Szekszárd: Sophisticated Spice on Show

Drinks

Szekszárd’s vintners took over the Stefánia Palota in Pest’s Zugló neighborhood on May 2 and many of the region’s top wines, which not so long ago were rather on the rustic and raucously robust side, displayed the kind of elegance and finesse appropriate for this palatial setting, but not without local spice, edge and bite.

The central King Béla Square in the picturesque town of Szekszárd.

Organized by Borjour, this “Aranyos Szekszárd” (Golden Szekszárd) tasting of mainly gold medal-winning wines from the area’s own wine competition showed a strong sense of place continues to emerge in the region’s predominantly red wines.  

While it once played second fiddle to Villány (which lies a little further south, tucked against the Croatian border), Szekszárd has by now consolidated its position every bit as an equal, and has become many people’s go-to Hungarian red wine region, offering both excellent value for money and round, ripe fruit with a helping of southern spice.  

Szekszárd’s decision a few years back to focus on a three-pronged approach of single-varietal Kadarka (including exploring different clones) and Kékfrankos, and Bikavér, is paying dividends in establishing an identity for the region, although other wines, such as Bordeaux blends, often spiced up and localized by a dollop of Kékfrankos, also have room to operate.

With several of the gold medal whites at the Aranyos Szekszárd tasting, I felt a distinct lack of spine-giving acidity, but Ákos Sümegi’s Zenit 2018 had a lively citrusy crispiness about it. He buys in his grapes from an old man who grows them on north-facing vineyards.  

“Zenit is the most ideal grape in Szekszárd for keeping the acidity,” said Sümegi.  

The little-known Sümegi also scooped the contest’s best rosé gong. His Rosé 2018, made from his own Merlot grapes, was bright salmon-colored, fresh and zesty with juicy raspberry notes. His Kékfrankos 2015 (a bargain HUF 1,890 from Pannonborbolt.hu) was a tad on the oaky side but with plentiful sour cherry and lively acidity.

Big, Bold, Brassy

The vibrantly purple Bodri Gurovica Kékfrankos 2016, with its 14.5% alcohol content (right at the upper limit for the usually more restrained variety), was big, bold and brassy with 16 months in new oak barrels from Trust Hungary, but also round and smooth with varietally pure juicy red fruit, especially sour cherry. This is a Kékfrankos to confound those who consider the variety to be lightweight!

It comes from the Gurovica vineyard, which is from the vineyard behind and over the hill at the remarkable ranch-like estate that István Bodri has built up. He continues to concentrate on enhancing the property, while the wines are made by his daughter Orsolya Bodri and Péter Urbán, who are married.

Bodri Faluhely Cabernet Franc Válogatás (Selection) 2016 comes from grapes grown on the estate side of the hill. While it is extremely concentrated, it also has finesse and a bit of that tobacco leaf character so prized in Cabernet Franc. Meanwhile, the Cabernet Sauvignon Gurovica 2016 was the top-rated Cab Sav, capturing the variety’s cassis character alongside a waft of smoky oak. This trio of wines should be out on the market soon.

The Bodri wines used to be made by Adrián Bősz, who has successfully struck out on his highly innovative own. His Cenege Kékfrankos 2013 (HUF 5,950 from Ezerjo.hu) was aged for a whopping three years in second-fill 500 liter barrels to enable micro oxidation to take effect and help the wine gain complexity.

Kékfrankos can age very well, but the problem is that most of its gets slurped up quickly and little gets laid down to develop. This wine has the kind of sophisticated fine-grained tannins that you can find in aged wines from the same grape in Austria’s Burgenland, where it is known as Blaufränkisch.  

Daring Vintner

Bősz is also daring (or crazy) enough to make wine from the normally cool-climate loving Riesling grape in the southern end of this already warm southern region, down in Báta. The grapes come from the Csóka-hegy vineyard, which is close to the River Danube which has a cooling and moderating effect on the mesoclimate of the vineyard.

The 2016 is higher in alcohol than usual, tipping the scales at 15%, but it is still very Riesling in character and a worthy representative of the grape. Both of these Bősz wines claimed golds in the local competition.

I definitely remember a time when Takler Bikavér was overpowering, throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the blend in terms of oak, tannins and alcohol. Takler’s 2016 Bikavér (HUF 4,650 from Bortársaság) from Szekszárd is fruity, spicy and really flavorsome, and follows up nicely on its predecessor’s pleasantly restrained bottling.  

It has a tasty tang of pomegranate in the mix, which for me recalls the southern Rhône. While at 14% its alcohol is 0.5% higher than the previous vintage, it is really well integrated and doesn’t give any burn; this was one of three Takler wines to get a gold at the contest.

A few percent of Kadarka is a key component in the Kékfrankos-led Szekszárd Bikavér. Tüske Pince Harmados Kadarka 2018 (HUF 2, 250 from Bortársaság), from loess and brown forest soils of the Kerékhegy and Ivánvölgy vineyards, is an excellent introduction to this lighter bodied grape.  

It was fermented partly in sealed tanks and partly in open vats. It was aged for four months in stainless steel. This gold-medal winner oozed peppery spiciness and rose hip on the nose and palate with a lovely lightness of touch.

The Tale of the Grape

Zenit is a Hungarian crossing of Hungarian grape Ezerjó with Bouvier, created in 1951 by Ferenc Király. Bouvier hails from Bad Radkersburg in Steiermark, Austria and was bred around the turn of the 20th century by Clotar Bouvier, according to Austrianwine.com. Incidentally, Bouvier was also crossed with Hárslevelű to bring Kabar into existence, which has, since 2006, been one of the permitted grapes for Tokaj, and is currently impressing with its dry wines.

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