An incredibly balanced and likable wine. Maybe my favorite of the lot.
Pallas Tokaji Late Harvest 2013: Made from overripe shriveled grapes creating a sweet, but balanced wine. A great introduction for those new to Hungarian dessert wines. Sticky sweet but with acidity and a hint of bitterness. I never understood what people meant when they said a wine had the taste or smell of “cut straw” or “cut grass”. Now I know. Delicious.
Challenge International du Vin 2012: gold
Decanter World Wine 2011: silver
International Wine Challenge 2011: silver
The wine-style that put Tokaj on the map back in the 1700’s. Made from berries covered in noble mold and created using a highly specific process. I was never much into dessert wines when I first came to Hungary 10 years ago, but over time I’ve come to know and love them. Füleky’s 2007 Aszú might just be the best I’ve ever had. Intensely sweet but fiery on the nose. Apricots, acacia and that “fresh cut straw” dynamic I spoke of earlier. Pure bliss. This is what Tokaj is all about.
Füleky is doing great things. Their professionalism and attention to detail run seamlessly throughout the whole winemaking operation. Hajnalka spoke of their goal being “to create balanced and elegant wines.” I believe they have done just that, not only with their fantastic wines, but in their creation of a world-class winery. Their entire winemaking facility shows vision and a commitment to their craft.
None of this would be possible without Füleky ’s extraordinary people: Hajnalka Szabo is head of their marketing. She is an encyclopedia of wine knowledge and her insider tips on must-see attractions in Hungary are invaluable. Gyuri Brezovcsik, Füleky’s witty winemaker could be their secret weapon. He reminded me of a mad scientist: always experimenting with new things and tweaking his recipes to perfection. “He’s a really excellent winemaker,” Hajnalka said of Gyuri, whom she’s known for 20 years. “He was born here. He grew up making wine. It’s in his blood.” Wine here is not only a business or a hobby, around Tokaj—and at the Füleky Estate—wine is a way of life.
The charmat method is also used at Bagrationi, based in Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia. The company, a leading producer of bubbly in the former Soviet country, is named for a prince who established the sparkling wine house in 1882. Winemakers craft native grapes like chinebuli (also known as chinuri), mtsvane, and tsitska into a frothy sparkler offering appetizing scents of apples and a touch of yeastiness.
We caught up with our friend, and New York based sommelier, Cliff Rames, recently to share his thoughts on Croatian wine with you. Cliff also writes the popular blog, Wines of Croatia, which we encourage you to follow!
1. What makes you so passionate about Croatian wine?
Well first, my father is from Croatia, so it’s in my blood I guess. When I was 16 years old my dad asked me if I wanted to go visit his birthplace, a small island called Murter off the Dalmatian coast. I said yes, and it forever changed my life. There I learned to drink Turkish coffee and “bevanda” – a mixture of red wine (usually homemade) and water. That kicked off my fascination with the local wine customs and traditions. It was then I also first heard of a mythological place called Dingač, the place from which (I was told by relatives) Croatia’s greatest wine came. I also began to hear words like Plavina, Debit, Babić, Plavac Mali, Pošip – the names of local grape varieties used to make wine. The more I heard and learned, the more I wanted to know! After that, back in the U.S., I found myself searching for these wines because I wanted to have that taste of Croatia again. But at the time I couldn’t find them anywhere! Croatia opened the door for me to the world of wine, which eventually led to me becoming a sommelier. Once in the wine business, I made it my mission to tell people about Croatian wines and do whatever I could to help make them accessible and successful here in the U.S.
2. What are some of the varietals you think Americans should know about? Why?
Nothing gets me more excited than talking about little-known, indigenous varieties, and there are lots of them in Croatia. My personal favorites are Babić, Lasina, Plavac Mali, and Teran from the reds, and Graševina, Grk, Pošip, and Škrlet from the whites. Many Americans have already fallen in love with Plavac Mali – especially the easy drinking, affordable “Peljesac” label imported by Blue Danube. Perhaps it has something to do with Plavac’s relationship to Zinfandel, which we now know originated in Croatia and is closely related to Plavac Mali. And Pošip, from the island of Korčula is gaining a fan club for its deliciousness and ability to pair so well with seafood. Grk is a rare, often overlooked wine from Korčula that really gets some of my sommelier and wine geek friends jazzed whenever I have a bottle to share. And I am really looking forward to tasting and sharing more Lasina. This wine has the potential to stake a claim as the “Pinot Noir of Dalmatia”.
3. What are you currently excited about drinking?
Well, it was a long, cold winter but now it’s finally summer. And that means rosé! In a blog post I wrote last year, I said that I think the “next big thing” from Croatia is rosé. I think the conditions exist, particularly in some parts of Dalmatia, to produce world class rosés. And I am thrilled that Blue Danube Wine is now importing the Miloš rosé – a great wine from a great producer and a must try! The BIBICh Sparkling Rosé is another great buy if you like bubbles. I hope to pop one in the 4th of July!
