Three Blind Hungarians

bottlesProf. Dr. Tim P. says: One of the hazards of wine writing is watching bottles pile up all over the house waiting to be tasted. (Somebody has to do it.) Since I firmly believe that multiple opinions are always better than one, I periodically pull together an informal panel to work through the backlog.

I recently did a miscellaneous session—some wines I needed to write about, some I might mention somewhere, some I just felt duty-bound to sample because they had shown up at my door. My two tablemates were a serious student of wine somewhere on the trail of a Master of Wine certificate and the co-author of a forthcoming book on pairing desserts and desert wines. All the bottles were wrapped in brown paper bags (showing what a high-class event this was).

The whites were a particularly odd quartet: two Hungarian whites from indigenous grapes (the Woodsman’s White and Carpenter’s White in the Craftsman series) and two barrel-fermented California Chardonnays. Trying to be helpful, I noted that the four wines were really two and two. “We noticed!” my pals chimed in unison; the contrast between the pale straw of two glasses and the golden oak tones of the others needed no announcement. We tasted through all the wines before talking—though occasional comments did pop up, things like, “Many trees died for this wine.”

Both of the Hungarian whites had intriguing, aromatic noses; we came up with peaches and almonds on the Királyleányka (Woodsman’s), white peaches and kiwi on the Irsai Olivér (Carpenter’s). The Woodsman’s had a surprisingly rounded mouthfeel, the Carpenter’s left a distinctly tart impression; both had personality. The two Chards were well-made, higher in alcohol, noticeably oaked, and sweet with caramel and cotton candy in the mouth. And roughly triple the price of the Hungarians.

On to the reds. We had three Merlots (not my favorite grape, which is why I have friends come over), two Merlot blends, and a complete ringer, a California Tempranillo laced with an idiosyncratic mix of other grapes. The Craftsman Journeyman’s Red (Merlot and Kékfrankos) was fourth in line, after three Californians at different price points, and I couldn’t help but mumble, “Finally, a red wine that’s actually dry.” Then on to the next sweetie.

Again, there was nothing wrong with any of these wines—they were all clean, full of cherry fruit, varietally correct, right on the target their makers aimed at. The Journeyman seemed to come from a different universe: lighter in color and body, thoroughly dry, begging for food, opening with fruit and ending with black pepper. It wasn’t “better” is some absolute sense; it just stood out in an all-too-familiar crowd.

The contrast was so clear that when we got to the rogue Tempranillo, slightly drier and less heavily oaked than the rest of the Golden State lineup, we declared it positively “European.” All in all, a pretty educational hour for a random batch of wines and a trio of jaded palates.

Austrians Everywhere

flagEverybody knows that we (Californians) have a governor with an Austrian background (and an Austrian accent !). And everybody knows Aaanold from one movie or the other or has seen him on TV. Probably only few fans have heard that Mr. Schwarzenegger’s fav wine maker is Gerhard Wohlmuth, both of course hailing from the same Austrian wine region, Styria. Arnold’s longing for home cooking in the US was so strong that he opened his own restaurant in Santa Monica, Schatzi on Main that dishes out traditional Austrian cuisine.

If you’re talking about Austrian restaurants in the US you have to mention the expanding food empire of Wolfgang Puck. Many people have eaten in one of his restaurants, or have baked one of the gourmet pizzas sporting his name, or have watched one of his entertaining cooking shows on TV. Of course, Wolfgang is an Austrian hero too, born in the southern province of Carinthia. Thoroughly trained in France, Wolfgang continued in LA to pioneer Californian fusion cuisine with his distinct Austrian background as a major ingredient.

Then there are various wine makers who have this particular ethnic heritage in common, among them one of the founders of the Canadian Inniskillin estate. I doubt that many afficionados who love their famous ice wines are aware that the head wine maker, Karl Kaiser, is a native of Austria. It was KuK who learnt about making Eiswein during his time as a high school student in a Cistercian monastery boarding school in rural Austria.

But who would have imagined that there is an Austrian couple toiling away in the midst of Piemont’s vineyards to produce Barbera and Moscato wines. Anneliese and Harry König are also managing a boarding house in historic surroundings, officially called the Azienda Vitivinicola Casa Re. Judging from their web site it must be a very cosy kind of place, so if you are travelling in Italy and you want to meet some real Austrians, go visit them. Then come back and tell us how the Austrians are doing in the heartland of Italian wine making.

