Home to the famous Tokaji-Aszú dessert wine (characterised by French King Louis XIV as ‘the wine of kings, the king of wines’), it is also noteworthy for its labyrinthine cellars where these historic sweet wines are stored.
Tim Atkin MW spent some time in Georgia recently, exploring the rich wine culture and variety of indigenous grapes.
Wine is part of Georgia’s DNA, too. This is the so-called cradle of wine – grape pips have been found here that date back more than 8,000 years – but it’s so much more than a living museum. Wine is the national drink, consumed with gusto in a series of toasts and salutations at official meals, but also in countless bars and restaurants. Tbilisi is a wine city that’s every bit as vibrant as Bordeaux, Mendoza, Logroño or Florence.
We are excited to be hosting a few tasting events with Sarah Grunwald, founder of Taste Georgia, over the next few weeks in California. Sarah is a sommelier and Georgia enthusiast. Hopefully you can join us at one of the events listed at the end of the post!
Allow Sarah to introduce herself and her company:
“I am absolutely thrilled to be partnering with Blue Danube this summer to co-host three Georgian wine tastings in California with the support of the Georgian National Wine Agency. Blue Danube is a leader in the emerging Eastern European wine markets which includes the Republic of Georgia, the oldest known wine region in the world. We’ll taste a variety of wines, which both represents the ancient techniques and also showcases the way Georgians are embracing modernity.
I contacted Blue Danube a few months ago about this then potential collaboration in California that will be held while I am visiting. Though I live in Rome, Italy, I am from California, a state that nursed my passion for wine until I moved to the old world. I studied for and passed the sommelier exam and eventually started teaching a University level class at the Instituto Lorenzo de Medici in Rome. I have also studied with WSET and I own a food and wine travel company called Antiqua Tours which offers food, wine and cultural excursions in and around Rome, focusing on the Lazio region.
In 2014, I was invited to speak at a wine tourism conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. Georgia was familiar to me for one thing, the qvevri. I am a great advocate for natural wines and in Italy- this means Josko Gravner, a vigneron in Friuli who uses qvevri that he imported from Georgia. I accepted the invitation to Georgia as any wine lover would. Being in Georgia and witnessing a qvevri opening, and drinking the clear wine from the depths of the earth gave me an epiphany. I was hooked, line and sinker.
Since that first trip, I have returned to Georgia six times. Learning about its wine, meeting wine makers and becoming ever more familiar with Georgian culture. What I have learned and hope to convey is the timelessness of wine in Georgian culture. I am sure our tastings will be exciting and new for most of our guests. The first time I had a wine from a qvevri, I was at a loss for words. The aromas, the taste and the feel of the wine made me feel as if I had to make up an entirely new vocabulary for these wines. They can be exhilarating, as if you just discovered a secret world.
My passion for Georgian wine, food and culture has become a business. In June 2014, I launched a food and wine travel company called Taste Georgia. Our mission is to provide authentic cultural experiences in the Republic of Georgia through the context of food and wine. Our goals are for guests to become fully immersed in famous Georgian Hospitality, while food lovers discover a new region and find inspiration in the diversity of Georgian culinary traditions, and wine lovers step back in time and discover the birthplace of wine.
My personal goal is to bring part of my heart, Georgia, back to my homeland in California. I hope to provide cultural context for the wines that we will taste. These wines were selected from the Blue Danube portfolio because they represent the current trends in Georgia right now. We’ll taste wines made traditionally, in qvevri, with no intervention, wines made that combine the traditional with the modern, and wine from a producer who completely embraces the European style of wine making using Georgian grapes.
If you are interested in the next great wine region, come join us, taste with us and share our table.”
The former Republic of Dubrovnik was one of the most developed parts of Europe. Dubrovnik city served as the capital and the countryside was important for agriculture, famous for the production of high class olive oil and wines. The Pelješac peninsula has always played a key role since ancient times due to it’s salt beds and proximity to the neighboring, magnificent islands. The longest city walls in Europe were built around the Pelješac to protect against invasions.