4. Looking ahead, what do you think the future of Croatian wine looks like?
Croatia is blessed with such a beautiful natural landscape, from the rolling, golden plains of Slavonia, to the pastoral, green hills of the Uplands, to the olive tree and truffle woods of Istria, to the sparkling azure Adriatic Sea and white islands of Dalmatia. In each of these gorgeous regions great wines are produced by amazing people with stories to tell. Despite this, the wine can’t sell itself, no matter how beautiful the vineyard and how delicious the wine. Someone needs to tell the story of these regions, these producers, these unique grape varieties, and these world-worthy wines every day, in a sustained, approachable, and strategic way that connects with buyers and consumers. Without marketing, promotion, brand ambassadors, and constant messaging, the wines will just sit on the shelf. The future of Croatian wine depends on this. The quality and stories are there. We just need the right messaging, the right storytellers, the right marketing approach, and a sustained commitment by all – producers, winemakers’ associations, importers and distributors, and the Croatian government – to spread the word, organize more tasting events (one Grand Tasting every two years is not close enough), and convince more buyers and consumers that Croatian wines are worthy of their hard-earned dollars and will delight their palates, too! In this respect, I think you folks at Blue Danube Wine are doing a great job of messaging, promoting, and sharing the love for the producers and wines you represent!
5. Tell us a little bit about Wines of Croatia. What is your mission?
Wines of Croatia remains my labor of love and an independent platform from which I share my passion and admiration for the country and its wines through social media, the blog, and announcements about events and latest news. It is important to me to remain independent and non-governmental. But with that come challenges, primarily financial. It costs money to operate a website and other activities. So I am constantly thinking about ways to generate income, offset costs, and ensure the sustainability of the project. I hope to refresh the brand and complete the website this year, and then from there figure out what’s next. A lot of people don’t realize that Wines of Croatia is manly a one-man-show, and I guess that is a compliment. But it is not ideal, and I hope to change that eventually. Until then I will continue to do whatever I can – whenever I can – to help promote the wines of Croatia and lend whatever passion, expertise, and sweat I can muster to writing about them, representing them at tastings, talking to buyers or consumers about them, and in general supporting others who feel the same way. Perhaps someday I will be able to earn a grand living from this and retire to a vineyard-covered island in Dalmatia. That is a dream worth pursuing! But if not, that’s okay too. No matter how you turn it, the journey will be blessed with many delicious bottles of Croatian wine, and that’s not bad at all!
“The Paprika Project” is American Colm FitzGeralds’ blog about his experiences as an expat living in Hungary. We had the pleasure of meeting him recently and think you will enjoy his unique perspectives on Hungarian culture, including wine of course! The blog is also very helpful if you are planning to travel throughout Hungary. Allow Colm to introduce himself and learn more about “The Paprika Project”:
I vividly remember my first trip to Hungary. It was 2005; I was living in Ireland at the time and my Hungarian girlfriend had invited me to meet her family. Knowing next to nothing about this central European country, I was instantly captivated. Culturally, linguistically and historically—everything was waiting to be discovered.
I remember lying in her parents’ garden— cool grass beneath me, warm sun on my face and chest. After 6 months in Ireland, sunny weather was a blessing in itself. It was springtime and flowers of every color adorned the green, hilly landscape. During those ten days in Hungary I discovered a whole new world: the unique Magyar people and language; a tumultuous history of invasions, occupations and uprisings; a food culture bordering on obsession; and an intimacy with the land and all it provides—including a passionate 2,000 year-old love affair with wine.
Ten years later and a dozen trips in between, I now live in Hungary. That Hungarian girl I followed home? She’s now my wife. Last January we moved from Ventura, California to Miskolc, Hungary. For many, it seemed illogical, as most migrate in the opposite direction. But here we are, between the Eger and Tokaj wine regions, and we couldn’t be happier.
Travel has always been a common passion between us. A little over a year ago I began combining my love of writing and photography with our frequent travels. I had found a vehicle for expressing myself as an individual through the filter of foreign experiences. And when the idea of moving to Hungary came up, I knew it was my opportunity to finally uncover the mysteries of this place. Due to the lack of information about Hungary (outside of Budapest) in English, I also knew it would be of value to others. The Paprika Project was born from this idea.
