The Many Flavors of Tokaj

I’ve always let my taste guide my interest in the world of wine. The flavors that resonate with me most often lead me to esoteric, or at least non-mainstream, regions and styles. One country I cannot get enough of is Hungary. The diversity of flavors and styles offered by traditional varieties and regions is impressive in its own right, but it is the quality and purity of unique flavor that draws me in deeper.

Demeter Zoltan

One of my great interests in Hungarian wine are those of Tokaj. This historically lauded and anciently renowned region produces exceptional wines, both dry and sweet, through traditional techniques and with indigenous varieties. These are the same characteristics of top regions worldwide, and Tokaj is on the fast track to reclaiming its place among them. One thing I love is that you can find wines that are best by the glass and for everyday drinking, as well as a premium wines, at times the most expensive on the list, and worth every sip. The selection at the recent Blue Danube Wine Co. industry tasting at Terroir Tribeca showcased a commitment to a comprehensive sampling of the region’s best. There were wines from 7 different producers, not so much competitors as members of an unofficial collective, supporting each other and celebrating the unique nuances of their terroirs.

Bott Harslevelu

For me what characterized the dry white wines was crisp clean flavors, seering acidity, integration of savoriness and deep complexity. There were four versions of Hárslevelű, one of the major grape varieties of Tokaj. Patricius offers a steely and mineral-driven version, while Bott‘s was more peachy and a touch caramelized; Demeter‘s Hárslevelű, was soft with tart stone fruit flavors, and the one from Nobilis was all about stone fruit rounded out with a touch of residual sugar.

Patricius Hárslevelű

The variations among the Furmint, the region’s leading grape, were similarly discreet and intriguing. Demeter’s briney Furmint screams for lobster to compliment the natural saltiness and richness of the grape, Bott’s was gamey and somehow evocative of animal fat (this was the estate that served their wines alongside roasted goat); and Bodrog Borműhely‘s Furmint stands as a shining example of how a wine can be infinitely refreshing and complex at the same time. There was only one Kövérszőlő, a lesser known grape of the region, from Tokaj Nobilis, again kissed with a touch of sugar to offset the spice.

Nobilis Kövérszőlő

The sweet wines of Tokaj have always been among the most famous, for very good reason. What a treat to be able to taste the selection of Aszu wines! The 3 Puttonyos from Patricius is one of my favorite sweet wines; it is light and refreshing with a harmony of botrytized aromatics to sweetness. Though I prefer it with cheese or spicy noodles, it’s easy to drink on its own. I can imagine how ancient royalty could happily stock up on 3p like this and use it as house wine all day long. The 5 Puttonyos with their thicker intensities and more concentrated flavors pushed the sweetness up to a level that warrants something equally rich, think foie gras, or huitlacotche pate for fusion seekers. By the time I got to the 6 Puttonyos I came prepared with a little piece of blue cheese. If that was beautiful (and it was) what came next was sublime. Eszencia. One drop on my tongue excited every taste bud. It explodes and outwardly reverberates joy and juiciness throughout the body… sound familiar? I literally had to sit down. This needs no other flavor to balance it, just sip and enjoy the euphoria. Both, 6 Puttonyos and Eszencia wines were made by István Dorogi, a young rising star wine maker in Tokaj.

Dorogi Tokaji

The cherry on top of this delicious sampling was the Dry Szamorodni from Samuel Tinon. Dry Szamorodni is a style of wine that uses whole bunches of grapes that have varying degrees of botrytis. This wine was aged under a flor and shows sweet aromas and is dry and tangy on the palate. Evocative of Jerez, though unique unto itself.

Samuel Tinon Tokaji

Anyone who tasted through the two tables of Tokaji wines can easily understand why they are increasingly on the shelves and lists of sommeliers and merchants. While the varying styles may push the boundaries of what we drink day to day the flavors themselves are easy to appreciate. If these wines are any indication of what the region will continue to produce, we have a lot to look forward to. Egészségedre!

