Country Location: Hungary
J and J Eger Wine Company brings the talents and perspectives of two multitalented visionary individuals with the common goal of exploring, understanding and sharing a terroir of untold potential; home of the Hungarian specialty Egri Bikavér, or Bulls Blood from Eger.
The people. In 2004 second generation Hungarian John Szabo MS was the first Canadian to earn the title of Master Sommelier. Appropriately it was his love of wine that saw him back in his ancestral home. While attending to a project in Tokaj he visited the cool climate red wine region of Eger. It was the powerful, spicy, mineral Kekfrankos grown on the large hill overlooking the medieval city that most excited him. Szabo continued going back to taste and explore. Convinced of the regions world class potential he began to look for a partner with the right vines and talent to collaborate on a project. Eventually he found himself in the cellar of paramedic physician and wine maker Dr. Janos Stumpf.
Dr. Stumpf is a disciple of local hero, the late Tibor Gal. Internationally known, Gal was the wine maker of legendary Super-Tuscan Ornalia. Tragically lost in a car wreck Gal was never able to bring the attention to Eger he surely would have. Dr. Stumpf considers Gal a master and it an honor to have worked with him. His own wines reflect that same precision and polish that made Gal’s wines famous, Szabo recognized this and J and J Eger Wine Company was born.
Eger is noted in history for withstanding a heavy siege from invading Turks in 1552. As legend has it 2,000 Magyar soldiers protected the walled city from 150,000 during a month long siege. Dumbfounded by the strength and ferociousness of the defenders the superstitious Turks were convinced that the wine that dripped down the beards and armor of the Magyars had been mixed with bull’s blood and given them super human strength. Afraid they fled and the siege was broken. From then on Egri Bikavér or “Bulls Blood” as the red wines of Eger came to be known, defined the region.
Sixty miles west of Tokaj, Hungary, Eger is one of Europe’s most northerly red wine appellations. Composed of 6,040 hectares of vineyards located on the southern slopes of the Bükk Mountains, its 20 villages are divided into the districts of Eger and Debrő. White wine has been common to the region since at least the 10th century. In the 16th century the local taste for fiery acidic reds made from grape varieties brought to the region by Serbs started to overtake white plantings. The most important of the many that were brought to Eger were Kadarka and Kekfrankos. In the late 19th century phyloxera destroyed most of the vineyards. Replanting introduced international varieties like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Little Kadarka was replanted, it is more common in Eger’s sister region in the south Sekszard, home of Sekszardi Bikavér, the other “Bull’s Blood”. Kadarka is king in Eger. It occupies the best sites and produces the most profound wines.
The multifaceted hills that protected the Eger vineyards from the cold north winds are geologically and climactically diverse. Made up of a chain of ancient dormant volcanoes is mostly Miocene-age rhyolite tufa. This is interspersed by limestone, clay, clay slate and brown forest soils. This richness of site is to what the wines owe their depth. Typically spring arrives late. Since Eger is located on the edge of a great continental plain the climate tends to be dry throughout the growing season. Most of the harvest takes place in October.
Officially Egri Bikavér must contain at least 3 of the following 13 grapes: Kadarka, Kékfrankos (AKA Blaufränkisch), Portugieser, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Menoire, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Turán, Bíborkadarka, Blauburger and Zweigelt. Typically the wines are aged in oak barrels of various sizes but most commonly 500 liter barrels. Single variety wines are also very common especially Kékfrankos.
Story and Philosophy Dr. Janos Stumpf did not go out looking for someone to sell wine to. His career as a paramedic physician, and own wines left him little time to fulfill his love of hunting, skiing and spending time with his family. Having worked closely with Gal for a number of years Stumpf is no stranger to wine of quality. Even with his first career, to Stumpf a life not making wine would be unthinkable. So over the years he has developed a sizeable side business producing bulk wine. Most of this is bottled into 2 and 5 liter plastic jugs for restaurants across Hungary. So popular this has ballooned to an astonishing 30,000 liters annually! (Obviously he must buy in fruit to produce these quantities.) This goes to show great wine can be found in some surprising places!
John Szabo M.S. is an international wine personality who travels the great wine regions of the world, writing, teaching speaking and leading luxury tours into some of Europe’s most hallowed cellars. When not traveling he designs cellars for private collectors, runs a restaurant consultation service in Toronto and is currently beverage director for Trump Toronto and the Terroni Group. Add to that a 2nd degree black belt and jet fighter good looks. He is certainly Canada’s coolest Master Sommelier.
As a team they finance and plan together. Janos is the hands and eyes on the ground in Eger. John is mostly abroad. When they are together it is to make important decisions in the vineyards and cellar and to taste, taste, taste. Before forming their partnership it was decided that J&J Wine Company would be dedicated exclusively to Kekfrankos based wines. Each vintage John locks himself in a room all night with a crate of barrel samples, in the morning he emerges with the final blends decided.
The reflecting J’s pictured on the J and J Eger Wine Company labels are a fitting representation of what Szabo M.S. and Dr. Stumpf have set out to produce. Their wines combine the international awareness of a Master Sommelier and the local knowledge of a lifelong producer. Janos has been making wine of world class quality for some time, John has given them their world class form and created the impetus to see them outside of the country. The entire production of J&J Wine Company, a whopping 500 cases, is destined for export. As ambassadors of Eger it is exciting that these are some of Hungary’s most compelling red wines.
In the vineyards. Dr. Stumpf owns approximately 15 hectares of vines on the south facing hill of Eged. This is split between 2 vineyards with very similar conditions Sik Dülö and Eged-Hegy Dülö (Eged Hill Vineyard) but produce strikingly different wines. Both are on a base of almost pure limestone grade (20%) primly situated about half way up the hill. Like in Burgundy, France - and comparisons between the two are often made - the middle of the hill is the best. The top is deficient in nutrients and water, at the bottom is an excess of both and in the middle the best combination between the two are found.
The J&J wines are made only from dry farmed vines, an average of 40 years old. Vineyard density is 3300 plants per hectare. Yields are between 1 and 2 kilos per plant. All harvesting is done by hand. While most are planted to Kekfrankos, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and a number of other varieties are planted. Currently Janos is planting experimental vineyards of 4 clones each Furmint, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. John and Janos have begun looking for and purchasing additional patches of old vines in this vineyard for their wines.
In the cellar. Fruit is hand harvested and sorted before it is transported to the winery. Tibor Gal was a proponent of native yeast fermentation at a time when the sterility of inoculated fermentation with laboratory isolated yeast strains was de’rigueur. The risk of a problematic fermentation with native yeast is higher but this is the only way to make wines to their potential. This is the same opinion of both Stumpf and Szabo and another cornerstone to the J&J wines.
The cellar is in the old traditional form typical to much of Hungary. Digging into the soft but sturdy volcanic tuffa labyrinth like mazes filled with barrels crisscross below the streets of Eger. These cool damp cellars are perfect for the maturation of wine in barrel. The local oak forests provide the wood for the barrels and further add to the native quality of the regions wines. Fermentation is done in large oak tank with regular cap immersions. Aging of the wine takes place mainly in 500l barrels, apposed to the traditional 225l barriques, which too are used and more common across Europe. Aging in larger barrels results in a slower maturation with less influence of woody flavors.
Wines are aged an average of 20 months on barrel. Lots are kept separate until the Szabo has decided on a final blend. Racking is the main means of clarification. J&J wines are bottled unfiltered and stored for a minimum of 1 year before release. To the experienced taster the wines of J&J are revelatory. Harmonious, layered, impeccably balanced, vintage variant and age worthy the wines of J&J Eger Wine Company have the potential to be legendary.