High quality wineries are continuing to spring up around the country as the Hungarian wine scene builds momentum, more than a quarter of a century after the system switch was pulled, ushering in what has been a long and winding road from an emphasis on quantity to one on quality.
It has been a lengthy process, but on balance the industry continues to move onwards and upwards. Perhaps the most seismic shift has occurred in Tokaj, Hungary’s only truly world-renowned wine region.
While it may well have been the first region in the whole world to have had its vineyards classified by Royal decree, Tokaj-Hegyalja (to give the region its official local name) has found that this doesn’t count for much in the harsh light of the modern day. Tokaj’s vintners have seen that the sweet wine with which it excelled no longer has the great pulling power it once had and have gradually transitioned over to making dry wine.
Nevertheless, it appears that what was a good vineyard way back when is still a prime spot now. With a lot of the top vineyard sites long since snapped up, there’s still plenty more up for grabs and the vineyards around the village of Tállya have become the El Dorado of Tokaj.
When the likes of István Szepsy, who has been described by wine expert Jancis Robinson as a “genius”, moves in and raves about Tállya’s volcanic-infused terroir, comparing it to the region’s hotspot of Mád but with its own special nuances, then you’ve got to take notice. The well-respected Hungarian wine writer László Alkonyi, who has done much to retrace the highly rated vineyards of centuries past, also chooses to make his own wine here, and with great results.
Szóló Fine Wine is a new kid on the Tállya block with seven hectares in the Dukát, Tökösmály, Bártfai, Héteny, Palota and Sipos vineyards, and while its first vintage was as recent as 2014, this fledgling cellar has already forced itself onto the wine lists of Costes Downtown and Borkonyha, the Michelin-starred restaurants, and Café Bouchon, Fricska, Kispiac Bisztró and Mák Bistro.
The first wine I got to try from the cellar was actually a rosé, and a very good and complex one at that. The wines are made according to organic principles by Tímea Éless, who runs and owns the winery together with her husband Tamás Éless. Everything except the rosé is spontaneously fermented from the yeast inherent on the grapes and in the cellar – which can either take the wine on the road to heaven or hell.
Szóló Frivolo 2016 is made from Furmint and has fresh Williams pear and apply aromas with richer apple pie there too, and a taut, linear palate with green herbs and a citrusy kick. Clean and getting close to wine heaven, although Szóló Parlando 2015 is one step up the ladder. It comprises 80% Furmint and 20% Hárslevelű, which were harvested at the beginning of November and vinified together. This one has a lot of great stuff going on from the floral nose of white flowers with honey and citrus, plus a touch of flintiness, to the rich, round, waxy and very long palate. Yet more fuel for the argument that these two grapes work just as well in dry wine as they do in the sweet Tokaj Aszú that made the region famous.
Fermented in oak barrels, this has very rich aromas for a rosé with chocolate, ripe peach and sour cherry. Complex and intense on the palate with candied fruit, a floral touch, good weight, caramel notes and a very spicy finish. A great option for those looking for a fuller rosé. Made from 30-year-old Zweigelt and Blauburger vines, which are both crossings involving the Blaufränkish (Kékfrankos) grape as one of the parents. The former saw what is now Hungary’s most planted red wine grape crossed with St. Laurent, and the latter saw Blaufränkish crossed with Portugieser – both carried out by Austrian wine boffin Fritz Zweigelt in the early 1920s at the Teaching and Research Center for Viticulture and Horticulture (LFZ) in Klosterneuburg, Austria. As it’s not made from Tokaj’s permitted grape varieties, it has to be labelled as Felső-Magyarország (Upper Hungary).
HUF 4,800 from Culinaris Parlament.
The lightest wine in the Kaláka collection but certainly the best option for summer. It is made by Kaláka’s trademark, unbelievably arduous but ultimately rewarding production process. The Furmint and Hárslevelű bunches and part bunches were picked continually over a number of harvest days (in this case 22) to catch the grapes at the optimal level of ripeness to avoid the alcohol getting too high and losing the tautness that rests on a knife edge. The grapes are slightly pressed and the juice is poured on top of the must that’s already fermenting from the previously harvested grapes It may be the simplest type of sparkling wine, made by the so-called “bicycle pump” method, whereby carbon dioxide is added, but it is flavorsome, floral and elegant.
HUF 2,500 from Bortársasag.