Countdown to MARKET TASTING NYC – after the show

Stetson at Market Tasting
Stetson showing his favorite Tokaji to Tara Q. Thomas of Wine and Spirits Magazine.
Market Tasting NYC at Terroir Tribeca went off without a hitch. For those who could not be there, it was a blast and we missed you! Center stage Tokaji/Somlo wowed and dazzled, to oooohs, aaahhs and the odd exclamatory foot stomp. Part of the Blue Danube Wine Co. mission is to see the greatness of these historic regions realized again. These precious few samples were an important step. To all the producers who sent them, you rule. As do all the other producers wines who were poured. All together this was one of the finest events we have participated in and it would not be possible without your wines! A special thanks to co-host Indie Wineries, made us feel like family.

Wine lineup at Market Tasting
What a line-up: The Young Generation of Tokaj with Patricius, Tokaj Nobilis, Bott Pince, Zoltan Demeter, and Bodrog Bormuhely.
Terroir Tribeca
Terroir Tribeca

Somló – Wines of the Volcano Gods

Somlo Google Earth
If you type “Somló, 8481 Doba, Hungary” into Google Earth, you will virtually hover over an irregular oval in a sea of quadrilaterals. For those who have forgotten geometry, Somló hill and the vineyards circling its flanks look just like what they are: a long-extinct volcano rising from a flat patchwork of otherwise angular fields.It is a striking geological formation, about three-quarters of a mile in diameter, whose combination of ancient seabed and volcanic basalt soils set Somló apart as a uniquely white-wine region—and the only dedicated region whose wines more than hold their own with the better-known whites of Tokaj.

Somló
At Blue Danube’s recent trade tasting in Manhattan, I had the opportunity to sample six Somló wines from two producers. The grape varieties are familiar from Tokaj, to the east—Furmint, Hárslevelű, Olaszrizling (Welschriesling)—with the addition of the rare Juhfark, which grows only in Somló. The two producers, Fekete Béla and Spiegelberg, are clearly different in style. Also, the Furmints are notably lighter and leaner than the Tokaj examples I tasted, and are higher in acidity and minerality, a trend I suspect would extend to the other varieties equally.

Kit Camargo at Terroir

Fekete Bela
Fekete BélaThe trio of wines made by Mr. Fekete are slightly older (vintages 2007 and 2008) than those of Spiegelberg (2010), and each carries the slight touch of oxidation that adds, for some tasters, an extra spice of interest to its flavor. Fekete’s wines directly channel Somló’s terroir—at their base is a clean minerality that lingers on the palate once the top aromas disperse. The 2007 Furmint is a clear example: bright dried apricot, muted honey, and hay aromas tantalize the mind with sweet ideas, but steely acidity and mineral notes soon sweep in to dispel any soft notions. This is a bone-dry ode to the land, with the zing of a wine made for food. This rigor shows in all three of Fekete’s wines, with the 2008 Hárslevelű possibly the most mineral, and the 2008 Juhfark a fascinating array of dried fruit and honey on the nose and high floral aromas on the palate combined with that high acidity, slight oxidation, and a flavor of viny vegetation that seems primordial.

Spiegelberg
The wines of Istvan Spiegelberg are fresh-tasting and show slightly more the hand of the winemaker. Fekete’s alcohol level is higher, at least in these vintages, but Spiegelberg wines have more weight on the palate. The vibrant acidity and mineral foundation are their shared Somló trademark. Spiegelberg’s beautifully integrated 2010 “Wedding Wine” blend of Jufark, Hárslevelű, and Furmint carries the delicate floral qualities of the Jufark grape followed by vanilla aromas that suggest oak aging. The dry Furmint has tangy sweet-sour apple and honey flavors, and the Olaszrizling is a marvel: an intensely sweet aroma of dried apricot and honey, although totally dry, and a round and creamy texture offset by acidity.