For years I’ve known the significant role wine plays in Hungarian culture, but it’s only since moving here that I’ve realized just how large that role is. You can’t go far in this country without seeing a sweeping vineyard, or a wine cellar carved into a hillside. Naturally, as I travel around Hungary, I have begun writing about Hungarian wine. I’m no expert on the subject, mind you, but in many ways it allows me to explore places like Mád and Badacsony with a fresh perspective; with fresh taste buds, if you will. Whether sampling my wife’s cousin’s wine in his tiny cellar, touring wineries in Tokaj, or being invited to a grape harvest at Lake Balaton, wine is becoming a major part of my life. In many ways it has grown into the perfect focal point for unraveling local history and culture.
Every week I learn something new about Hungarian wine and the people whose passion goes into each bottle. The more I explore, the more I’m convinced that Hungarian wine is worth celebrating on the global stage, if it isn’t already. I truly hope you’ll join me on this journey of discovery, perhaps be inspired to experience this fascinating country for yourself—even if only through the lens of your wine glass.
In essence, the Paprika Project is about exploring and sharing Hungary with the world. It’s about finding this country’s oft-overlooked treasures–including its storybook villages, natural wonders and magical wines.
We are excited to introduce three new Slovenian “Pét-Nat’s” from Štoka. But what is “Pét-Nat” you may ask? In essence, it is an old method for producing gently sparkling wines that has become popular again. This article written by Zachary Sussman for Punch really describes the process and how it originated.
As a form of fermentation, the technique pre-dates the so-called Champagne method by a couple centuries, at least in those areas of France—like Gaillac, Limoux and Bugey—where it has historically been practiced. Unlike the Champagne method, which enacts a secondary fermentation by adding sugar and yeast, the ancestral method allows the initial fermentation to finish in bottle without any additives, imparting a gentle carbonation by trapping carbon dioxide.
Vivino user Darko Vozab has put together this helpful, and thorough, guide to Croatia’s wine regions. A perfect introduction to this diverse wine country!
Croatia is a must-see European oasis for the wine-minded traveler. Wine production in this land on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea began around 2200 B.C., and today Croatia boasts more than 130 indigenous grape varieties, as well as five different climate zones, resulting in a large number of wine styles.
Daniella Cheslow reports on the rich winemaking history of Georgia for NPR.
Georgia’s winemaking heritage goes back 8,000 years and centers on the qvevri, a cavernous terra-cotta pot shaped like an egg, lined with beeswax and buried to the mouth underground. But these ancient vessels were sidelined by the industrial wine production dictated by seven decades of Soviet rule. Over the past 10 years, however, qvevri wine has slowly recovered. Today, it is a calling card for Georgian wine around the world.
The French word “confrérie” means brotherhood and is used extensively for cultural or religious partnerships between groups of people. The Confrérie has a long history in Tokaj. It was originally set up in 1987 by the state winery, Tokaj Kereskedőház, as La Confrérie “Vinum Regnum, Rex Vinorum”(King of Wines, Wine of Kings) de Tokaj. The members goal was to promote the wines and gastronomy of the Tokaj wine region.
Starting in 1999 La Confrérie “Vinum Regnum, Rex Vinorum” de Tokaj was managed by Tokaj Renaissance, a producers’ association, and the twenty Tokaj Renaissance members became members of the Board. Tamás Dusóczky, who has worked internationally to rebuild the image of the Tokaji wine since the fall of Communism, received the majority of votes and thus became Grand Maître. After 15 years of service, Tamás recently stepped down but remains an honorary board member.
The most recent reincarnation of this group is the Confrérie de Tokaj (Tokaji Borlovagrend) which was formed in 2012 by 100 founding members, many of whom are winemakers. In addition to reforming the Confrérie and initiation ceremony, members travelled to Burgundy to learn more about famous auction Hospices de Beaune, and organize their own annual wine auction. The first Great Tokaj Wine Auction was held in 2013. Tokaj’s top producers craft exclusive lots of high quality wine for sale at the auction. A percentage of the proceeds are used to invest in the next auction and for the benefit of the Tokaj wine region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002.
The president of the Confrérie de Tokaj is István Szepsy, the vice president Samuel Tinon and the Grand Maître Dr. Tibor Kovács. As mentioned, Tamás Dusóczky, Grand Maître from 1990 to 2015, remains an honorary board member.
This year’s auction was held April 25th and raised just under $112,000! Two members of our team, Frank and Eric, had the privilege of not only attending, but being inducted as members of the Confrérie! With the 22 new members inducted this year, the group now numbers 150 professionals committed to sharing their passion for Tokaj with the world.
Special thanks to the Confrérie de Tokaj for providing us with the history of their organization and also the wonderful photos featured in this piece!
Wine writer Lauren Mowery tells you why you need to try wines from Croatia…and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Start with gorgeous Croatia, a wine-rich culture blessed with a long Adriatic coastline, and continue east, curving around the Black Sea with Moldova, Bulgaria, and Turkey; each country offers indigenous grapes at affordable prices, allowing imbibers to visit far-flung locales, via wine, for less than $20.