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The Budapest Wine Festival and its developing fringe

The buzz around the festival brings together serious vinophiles for some fun fringe side events.

The Budapest Wine Festival, the 24th edition of which ran from September 9-13, continued to pull in the crowds once the rain had ceased, and served up its usual bevy of new releases to an appreciative public. However, it is noticeable that a buzzing “fringe” scene has developed around the castle, with wine tastings aplenty to choose from far from the madding festival crowd.

Last year’s festival was notable for Somló’s Kreinbacher launching its top quality and nicely priced Future Classic quartet of traditional method sparkling wines, which continue to set the standards. At this year’s festival, Kreinbacher doubled up on the bubbles by launching magnum versions of the Extra Dry and Brut Classic members of the Future Classic series. The all important second fermentation, which in traditional method sparkling wine takes place in the bottle, is slowed down by around ten days in these magnum bottles. This is said to lead to richer flavors, more freshness, smoother bubbles and a creamier, rounder mousse, all of which was confirmed on tasting the regular 750 ml and 1.5 L magnum offerings side by side. This should not take away from the quality reached by the excellent regular sized bottles but the magnums do make for a very special treat on the eyes, nose and palate, with lashings more fruit (pineapple, lime, mango, green apple) alongside slightly more developed yeasty notes thrown into the bargain.

Note that in sparkling wine vocabulary, Extra Dry actually means fairly sweet and Kreinbacher’s sparkler in this category has dosage of 16 g/l. This one is ideal for those easing their way into the realm of serious sparkling wine. The Brut Classic Magnum, in which the dosage comes down significantly, is actually a vintage offering from 2011. This sparkler represents particularly good value in the regular sized format. Incidentally, the magnum of the Prestige Brut is on its way soon. Another benefit of Magnums is that the content of the bottle ages more slowly due to the smaller relative amount of oxygen that makes it in at the time of bottling. These sparklers are made under the supervision of Christian Forget, who is the cellar master of ultra premium champagne house Paul Bara, and utilize the best in French technology, such as the Coquard presses that prevent the kind of oxidation that blights the Hungarian sparkling movement. The yeast also comes from Champagne. The results certainly conjure up the quality and thrilling tension of champagne with a Hungarian twist, with the quince and pear notes of the Furmint grape shining through.

Fine wines under the radar

At the festival, it was nice to get a chance to try the wines from Villány’s Swiss- and German-owned Heumann cellar, which still tends to fly somewhat under the radar locally despite considerable success on the international stage. Rarely do we associate the cooler climate loving Riesling (Rajnai rizling in Hungarian) grape with the heat of Villány, but Heumann’s 2013 was simply bursting with varietal character. While it was round and ripe, it was also nicely balanced with zesty green apple and lemony freshness, plus that unique plastic note of a freshly opened can of tennis balls that can characterize young Riesling, before it goes in a more petrol direction with age. This Riesling comes from a mix of Hungarian, German and Austrian clones. You might think that for Riesling to work in Villány, it would have to be grown on the cooler north-facing vineyards. This wine actually hails from south-facing vineyards but it does come from the white-wine friendly, limestone-rich soils of Siklós, which has traditionally been a white wine oasis, with a slightly cooler climate than the rest of the Villány region.

Heumann also gets great results with red wine from the Siklos terroir. Cabernet Franc has become the signature grape of Villány and Heumann’s 2011 is intense and flavor packed, with slightly fiery alcohol on the finish. While Villány may have tried to claim the grape under the “Villányi Franc” moniker, the most balanced and impressive one I’ve tasted blind recently actually comes from Villány’s fellow southern region of Szekszárd, from the Posta Borház. At the same blind tasting, Heumann’s layered, fruity yet full and complex Kékfrankos Reserve 2012 blew me away, tipping my scales at over 90 points, just as the Posta Cab Franc did. This Kékfrankos was aged in used 500-liter barrels of various ages that do not impede the delicious sour cherry flavors, but do add structure and depth. It is great to see such accomplished Kékfrankos coming from the southern region, which has as a whole been slow in seeing the potential in this Central European grape variety. It is really important to get the oak right with Kékfrankos, which is the same grape as Austria’s highly sought Blaufränkisch). When first bottled, the debut 2013 vintage of the grape as a single varietal wine from Etyeki Kúria did seem a nice wine but was a tad barrel heavy. However, winemaker Sándor Merész knows what he’s doing and tasted last week at the 25th anniversary of the Prestige Reserve Club, in which 25 winemakers showed 25 wines, the Etyeki Kúria Kékfankos 2013 was in fine form. The oak had integrated beautifully, bringing body, texture and great mouthfeel, while allowing the lovely eucalyptus, sour cherry and red berry flavors to come through. This wine actually comes from Sopron, where Etyeki Kúria has vineyards. This cooler climate wine region, located in the north west corner of Hungary, dangerously dubs itself the “Capital of Kékfrankos” despite the fact that many of its offerings can be thin and tart. However, this wine surely stakes a claim to that title.

2008 was great for dry Tokaj

Also away from the festival, Királyudvar from the Tokaj region showed ten vintages of its Furmint Sec that stretched from 2014 back to 2005. This flight provided the proof that the Furmint grape can age very well as a dry white, and “put on weight”, as owner Anthony Hwang says. Királyudvar’s dry wines tend to be a little restrained on the nose when young, made as they are from naturally occurring wild yeast, with most of the action coming on the structured palate. However, the 2008 Furmint Sec had really exploded into life with lots of tropical fruit to complement the wine’s oily and waxy texture, along with some sweeter caramel tones. Hwang described 2008 as the greatest vintage he’s ever witnessed for dry wine in Tokaj. He also referred to it as a watershed vintage for Királyudvar since it was the first year of biodynamic winemaking at the cellar. A benefit of switching over to this method, which involves only the use of natural treatments applied at specific times, is that the acidity becomes rounder, according to Hwang. The acidity is one of the reasons he bought into Tokaj in the first place, for its ability to showcase the minerality of the region’s volcanic soils and build wines that can get better with time. The tasting also served to show that Furmint can be harsh and unappealing when young, and needs time to settle. The 2014 was vegetal and green, but in fairness we should return to it next year. Note that Furmint Sec actually contains a few percent of Hárslevelű, which could help give it extra legs for ageing. Hwang is also the owner of Domaine Huet in the Loire’s Vouvray appellation, and has brought the savoir faire over to Tokaj to make one of Hungary’s best traditional method sparkling wines.