The Winery Miloš Winery is located just 6 miles away from Ston, where the Pelješac peninsula begins. So a visit is easy even if you are just passing by from Split to Dubrovnik, and don’t have a time to go all the way to the end of Pelješac peninsula. In their underground winery you can observe classic wine production, utilizing old large capacity oak barrels. Finally, there is a well appointed tasting room where you can taste their fine wines. For more adventurous wine lovers, be sure to reserve an off road tour through the vineyards to learn more about organic viticulture and manually farming on steep terraced slopes.
Things to do and see
Nearby Mali Ston bay is well known for oyster beds, one of the best delicacies to experience while in the region. Don’t miss the other fantastic seafood caught locally; in Mali Ston you can find several well known restaurants serving the catch of the day. City walls connect Mali Ston and Ston and it is definitely worth a tour, even though some parts are quite steep. Korčula island with it’s old city is also must see, along with National Park Mljet. Dubrovnik is also just 35 miles from Miloš winery. This region provides such diversity in a relatively small area.
Nearby accommodations are not hard to find. In Mali Ston, check out Hotel Ostrea, a beautifully renovated historical building near the sea.
Dubrovnik boasts quite a few five star hotels, including the luxurious Radisson Blu. If you want to be closer to the heart of the city, try the Hotel Excelsior.
Long before stainless steel and oak barrels, Georgians used giant clay pots, called qvevri, to ferment and age wine. The practice is now seeing a revival throughout Georgia with excellent results. It takes about three months for an artisan like Remi Kbilashvili to craft a new qvevri.
Kbilashvili’s craft is a living totem to Georgia’s 8,000-year-old wine-making heritage; in 2013, UNESCO, the United Nation’s education organization, recognized the qvevri as an element of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
Todd Smith, wine director for DOSA South Indian restaurants in San Francisco, shares some of his wine pairing discoveries in this interview conducted by Lauren Sloss for Culintro.
LS: What’s been the most surprising (and delicious!) pairing that you’ve found?
TS: Maybe the first time I properly chilled a Plavac Mali from the Pelješac in Croatia and was super surprised and how it really coaxed out the tropical notes in a Kerala Fish Moilee — a coconut-based curry from the Southwest Coast of India.
There are some regions that produce amazing wines, but their economies are struggling and/or their operating costs are so low that they offer top-flight wines for a fraction of the cost of certain unnamed wine producing regions. This is why I love countries with a wine industry such as Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Hungary, Georgia (mostly!)…
Whether you are hosting a dinner party or need the perfect wine for a lazy day at the beach, a liter bottle is the answer. Think about it: it’s 33% more wine! Not only does this format provide more volume, it is also greener for the environment and the wines tend to be low in alcohol, refreshing, and alarmingly easy to drink. As the 1-Liter trend is getting more and more popular, we have now quite a collection of liters from several countries and a dizzying array of grape varieties.
Rather than make wine with their father and uncles who run the well established family estate in Austria, Birgit and Katrin Pfneisl decided to farm their ancestral vines In Sopron, Hungary, where Blaufränkisch is Kékfrankos and Pfneisl is Pfneiszl. Organic farming, old vines and wild fermentation all contribute to the finesse of their wines.
Their Kékfrankos has always been more Blaufränkisch than most Blaufränkisch so we were happy to discover Birgit and Katrin’s increasing involvement in the Austrian estate and immediately taken with the results. Blaufränker is that wine: a collaborative wine project between Blue Danube Wine Co and the Pfneisl sisters, born from the common goal of deepening our relationships with each other and this love-able grape.
From the Pfneisl sisters: fruity, spicy, dry, and complex. The exotic charms of Blaufränker, our not so simple house wine, come from the old local grape Blaufränkisch from our Austrian vineyards. We are sisters, farmers, and winemakers. The land is our livelihood. We live to respect and share its gifts, above all Blaufränkisch. In it, twinkle the stars and sun, the wildness of nature, the faces of our friends and family and maybe yours too!
The label was designed by New York based artist Steven Solomon. Check out his website here.