Istvan Spiegelberg

Acidity Is the Key
Somló wines need food, but I was stymied when I tried to conjure Hungarian foods to complement them. Instead, I focused on the wines’ earthy flavors and vibrant acidity and found a model to follow: Champagne. The earthy notes will highlight mushrooms or root vegetables, while the acidity works one of two ways, searing through any butter, cream, or cheese you’d care to dish up, or acting like a wedge of lemon over light fish dishes and salads. (For smoked salmon on buttered toast with crème fraîche and dill, it does both.) Think “Champagne” and pair these wines with hearty foods such as butternut bisque, cream sauces, bacalao, and dim sum dumplings, or lighten up with white fish or scallops prepared with a little bacon. Truffle fries? Oysters? Go ahead, the volcano gods would approve.

Kit Camargo

Grape Festival at the Slovenian Hall

Grape Festival

What a memorable way to begin my career with Blue Danube! The other Saturday, Frank and I introduced some of Blue Danube’s current Slovenian portfolio at the Slovenian fair in San Francisco. It was both charming and informative discussing Slovenian wine with Slovenians. More than once did a Kabaj wine invoke a smile and a personal history.

Cheerful strains of a Slovenian folk duo consisting of an accordion and a stringed fretted bass instrument echoed in the hall while some of the more free spirited Slovenians danced. The entertainment made for a great tasting atmosphere. The crowd favorite of the tasting was the Crnko Yellow Muscat. One of my favorite wines we were tasting was the Stoka Teran 2009-a fleet wine with an intense raspberry flavor, and touches of cinnamon and pepper. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a more delightful introduction to Slovenian wine culture and Slovenian culture at large. Plus, now I know how well the Stoka Teran pairs with mushroom brie.

Stamps

Countdown to MARKET TASTING NYC III

Market Tasting NYC

Today is Blue Danube Wine Co.’s break-out NY Trade debut at Terroir Tribeca. Too close for comfort, all the samples have arrived. Were it not for Zsuzsa’s hard work, Fed-Ex and customs would have never known how bad we needed these wines! Double luck: Frank Dietrich swang by JFK via SFO to pick up the J and J Eger Kekefrankos we were also waiting on! That means all our samples have arrived on time for the tasting. We are so proud to be a part of this vinous cultural process and so excited to share (drink) these wines we love so much. You soon will too!

NYC, here we come!!

Tokaji—Eden Abandoned—No region has impressed us at Blue Danube Wine Co. as the volcanic hills of Europe’s first protected wine region, Tokaj-Hegyalja. It is to us what Burgundy is to others. A chain of 400 volcanoes of impossible geological and microclimatological complexity, a long history as a wine region and a plethora of indigenous varieties and styles of wine, we can’t get enough of it. Some say there is a wine renaissance underway in Tokaj today; we are inclined to agree.

The Tokaji samples ready for tasting
All our samples have finally arrived from Hungary!

Bodrog Borműhely
Bodrog is one of the rivers responsible for the humidity in Tokaj’s vineyards. The Borműhely or “wine(bor) work shop” belongs to Janos Hajduz and Krisztián Farkas. They maintain tiny parcels of vineyards in great sites to make their pure, modern/classical wines from. Harvest for the dry wines is typically conducted mid October by hand and careful sorting eliminates botrytis. After a gentle crushing, the grapes are fermented spontaneously at unregulated temperature in barrels coopered of local Szerednye oak. Sur-lie aging, regular batonage, full malolactic fermentation and 6 months élevage proceed bottling.

2011 Bodrog Borműhely Hárslevelű-Furmint blend ”Löszbor”
2011 Bodrog Borműhely Furmint “Lapis”

Demeter, Zoltan
Demeter, Zoltan can be credited, if not for introducing quality dry wine to Tokaji, then certainly perfecting it. He is the young “Godfather”. Having made more Grand Cru single vineyard dry wine than maybe anyone else in the region, the close relationship Demeter shares with the sites he farms are evident in his nuanced wines. As vigneron he is equal parts philosopher and craftsman. His home and cellar are filled with antiques, things made to last. Made in the same spirit, his wines are chiseled, multifaceted and brilliantly transparent of character, like flawless diamonds. They could be compared stylistically to the most powerfully structured Grosse Gewächs.

