Wine: Creative juices run riot


The following article, by Robert Smyth, is from the January 29 -February 12 print edition of the Budapest Business Journal. 

As Hungarian winemakers get a firmer grip on how to get the best from the tricky albeit top quality terroir bestowed on them, the country’s vineyards and wineries are becoming a hotbed of innovation, with lots of exciting wines being made very much outside of the box. Here are a few such samples that harness the spirit of creativity going on.

The notion that dry Furmint can capture the unique nuances of individual vineyards has become firmly established over the last decade with the proof increasingly being in the tantalizing pudding, especially as the amount of new oak in the wine has been toned down. However, the adventurous István Balassa has gone one step – or rather three steps – further and released a trio of dry Furmints from three separate plots of a single vineyard: none other than the highly esteemed Betsek in Mád. Balassa says that the excellent 2013 vintage finally provided him with the ideal conditions to realize his dream of showing the geological diversity of the Betsek vineyard. The wines in question hail from different volcanic soil types.

Same, grape, different soils, diverse tastes

The wine labeled “Riolit” comes from the rhyolite tuff that comprises the bedrock of the vineyard, which for me for me oozed ripe quince and pear notes, with a touch of sweetness. The “Andezit” originates from that part of the vineyard where andesite appears on top of the bedrock, and for me exuded pineapple, then a salty, stony finish. Balassa has also released a Hárslevelű magnum from this andesite plot from the 2013 vintage. The “Kvarc” comes from where quartz dominates. I still got the sweet pear that characterized the Riolit but with a deeper intensity on the nose and palate, and with seriously stony notes.

Balassa himself has taken a bit of a bashing from some of the winemaking community for his assertions that the soils of the Betsek can yield such different notes. He emphasizes that this is an experiment and that tests are being carried out to prove his assertion. Nevertheless, he maintains that the same steps were carried out from pruning to bottling in making all the three wines, so the differences between them are therefore due to geological differences. All three wines have Balassa’s trademark heady and layered intensity and while the variations aren’t going to jump out and clobber you over the head, there are definitely subtle differences to be found in these otherwise excellent full-bodied, rich and pronounced wines.

Incidentally, Balassa will be one a plethora of Furmint producers from around the country pouring out their takes on Hungary’s flagship white grape on February 5 at the Magyar Mezőgazdasági Múzeum. While dry Furmint is typically priced quite high up the scale, one that has slipped under the radar and carries a HUF 990 price tag (at least in Aldi) is Szent Ilona Furmint 2012 from Somló’s Kreinbacher winery. It’s a bit soft in terms of acidity, thanks to the drought like conditions of 2012. Nevertheless, what it may lack in fresh bite, it sure makes up for in terms of ripe fruitiness and classic Furmint pear and quince notes, with a bit of a tropical fruit twist as well. It’s the ideal house white to have hanging around.

Experimenting in Szekszárd

Another experimental cellar is Heimann in Szekszárd, which includes Umbrian grape Sagrantino as well as Tannat (the latter hailing from the Madaran region in southwest France and also doing well in Uruguay), among a more conventional list of grapes planted. Franciscus 2009 is a blend of Sagrantino from the Batti kereszt and Cabernet Franc from the Porkoláb vineyards, with the two grapes hitting it off to delectable effect. This concentrated red wine oozes juicy blackcurrant plucked straight from the bush, winter spices and dark chocolate on the nose and palate. It has slightly rustic, teeth-coating tannins and a texture resembling cocoa powder. The acidity is still firmly holding up and bringing out the complexity of this highly distinctive wine. It was in oak for quite a long time, presumably to soften the harsh tannins, but the use of larger 500 and 1,000 liter barrels prevents the oak dominating.

Also down in this often-sweltering southern region, Adrián Bosz has the audacity to make high quality Riesling in a region usually considered too hot in summer for the cool climate grape of German origin. He does this by finding cooler sights and vineyards high in limestone (alongside Szekszárd’s ubiquitous loess), and harvests relatively early, all of which serve to retain refreshing acidity. His Báta, Csóka-hegy dűlo Riesling (Rajnai Rizling in Hungarian) comes from a site overlooking the Danube and usually attracts some complexity enhancing “noble rot” or botrytis. The 2009 is full-bodied, nutty, spicy, and oily, creamy with dried apricot, orange peel and apple notes, plus that magical classic mature Riesling petrol note.

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