Saturday 18 May 2013

Hungarian wine treasure

Most of us know Tokaji for its famous sweet wine, but fewer of us know about its dry wines. So when Helga Gál, Hungary's first female sommelier and Official Sommelier of the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union, conducted a Hungarian wine workshop with the support of The Food and Wine Academy of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University recently, I gladly attended.

A little history: Hungary has been making wine since Roman times, and Tokaji was the first wine region ever to be classified. That was in 1730, 120 years before the famous Bordeaux 1855 classification. Hungary, together with France and Germany, were the top three wine producing countries in Europe then. However, the wine quality went downhill during the communist era and only revived in the mid 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the associated increase in foreign investment.

Today, Hungary grows international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay alongside its native varieties, which include the white Furmint and Hárslevelü (both used in Tokaji sweet wine) and the black Kékfrankos (equivalent to Blaufränkisch in Austria). I always have a soft spot for indigenous varieties. They are unique to their regions and reflect the culture and sense of place better than international varieties. It is just like eating local food when you visit a country—it represents the tradition and soul of the people.

Having said that, I have to say Cabernet Franc does shine in the warmer South Pannonia region in the south of the country. It is the hottest region in Hungary with mild winters and long, dry, sunny summers, allowing Cabernet Franc to express itself fully with a depth and complexity quite unlike its Loire’s counterpart. Of the local varieties, Furmint is my favourite. It is fairly full bodied but its vibrant acidity and minerality lend finesse. Its styles range from young and fruity to aged and complex.

Helga is enthusiastic, not only because she is the travelling ambassador of Hungarian wine but also because her family has been making wine for generations. During the workshop, she encouraged attendees to ask questions and talked in depth about the wine. The one and a half hour workshop was finished in no time.

And I must mention that this tasting would not have been possible if not for the equally enthusiastic Csilla Maróti, another Hungarian lady relatively new to Hong Kong on a mission to introduce quality Hungarian wine to the market here via her company, Veritas Wine. Wine may be a commercial product but it is not a commodity. It needs the passions of people like Helga and Csilla to excite the consumer. I wish Csilla every success in pursuing her dream.

The two wines that I liked most at the workshop were:

Malantinszky Kúria Organic Cabernet Franc (unfiltered) 2007: Cabernet Franc showing its great potential in Villány in the Pannonia region. Intense and complex, balanced by lively acidity and a lingering finish. Available from Veritas Wine.

Szepsy Tokaji Furmint 2009: concentrated fruit with a mineral palate. An elegant wine with ageing potential. Available from Wiseville International.

Other Hungarian wine entry: Holdvölgy