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A Very Pannon Party Puts Local Grapes in Focus

The Christmas tasting of the Pannon Wine Guild, an association comprising many of Hungary’s leading winemakers, was full of festive cheer and merriment as the wine flowed, and it also saw the vintners enjoying each other’s wares and posing for a series of impromptu team Pannon photos.

The vineyards of Somló lie on an extinct volcano, the soils of which leave a distinctive acidity to the grapes grown there. 

At the event, held on December 14 at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, each producer was permitted to exhibit two wines, with the cheeky (and welcome) third occasionally popping out from under the table.

The annual Pannon Christmas tasting marks a rare opportunity to catch up with the likes of Imre Györgykovács in the flesh. The winemaker, who rarely ventures out of Somló, Hungary’s smallest wine region although home to some of the biggest white, was pouring his single varietal Furmint and Hárslevelű wines from the 2015 vintage, assisted by his wife Gyöngyi.

The Furmint had pure varietal character with hazelnut, quince, lime zest, lemon, and green herb notes, with the grape’s (Somló’s) trademark high acidity, and a certain stoniness on the finish. This wine was named the best white wine of 2017 by the Circle of Hungarian Wine Writers earlier this month. (The best red title, incidentally, went to Villányi Cuvée Csanád, made by Csaba Koch). Györgykovács Hárslevelű 2015 distinguishes itself from the Furmint with a varietally typical floral note and more generosity on its fruitier palate, while it is also quite flinty.

Hárslevelű is no longer languishing in the shadow cast by Furmint, and is making dry wine that is every bit the equal of its much more coveted pair (the two work so well together in tandem in sweet Tokaj Aszú). From Tokaj, Stephanie Berecz, who is the French winemaker of Kikelet, the family winery that she runs together with her husband Zsolt, who tends the vineyards, brought Hárslevelű Lónyai dűlő 2015.

This wine is a prime example of how complete a dry Hárslevelű can be. Furthermore, it comes from the loess soils of Tarcal, rather than the more volcanic soils of other parts of the Tokaj region. It certainly shows how elegant and rounded the wine from loess can actually be, despite the wrong assumption by some that only mediocre wines can be made from such soil.

Selling Up

Tamás Pók from Eger showed his skill as a winemaker in coaxing more complexity out of the usually neutral Leányka grape, which is one of the parents of the generally more exciting Királyleányka (the other parent being Grasa). His Leányka Superior 2014 saw prolonged skin contact of five days, along with lees stirring, and the result is far from neutral but rich and unctuous with good mouthfeel and distinctive sour fruit. A very nice dry white wine from what was a very challenging wet and cool vintage.

The 60-year-old Pók has decided it’s time to sell the winery he slowly but surely built up on leaving his position as chief winemaker for the Nimród Kóvács winery. The asking price is HUF 150 million for a house, two cellars (one traditional and one recently built, both have equipment, bulk and bottled wine stock) and 6.2 hectares of vineyards, scattered across some prime spots including Pajdos, Sikhegy and Nagy Eged Hill, which have only been sprayed with natural treatments, such as copper, sulfur and orange oil for years.

Also in Eger, Tibor Gál impressed with his fresh, fruity and focused Kékfrankos 2013 with its pure red and some black fruit, with sour cherry the most prominent. Kékfrankos, which is typically a medium-bodied red, forms the backbone of the Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) blend, with some meat typically added to the bones by more full-bodied international varietals.

Indeed, Tibor Gál’s Egri Bikáver Superior 2013, which is a blend of Kékfrankos, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kadarka, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the Pajados, Síkhegy, Tornyos and Gróber vineyards, was richer than his Kékfrankos, but nicely retained its zestiness and freshness.

Local Kadarka is used to add some aromatic spice and zip to Bikavér, which is especially true in Szekszárd but also increasingly in Eger wines (such as in Gál’s) where the hard to cultivate grape is being progressively reintroduced after falling out of favor in communist times. From Szekszárd, Péter Vida wowed with his subtle but spicy Öregtőkék (Old vine) Kadarkája 2015.

Meanwhile, other impressive Kékfrankos examples showcased Hungary’s most planted red grape’s ever improving quality, which is now starting to rival Blaufränkish (the same grape) from across the Austrian border in the Burgenland. These came from ethnic Hungarian Frigyes Bott from Muzla in the Kürti wine region, close to Esztergom but which also crosses over the border into Slovakia (his Furmint 2015 was also highly representative of the grape), and Zoltán Heimann from Szekszárd, with the old vine Alte Reben Kékfrankos 2015. Note that the Heimanns are descended from Swabian Germans, hence the use of old vines auf Deutsch!

Pannonhalma, in the northwest, may be a relatively cool region for Hungary but it can nevertheless be the source of some excellent red wine. Pannonhalmi Apátsági Pincészet’s flagship red Infusio, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc from the Babszökő vineyard, struck a very nice balance between tension and substance, though it lacked some of the 2013 version’s intensity and power.