2009 Zoltan Demeter Hárslevelű “Szerelmi”
2011 Zoltan Demeter Furmint “Veres”

Bott
József and Judit Bodó are from Csallóköz, an ethnic Hungarian region in Slovakia, which is not exactly a wine growing area. Following her love of wine, Judit went to work for a producer in South Tirol who later hired her onto a project in Tokaj managing the affairs of a small artisan winery. After the birth of their son, József and Judit decided to focus on their own family winery. He more on the vines, her on the wines. In 2005, they harvested fruit from 1 ha and in 2006 Bott became a registered winery. Today the couple tends about 5 ha spread among various sites most near the village of Erdobeny, each year adding to their holdings what the previous vintage allows them to afford. Heeding the dream of his wife to have their own winery in Tokaj, József took on the labor of actually looking for the vineyards. Considering that they are relative new comers to the region and their minuscule production, the substantial acclaim the Bott wines have received both locally and internationally is remarkable.

2011 Bott Furmint “Csontos”
2011 Bott Hárslevelű “Hatari”

Nobilis
Before phylloxera, 100’s of grape varieties populated Tokaj-Heyalja’s historic volcanic hills. The rare Kövérszőlő (Que-veyr-soo-loo), or “fat grape”, once an important local variety, is among the few that are not lost, and it is a specialty of 3rd generation Tokaji winemaker Sarolta Bardos. After extensive experience at some of the biggest and best wineries at home and abroad, Sarolta is today fully dedicated to the 6 hectares of vineyards she planted in 99′. Her incorporation of lesser varieties along with the classical Furmint and Hárslevelű and the unique style of her wines suggest a wine maker looking to distinguish herself from the rest of the region’s producers. Savory and deeply textured, dark, not in color but mood, very sophisticated.

2010 Nobilis Hárslevelű
2009 Nobilis Kövérszőlő

Samuel Tinon
The crazy Frenchman of Olasliszka may save one of the most anomalous styles of Tokaji from extinction: dry Szamorodni is a wine born of fresh and botrytis fruit that is briefly macerated on the skins and aged extensively in barrel under a flor of Cladosporium Cellare, a fungus unique to Tokaj cellars. It is a wine beyond compare. Samuel Tinon grew up on his family’s estate in Sainte-Croix du Mont, near Bordeaux. He graduated in viticulture and oenology in 1989 travelling the world as a flying winemaker in Australia, Texas, Chile, and Italy. The Tokaj adventure began in 1991. He was the first Frenchman to settle in the region. During 15 years, he worked as a consultant and followed the evolution of the Tokaj styles for numerous companies. Today, he owns a few hectares of densely planted head pruned Furmint and Harslevelu that average 90 years of age, on the classed slope of Hatari near his home and cellar in Olasliska. His wines are reference point Tokaji, made in antique styles, a window to the future and past. “I’m not a revolutionary. I came with an idea, to build something.”

2007 Samuel Tinon Dry Szamorodni
2005 Samuel Tinon Tokaji Aszù 5 Puttonyos

Dorogi
The Dorogi brothers are close friends with the Budo’s. Judit introduced us one night and we tasted an exceptional line up of their expressive, traditionally styled wines from the 8 hectares of mixed vineyards they farm. Locally famous names like Elöhegy, Lönyai, Thurzó, Mézes Ma’l grace the labels of their dry and off-dry wines. Their sweet Aszú and Esszencia wine are blends of these sites. Fermented only with native yeast typically in old 220 liter Gonci, (glass for the Esszencia) at cellar cool temperatures, fermentation is slow, sometimes taking years for the sweetest.

Spiegelberg Wedding Wine
Spiegelberg Jufark Hárslevelű Furmint “Wedding Wine” ready for tasting

Countdown to MARKET TASTING NYC II

Market Tasting NYC

In honor of Blue Danube Wine Co.’s break-out NY Trade debut at Terroir Tribeca this coming Thursday, we plan to introduce a bunch of ultra special Hungarian wines that are being air freighted to NY as we speak. Days away, we are all wondering: will they make it in time??! The Jury is out, but the good news is that the 2nd of 4 deliveries has just arrived! Will the others make it? Hard to say! Let the count down begin, 2!!