We know this much already: if it has anything to do with food and wine, or tourism and hospitality, Austrians tend to overachieve. It does not matter in which corner of the world they happen to be, Austrians are always at home in a kitchen or a cellar and they are always willing to share the goodies!

VinExpo Americas in Review

logoThis year’s VinExpo Americas was the second exhibition of its kind in the US produced by the same folks who bring us the big and fancy Vin Expo in Bordeaux, the mother of all wine trade shows. It was held at the beginning of June in Chicago in a move away from New York where the first one was staged. Approximately 6000 professionals visited the show. A recap by the organizers is available online at the link build into the headline above.

Blue Danube Wine Company exhibited in the booth expertly put together and managed by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. More than a dozen Austrian wineries were directly represented, joined by approximately a dozen US importers of Austrian wines. In all, more than 100 different wines were poured, providing visitors a fairly comprehensive insight into the different style of wines produced in the various wine regions in Austria. Judging from the feedback we received it is fair to say that visitors were surprised to discover that Austria has much more to offer than the ubiquitous GruVe which has started to make inroads in American wine shops and wine lists. They were also impressed by the overall high quality of Austrian wines which were well represented in this tasting. Alltogether, VinExpo served to support and expand the ongoing success Austrian wines are currently enjoying in the US market.

Also of note in the magnificent huge hall of the McCormick Center located beautifully at the shores of Lake Michigan was the very first appearance of a good dozen Hungarian wineries on US soil. In a last minute effort they had decided to make the big step across the seas and put their little toe in the deep and complex waters of the American wine market. Among the estates represented were some of our favorites: Attila Gere and Joszef Bock from red wine paradise, Villany, Tibor Gal from the Bikaver town of Eger, and Huba Szeremley from the famed vineyards of Badacsony at Lake Balaton. Sadly, most of these wines are still not available here.

We participated at VinExpo mainly to increase availability of these wines across the US. This really requires establishing a wider distribution network and finding partner companies who can cover one or more of the 50 states of the Union. Construction has started, let us know if you want to distribute any of the wines we import or if you know a distributor who wants to expand his portfolio with wines from Central-Eastern Europe.

Tokaji Terroir

photoJust a short while ago we visited Tokaj, the historic Hungarian wine region, for the very first time. Here we witnessed a window into the very dynamic renaissance of wine making, fueled by highly motivated and very competent wine makers, the financial interests of (often foreign) investors, and the existence of a rather unique terroir and a proprietary style of wine making.

As my time allows I will report on this trip in short installments, today, let me introduce my co-travelers: my wife Zsuzsa Molnar, and our dear new friend, capable trip organizer, and wine collector extraordinaire, Charles Cruden. Zsuzsa is holding a new publication on Tokaj’s Terroir in her hand, while Charles is making arrangements for the next appointment on his indispensable cell phone.

Of course the man in the center of it all is Istvan Szepsy, the wine maker of Kiralyudvar who has been providing so much guidance and leadership for the emergence of the contemporary Tokaj. Our Thank You goes to him and all of his colleagues who are extremely hospitable, cheerful, and passionate in their mission to show the world: THIS IS TOKAJ.

Just Out: Austrian Wine Guide 2004/2005

guideIn time for the recent VieVinum wine show in Vienna, the Austrian wine magazine Falstaff has published the English language wine guide for 2004/2005. The German language original has long been indispensable for anybody interested in Austrian wines and her wine makers. Here is the slimmed down English edition, published for the second time around. Great resource that includes maps and information about the key wine regions in this small–but Oh so beautiful–wine country.

