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Hungarian wine breaking out beyond the borders

There are some excellent wines being made by ethnic Hungarian vintners in the countries surrounding Hungary.

The cellar at the Nachbil winery near Satu Mare.

The “Hungarian winemakers beyond the borders” tasting held November 4 at the Pesti Vigadó revealed many exciting wines made by ethnic Hungarians in those areas that were part of Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon relocated them, for want of a better way of describing it. However, far from turning into alcohol fueled nationalist fest, it was a buzzing event that revealed some seriously innovative winemaking and which was also attended by excited Romanian wine journalists and bloggers, and one of the winemakers was from a German background. “Wine should unite people and wipe out differences,” said Romanian wine journalist Dan Coclia, who was brought up mixing with a diverse blend of Romanians, Hungarians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Germans and Roma in his native Timisoara. 

“There’s no need to refer to Hungarian wine from other regions differently [than wine made within the present borders],” Géza Balla, the president of the Hungarian Winemakers Beyond the Borders Association (Határon Túli Magyar Borászok Egyesületének) and one of its founding members, told the Budapest Business Journal, referring to the notion that the wine made by Magyars in those parts of former Hungary should also be able to be called Hungarian wine. However, like true lovers of terroir, they are not seeking to make their wines in a uniform international style but rather to express the individual character of the place of growth, soil types, mesoclimates, grape varieties aromas and flavors. “This is our biggest opportunity, and the best way to utilize tradition,” said Balla, whose own winery is in the Ménes wine region (Minis in Romanian).

A new spirit, a proud tradition

However, ever the pragmatist, Balla is not one to shun Romania and the Romanian market, on which he is a significant player, and indeed, how could he? “I’m Romanian when I want to be,” he once quipped on a visit to his cellar which is close to the city of Arad.

Balla, whose wines are widely available in Hungary, describes 2016 as a wonderful vintage. His new releases of Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé Cuvée (a blend of Fetească Neagră or Fekete Leányka in Hungarian, with Pinot Noir) and Fetească Regală (Királyleányka) were all vibrant and fruity, with the latter possessing an attractive floral character typical of this somewhat underrated variety that is also present in Hungary. Balla is best known for his Kadarka, as is his region. His Kadarka is always a crowd pleaser, but I’m personally much more excited by his Fetească Neagră, an ancient variety believed to be of Moldovan origin. While he has only been making single varietal wine from this variety – widely considered Romania’s best red wine grape – for a few years, Balla’s has become one of the finest in all Romania. This grape often lacks a bit of structure on its own, but it appears to suit the soils of Ménes, which contain prized granite, diorite and argillite, and Balla’s 2014 was taught and focused, striking a great balance between red and black fruit, acidity and tannins with an exciting graphite note.

Also from present day Romania, the Nachbil winery, near Satu Mare, previously dazzled me with its Királyleányka, as well as Syrah, and the winery is heading in a natural wine, minimal intervention direction. The wines are made by Edgar Brutler, who also makes wine for Austria’s renowned Leo Hillinger winery from the Neusiedlersee in Burgenland. “It’s really not that hard to go organic where we are, the climate is pretty favorable,” said Brutler, adding that Nachbil is set to become certified organic from next year.  

Brutler was born in Romania, but moved to Germany with his family at the age of four. His father Johann, who once told me he learnt German at home, Romanian at school and Hungarian in the street, returned from Germany to set up Nachbil in 1999. Grünspitz was a grape I admit I’d never heard of and Nachbil had so little of this local grape that it was necessary to clone existing vines to form new ones to have enough to bring out a single varietal offering. Accordingly, the 2015 is made from a mix of old vines (60-100 years old)

and young vines that were cloned from the older vines. It is fairly aromatic, citrusy and fresh with lime peel and grapefruit notes.

Brutler readily admits that there is sometimes a waft of old, damp cellar in some of Nachbil’s wines and if you’ve been to the cellar that’s no surprise. The white blend Grand fi (Grandpa) 2015 had some of that dank cellar note on the nose but was clean on the palate. However, the winemaking has moved out of the original cellar to a more modern setting. A sample of the 2016 Grand fi, which was made without adding sulfur, was totally clean and also revealed the new winemaking direction: an orange wine that was made with up to four weeks’ skin contact and was kept on the lees to soften the tannins. It will be bottled cloudy. This full-bodied and intense wine has distinctive ginger and orange peel notes, and serious length.

The Hungarian Winemakers Beyond the Borders Association was established in 2011 with Frigyes Bott (Muzsla) and Tamás Kasnyik (Kürt) from present day Slovakia, Oszkár Maurer from Szerémség in Serbia, and István Rozsman and Lajos Cuk from Lendva is Slovenia. It has expanded since. More on some of the others next time.

The Bortársaság (Wine Society) wine shop, with bricks and mortar shops across Budapest and in the countryside, as well as an online store, currently offers three Balla wines: Feketeleányka 2014 and Kadarka 2014, both at HUF 2,650, and Rosé Cuvée 2015 Ménes at HUF 1,950.