Here is a sneak peak:

We, Blue Danubians, are accustomed to remarks noting the exotic names and natures of the varieties we source, so to praise the likes of a grape as common as Pinot Noir feels quite strange to us! Occasionally a wine demands it though. Vylyan Pinot Noir is possibly the most decorated wine in Hungary: awards and accolades cover the bottle like the pins of a military general.

Vylyan Pinot NoirVylyan planted Pinot Noir vines where fog gathers and grapes ripen slowly, in a belly button shaped depression smack dab in the middle of Villány, Hungary—basically their Cabernet country. It should be illegal to invoke Burgundy when talking about Pinot Noir that is not actually Burgundian, but since it is not, lets compare Vylyan’s to Volnay. Expressive, spicy, slightly rustic with firm structure and sappy richness, Vylyan is not so different. The biggest difference might be the large Hungarian oak casks used to age it.

Refreshingly, this is not Pinot for tomorrow, it is for laying down and then pondering over years later. On the other hand, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars—a regular customer—has enjoyed cases of the 2008. And if iconic Venice Beach restaurant Gjelina likes the 09 as much as we do, it will pour the 3rd vintage of it as their “by the Glass Pinot Noir”, so it ain’t just for aging.
 

Vylyan Logo

Vylyan Harvest

Countdown to MARKET TASTING NYC I

Market Tasting NYC

In honor of Blue Danube Wine Co.’s break-out NY Trade debut at Terroir Tribeca this coming Thursday, we plan to introduce a bunch of ultra special Hungarian wines that are being air freighted to NY as we speak. Days away, we are all wondering: will they make it in time??! The Jury is out, but the good news is that the 1st of 4 deliveries has just arrived! Will the others make it? Hard to say! Let the count down begin, 3!!

Here is a sneak peak:

Little appellation, big WINES
Millions of years ago, Somló, Hungary’s smallest appellation, was an underwater volcano. Now dormant, its southerly slopes of ancient sea sediment and basalt are home to some of Hungary’s steepest, most densely planted vineyards. Minutely divided, these rarely trellised parcels of vines are workable only by hand. The cellars and size of the production are also the smallest in Hungary, and again worked by hand. Somló’s exclusively white wines are typically made from Hárslevelű, Furmint, Olaszrizling, or the local rarity Jufark. The soil really “gets into the wines” and they are among the most distinctive wines we have ever encountered; aromas lean towards dried fruits, dried herbs and rare spices, heady, dense, gripping, chock full of smoky minerality and longevity. For US fans of this sort of thing, they make an unforgettable and rare treat.

Spiegelberg Winery
In a past life, German/Hungarian Istvan Spiegelberg was a DJ and test driver for BMW. Making a bit of wine in Somló was just a hobby, his intention was not to make some of Hungary’s most cultish. Only a few years ago, Istvan traded in the fast lane for the farm. His home/cellar among his 2 hectares of vines has no running water or electricity. Still, he can regularly be found on Facebook.

Istvan Spiegelberg

Istvan, a self-described “minimal interventionist”, spends most of his times in his vineyards and cellar, so minimal is really more thoughtful. Grapes are hand-harvested, mainly by him. The wine is fermented in 500 liter used Hungarian oak barrels. No artificial yeasts are used for the long slow fermentations. All wines age at least 12 to 16 months in large oak barrels to the soothing sounds of Gregorian chamber music. The wines taste almost the same from barrel as bottle. Profound, stylish, modern, both futuristic and ancient. Dream wines.
2010 Spiegelberg Jufark, Hárslevelű, Furmint “Wedding Wine”
2010 Spiegelberg Olaszrizling Szent Ilona
2010 Spiegelberg Furmint Szent Ilona

3 wines from Spiegelberg

Fekete Winery
“The Grand Old Man” of Somló, Fekete Béla, is Somló embodied.Fekete Béla To know his wines is to know Somló. Like Spiegelberg, his presence there began as a hobby. While on a trip to buy grapes for his garage production, a farmer offered to sell Fekete his vineyards as he was getting too old to work them himself and Fekete accepted. There must be truth to the pro-ported health giving properties of Somlói: at 86, Fekete still tends his 4 hectares of beloved Fehérvári-cru. Care of the vines is his first interest, all work is by hand and the vines are cultivated with little or no synthetic treatments. Careful hand harvesting and sorting is followed by spontaneous fermentation in old, 1200 liter, casks of Hungarian oak, and 2 years aging before bottling. The wines are honest, engaging and highly expressive of the region. Appropriate to open the day they are released, they will likely last for decades and only deepen in their exotic, particularly mineral aroma and texture.

