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Szekszárd pops open a new bottle

As Szekszárd rightfully earns a broader reputation for its wonderful reds, winemakers from the region unveil what they hope will be the shape of the future in international markets.

The new Szekszárd bottle.

Szekszárd is a Hungarian wine region that is making the most of its natural endowments, with the winemakers clearly working together in pursuit of a common goal. This willingness to cooperate and move the region forward can be clearly seen in the release of a new bottle shape, which will be the vehicle in which many of the region’s finest wines will be taken to market.

At the launch in Szekszárd last month during the town’s supercool “Szekszárdi Szüreti Napok” wine festival, vintner Zoltán Heimann Sr. explained that he and his Szekszárd peers have been seeking to create their own unique red wines that follow neither existing national or international wine styles. Indeed, ever since the Szekszárd crew stopped trying to imitate its southern neighbor of Villány and set sail off on its own voyage of discovery, the wine itself has become much more exciting. This has thankfully seen more emphasis placed on the local grape varieties of Kékfrankos and Kadarka, as well as on the wine in which they both serve, along with the international varietal brigade: Bikavér (Bull’s Blood). However, it is harder to express yourself when it comes to the shape of the bottle. “Since these wines are about elegance, fruitiness and spiciness, it was completely clear for us that the ideal choice for our wines should be a Burgundy bottle type,” opined Heimann. Comparisons to international benchmarks are inevitable when it comes to wine styles and Szekszárd’s fruity-cum-spicy mélange may be considered much closer to the southern Rhône in style than to Burgundian earthy finesse. All is fine, however, as the Rhône bottle is a similar shape to the Burgundy one anyway, and the way the town of Szekszárd (which also provides the name of the wine region) is embossed onto the neck of the bottle is both a neat touch and can be taken as a nod to the southern Rhône’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation. While I ultimately care more about what’s in the bottle than the outside appearance, it’s a smart move to create a unified appearance for the region’s flagship offerings of single varietal Kékfrankos and Kadarka, and Bikavér blends. Hopefully more producers will come on board.

Kékfrankos gets respect

Kékfrankos, which is Hungary’s number one red wine grape in terms of land under vine, was long treated as a second-class citizen in both Szekszárd and Villány, while international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were treated like royalty. However, it is most certainly the future as global, and increasingly domestic palates, look for wines of individual character that are made from indigenous grapes, rather than copy pasted Bordeaux blends. Furthermore, Kékfrankos is typically medium-bodied, which makes it easier to drink than Cabernet Sauvignon, which clocks the scales at the top end. Kékfrankos’ relatively high acidity makes the wine it produces anything but limp and lazy, as well as ripe for long ageing. There are just a few bottles of older Kékfrankos around from earlier Hungarian vintages but tasting some of them, such as a Márkvárt’s 2009, as well as outstanding wines from Austria’s Blaufränkisch (the same grape), reveals how the tannins become finely chiseled and the flavors more complex with time, while still retaining good measures of fruitiness and freshness. Things have indeed come full circle. Szekszárd has already shown in droves the kind of exciting wine that Kékfrankos can conjure up and now it is the Villány vintners who are following suit, with similarly impressive though not identical results. Szekszárd’s Kékfrankos exudes really vibrant sour cherry and Morello cherry notes, while Villány’s is more characterized by riper and more jam-like red fruit, with some black fruit creeping in to the flavor spectrum.

Kadarka, which is even lighter than Kékfrankos, is an altogether harder sell to uninitiated palates, although it is in its element in adding aromatic lift and spice to Bikavér. As a single varietal wine, it is very light bodied but can be seriously spicy and fruity (think rose hip, cranberry and raspberry). This is providing it is not masked in oak or over extracted should winemakers try to ramp up its concentration, which can lead to good wine, albeit one that has little in common with the character of the grape.

A taste of youth

The launch of the new bottle was accompanied by a tasting of the first wines that are to be released in the new shape. They are still in the first flushes of youth and are hard to definitively judge at this early stage. In order to make it into the new bottle, the wine must be approved by at least two-thirds of a committee consisting of 12 Szekszárd winemakers. The wines are blind tasted and must be “flawless, should represent a grape variety or a style, and should reflect the terroir as well”. While loess soil dominates most of the region’s growing areas, differences in the wines mainly stem from the exposure and altitude of a given terroir, notes the press release on the launch of the bottle.

Among the new releases, Heimann’s 2013 Alte Reben (German for old vine) Kékfrankos was every bit as good as the groundbreaking 2012 with its interplay between fruits of the forest and tangy spices, as well as serious length. János Eszterbauer, who was also a key player in the development of the new bottle, also impressed with his cellar’s “Tanyamacska” Kékfrankos 2013, which was fairly oaky but had plenty of ripe fruit to carry it. Takler’s Családi Birtok Kékfrankos 2013 was a bit on the tight and oaky side, but their big wines certainly reward patience. Tasted a couple of weeks earlier, Takler’s flagship Regnum 2007 blend, which has a bit of Kékfrankos in it to accompany the mainly international varietals, was in stunning shape: still intense but nicely polished and rounded out with delicious tertiary notes of mushroom, tobacco and undergrowth alongside dark chocolate, plus ripe black and red fruit. Tüske Pince’s Bikaver 2013 was on the light side in terms of intensity but great to drink, exuding juicy pomegranate. Bodri’s Bikavér was full-bodied and rich with plenty going on but nothing sticking out. Heimann’s Bikavér 2013, which interestingly has some of the Umbrian grape Sagrantino in the mix, was the most complex and accomplished with great balance between acidity, tannins, fruit and spice.