From Austria and Slovenia, we have 5 more delicious 1 Liter wines available to you:
The Bernreiter Heuriger is a unique Viennese specialty called Gemischter Satz or Mixed Set in German. Historically, winegrowers inter-planted their vineyards with several varietals as a protection against diseases. All varieties would be picked at the same time resulting in mixed ripeness levels. Bernreiter honors this tradition by harvesting Grüner Veltliner, Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder, Chardonnay, and Riesling together. Heuriger is also a Viennese specialty: a rustic wine tavern where you enjoy glasses of Gemischter Satz, traditional music, and local food such as wiener schnitzel and liptauer (cheese spread) with paprika and pumpkin seed oil.
The Familie Maier Zweigelt is produced at the renowned Bio-organic estate Geyerhof by Ilse Maier’s son Josef. It is sourced from the family’s certified organic vineyards on the hillsides of the Kremstal appellation. Fermented with native yeast, it is aged in giant old acacia barrels with no sulfur until bottling. Like a spicy Beaujolais, the wine is light in alcohol (12.5%), full of minerality and black cherry flavors with earthy notes on the finish. Serve it slightly chilled with charcuterie and cheese.
This thirst quenching white wine comes from the eastern side of Slovenia, north of Maribor and just south of the Austrian border. All the fruit comes from steep vineyards sustainably farmed by the Črnko family near the village of Jarenina. The wine is a blend of Laški Rizling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Ravenec. A touch of Yellow Muscat adds fragrance to the beautiful flavor. Low in alcohol (only 10.80%!), it shows some minerality, healthy acidity, and a refreshing light body. Enjoy it anywhere, anytime as soon as the temperature reaches 90°F.
Cvicek is the traditional wine of Posavje, the smallest of Slovenia’s wine regions in the south-east of the country along the border with Croatia. It is a unique blend of both white grapes (Kraljevina, Laski Riesling, Sylvaner, Zlahtnina, Ranfol, Lipna and other less known older varieties) and red grapes (Zametna Crnina, Franconian and Portugalka). Very low in alcohol (9.5%), this is a very popular wine among locals and visitors to the region and its acidity goes great with traditional hearty Slovenian food like blood sausages, cured meat, roasted kid, and Slovene pasta.
The SantomasLNG liter is 100% Istrian Refošk from the town of Koper on the Slovenian coast of Istria. Refošk belongs to the ancient Refosco family of grapes native to the Veneto region and neighboring areas of Friuli, Trentino, Istria, and Karst. The name comes from the Friulian words rasp and fosco, meaning grape and dark. While light in alchohol, the wine is inky and peppery with flavors of forest berries. Thanks to its unobtrusive freshness, it matches simple grilled meat and fish. Try it also with pasta and sausage cooked in Refosco and tomato sauce and of course use the same wine for cooking and drinking.
The Region Illmitz is located on the eastern shore of Lake Neusiedl. It is this proximity to the lake that make the area a famous wine region. The moisture and humidity result in consistent production of botrytis, or noble rot, which attacks the berries. The fungus removes all the water from the grapes, leaving behind pure concentrated sugars. This is the cornerstone for the most celebrated sweet wines.
The Rosenhof estate is set amidst one of the most beautiful European sceneries where Reinhard Haider is able to balance extreme levels of sugar and acid without losing fruit in the process. The family business started here in 1947 with both a farm and vineyards. By 1969 the focus was almost exclusively on viticulture with the addition of a hotel and restaurant featuring authentic Pannonian cuisine. Pannonian flavors are a melding of Hungarian, Croatian, Czech, Slovakian and Austria influences creating one of Europe’s heartiest cuisines.
The sweet wines they produce from Blaufränkisch, Chardonnay, Welschriesling, and Grüner Veltliner are particularly well known and praised internationally. If dry wines are your preference, Rosenhof also produces fine red and white dry wines.
Things to do and see
As aforementioned, there is a hotel and restaurant on the premises ready to welcome you! Regional cuisine is paired with the exquisite Rosenhof wines.
If you are a nature-lover, there is plenty to enjoy around Lake Neusiedl like the National Park. Or rent a bike and explore the area on your own.
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.