The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide 2004/2005,290 pages, colour
in Europe: € 19,90, worldwide: € 22,90

Falstaff Publishing Ltd.Inkustrasse 1-7, A-3400 Klosterneuburg
Tel.: 0043-2243-34798, Fax: 0043-2243-25840

Kiss that Frog: Hungary

bookHungarian wines seem to crack their decade long ‘Sleeping Beauty’ spider web. These days even the English speaking world is starting to take note. At least the PR engines are starting to spit out English material about the topic. In any event, the Hungarian wine scene is certainly pretty dynamic today with more and more interesting wines being produced by a growing number of capable and very committed wine makers.

bookYou can catch up on the fast moving events try by reading either one of the following magazines: The UK’s Decanter Magazine contained a special booklet in their printed April 2004 issue, a US start-up named Wine Country International featured Hungary in its first edition, and a newly formed Hungarian group has posted a long introduction to contemporary Hungarian wine making as a 6MB Acrobat pdf file. It’s entitled Hungary Uncorked and is probably the most informative of the bunch. Well worth the download. Be aware that this will be more than 120 printed pages so keep an eye on your printer and keep some extra paper handy!!

10 Year Anniversary Tasting – The Age of Riesling

We have been waiting for the annual invitation to the big summer tasting hosted by Bay Area Riesling fan & wine merchant, Bill Mayer. Finally, his newsletter arrived with only a few weeks to go to the big event. Looks to us as if Bill still is the same sponti, except of the Berkeley variety, we were in Berlin some years ago. This time we’ve been surprised that it is already his 10th tasting in a row. More than 50 fine wines (mainly from Terry Theise’s portfolio of German and Austrian wines) will be served for a fee of only $30.

We have experienced a couple of earlier tastings and can attest: they are always fun, there are usually plenty of fine wines to sample, and a good time is had by all. Well worth the money!

Saturday, July 31st, 2004

12 noon to 5pm

Oakland, California

call Bill Mayer at: (510) 549-2444 or write him at

And keep Bill’s advice in mind: Don’t forget to spit!

Introducing Refreshing New Varietals from Hungary

Blue Danube Wine Company is proud to introduce the Craftsman series of wines from Hilltop Neszmély Winery of Hungary to California and the West Coast. This exciting new line brings the refreshingly flavors of some of Hungary’s finest grape varietals to American palates.

The six whites, two reds and one sweet wine have been carefully selected to capture the flavor and character of Hungarian wines. The varietals include Királyleányka, Irsai Olivér, Olaszrizling, Muscat Ottonel, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio (Szürkebarát), Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) and Tokaji Aszú.

Hilltop Neszmély Winery is at the forefront of the renaissance of Hungarian wine making and internationally renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson terms the winery “one of the country’s leading wine exporters”.

Focusing on importing top wines from Central Europe, in particular from Austria, Croatia, and Hungary, Blue Danube Wine is pleased to expand its portfolio of sophisticated flavorful food friendly wines. Our winemakers combine old winemaking traditions and indigenous grape varietals typical of their regions to produce distinctive wines. more

94 points to Hilltop-Neszmely Tokaj Aszú

tokajWhat a big surprise when we read the recent Wine Spectator in which Bruce Sanderson conducted a major tasting of Tokaji wines imported to the U.S. Here is what he said about the Hilltop-Neszmely 5 Puttonyos Tokaj Aszú 1993:

Lush and smoky in aroma, with flavors of orange marmalade, apricot and smoke, this is elegant, with a vibrant structure coaxing the flavors to a lengthy conclusion. Really hitting its stride now. Drink now through 2010. 125 cases imported. Wine Spectator, June 15th, 2004

Well, we had just received our alotment of a few cases as part of taking on distribution of the dry Hilltop wines in California.

BTW we do sell the Hilltop Tokaj for only $39.95, not bad considering its excellent quality. This is your chance to give it a try if you have never tasted a Tokaj Aszú.

EuroCircle Party in San Francisco

We just participated in a great reception with a very interesting international group of people from EuroCircle. This is a loose association of Europeans and folks who love Europe (or a European ;-). EuroCircle has members all over the world and organizes events, parties, dances, and well: wine tastings. Check it out and join them at their next event near you.

Blue Danube Wine Company was selected to present some of our top wines. This evening’s winner by popular vote was the Cardinal made by the Weingut Giefing in Rust, Austria. Everybody agreed that this is a wonderful Austrian style blend. The guests who were invited by founder Kaisa Kokkonen and her SF volunteers to come to a fancy modern appartment overlooking Alcatraz in the Bay of San Francisco liked the Weinrieder Eiswein very much as well. We had to force them pour smaller glasses!