2007 Fekete Furmint
2008 Fekete Hárslevelű
2008 Fekete Juhfark

3rd Edition of Vinologue Dalmatia Released

vinologue dalmatiaDo you know the relationship between the Dalmatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski, Dobričić, Plavac Mali, and Zinfandel? Do you want to learn more about Southern Croatia’s major wine regions: Skradin, Hvar, Brač, Vis, Korčula, Postup, Dingač, and Konavle?

The third edition of Vinologue Dalmatia is the best source of information for those looking to experience great Southern Croatian wines and understand their historical and regional background. This enotourism guide features 88 up-to-date winerie profiles, hundreds of full color photos, and tasting notes for 180 wines.

Like all Vinologue Guides, it includes detailed maps, GPS coordinates, history, language, descriptions of wine regions and native grape varietals, and how to understand Croatian wine labels.

It’s available for immediate download to your smartphone, e-reader, tablet, or computer.

Crljenak Kaštelanski, the original Zinfandel, now a certified grape in California

Crljenak at Ridge Vineyards
Almost 200 years after the Zinfandel wine grapes arrived in America via the Austrian Imperial Nursery, the almost extinct Dalmatian grape and original Zinfandel Crljenak Kaštelanski has arrived in California via the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis.

Crljenak was discovered in September 2000 in a vineyard of mixed planting along the Dalmatian coast by Dr. Edi Maletic and Dr. Ivan Pejic of the University of Zagreb. Along with Dr. Carole Meredith of UC Davis, they had been looking for a Croatian Zinfandel for many years, collecting and analyzing many samples of old Croatian varieties. Fortunately, DNA testing at Dr Meredith’s lab quickly revealed that Crljenak and Zinfandel were the same variety. The quest for Zinfandel’s roots was finally over.

In 2008, at the request of Dave Gates, vice-president of vineyard operation at Ridge Vineyards, Drs Pejic and Maletic sent vines of Crljenak to the Grape Registration & Certification Program at UC Davis that tests the grapevines for viruses and diseases. Several other native varieties were thought to be valuable to California growers and were sent as well, including Plavac Mali, Babic, Debit, Dobricic, Glavinusa, Pribidrag, Skrlet, and Zlahtina.

The now certified and disease-free Crljenak will be propagated and planted at Ridge’s Lytton vineyard in two more years. It will also be repatriated to Croatia to provide Croatian vintners with a clean disease-free vine to plant.

Out of the BLUE tasting in LA

Dear Friends of Blue Danube Wine,

We are happy to invite you to “Out of the Blue” a casual impromptu pre-holiday trade only tasting. Thanks to your support the Blue Danube Wine Co. portfolio is evolving. We are delving into regions, varieties and styles that demand further study and that the market has shown a taste for. Monday September 17th we will present our deepest selection of wines from Croatia and Slovenia as well as all wines which are now available in our TAKE 5 sales promotion.

At this tasting we will pour the wines of ten leading estates. Some of them see their first premiere in the U.S., many are the new vintages which just arrived. This is a rare opportunity to taste them in a comprehensive line-up.

SLOVENIA: Batic, Kabaj, Kogl, Crnko, and Stoka
CROATIA: BIBICh, Coronica, Piquentum, Terzolo, Dingac Winery

We’re sure you will enjoy exploring our expanding portfolio. Please see attached invitation.
Thank you for your interest, we hope to see you at the tasting!

Cheers,
Frank, David, and Michael
(and Stetson from New York)

Bacaro LA
2308 South Union Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90007
good parking on surrounding streets

Monday September 17th 2012 – 12pm-4pm

Light food served by Bacaro LA

RSVP requested