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ʼTis the Season to Savor Festive Wines

While the holiday season brings the perfect opportunity to get down to some serious guilt-free wine imbibing, it is a good idea to dabble in wines of different styles and weight to avoid being hit by unwanted palate fatigue.

Kadarka is coming along nicely now that the winemakers have learnt to stop trying to make it into something that it is not by beefing it up with over ripening and masking this fragile grape with too much oak. It is the ideal light red for Christmas with its notes of winter spices, rose hip and vibrant red fruit. János Márkvárt’s Kadarka 2016 is just the ticket and comes from 100-year-old bush vines from the steep slopes of Sauli-völgy and Hosszúvölgy (Long Valley) in Szekszárd, the epicenter of the Kadarka grape.  

Perhaps the best value red of all of the year comes from Márkvárt, who excels at sealing freshness and fruitiness into the bottle, and it also contains some Kadarka. His Ezerötös Cuvée 2016, a blend of Kékfrankos, Kadarka, Merlot and Zweigelt, only costs HUF 1,500 (from Bortársaság); the number also refers to the model of the Lada (known in Hungary as a Zsiguli) in which the vintner drives around his vineyards. Christmas spices and black pepper notes complement the juicy and abundant red fruit that are typical of the grapes that make up the blend. It has vibrant acidity and is on the lighter side in terms of tannins. It makes for the ideal house wine for Christmas parties.

Conquers With Beauty

Heimann Céh Kereszt Kadarka 2016 is more intense and a real contemporary take on Kadarka, comprising different clones of the grape. While 2016 was a challenging year for most reds, it was a good one for Kadarka, which enabled the Heimann family to ferment all seven clones separately and blend them together after fermentation, via blind tasting the best combination. One-third was made in a new lightly toasted Burgundy Rousseau Video barrel and the oak influence is subtle, but builds spicy complexity. The alcohol is a pleasantly modest 11.6% and the wine is restrained in terms of body, yet still full of flavor. “It conquers with its beauty, not with its breast size,” quips Zoltán Heimann. This is a “must try” for Kadarka fans.

Heimann Birtokbor (Estate Wine) 2015, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Kékfrankos and Syrah, is quite Southern Rhône in character – with blood orange and anise notes, despite the fact that only the Syrah can be considered native to the Southern Rhône, although Central European Kékfrankos often reminds me of that region.

The southern Hungarian region of Villány is closely associated with Cabernet Franc, and has built up the Villányi Franc brand accordingly, buoyed by the comment from the legendary British wine critic Michael Broadbent, who proclaimed that: “Cabernet Franc has found its natural home in Villány.”

However, that does not mean it cannot be very good, and even sometimes better, in other Hungarian regions. Konyári Cabernet Franc 2013 comes from Balatonboglár in South Balaton. The joint work of the father and son team of János and Dániel Konyári, it is sadly now part of János’ legacy; the widely respected winemaker passed away earlier this year.

Dániel notes that he and his father tended to think more in terms of blends, but wanted to see what the grape could do by itself, inspired by the Ikon Evangelista Cab Franc from the nearby Ikon Winery, where Janós also made the wine. It boasts pronounced aromas of black and red fruit, black olive and black pepper, then a concentrated palate with smooth, silky tannins and lots of fruit, pepper and spice, with a cool and soothing touch of eucalyptus running through it that stops the wine feeling heavy. It was aged for 18 months in Trust barrels and János was always a master of oak. A real bargain for HUF 2,590 at Bortársaság. Note that back in Villány, Heumann’s Cab Franc is particularly worth seeking out.

Wonderful Time

An oft-heard festive tune tells us that this is the most wonderful time of the year, and it most certainly is prime time for drinking Tokaji Aszú. Given many people’s reluctance these days to crack open anything sweet, one of the world’s great wines is now sadly often consigned to “special occasion” status. Made in virtually the same way for centuries, whereby botrytized grapes collected one by one in several sweeps of the vineyard are steeped in a base wine, with modern technology assisting to give it that fresh burst of energy, it is sublime stuff to round off a Christmas meal.

The contemporary fruit-forward style of the likes of Oremus and Disznókő represent particularly great value. Oremus’ five puttonyos 2009 for HUF 12,500 is as good as it gets. Stepping up in terms of residual sugar, István Szepsy’s six puttonyos Aszú 2009 costs HUF 32,000. You might well ask if it can really be worth that much, but if you’ve got the cash to burn, the treat is very special. The same goes for Zoltán Demeter’s pricey but perfect aszú wines.

Incidentally, earning a score of 95 points, Dereszla’s five puttonyos 2009 scooped 20th place in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 wine hit list for 2017, and was the only Hungarian wine to make it onto the prestigious magazine’s ranking. It was also picked as the Editor’s Choice. This same wine also bagged a gold medal at the DWWA (Decanter World Wine Awards).

The big story regarding Tokaj in recent years is, of course, the emergence of Furmint and Hárslevelű (those grapes that partner so well in aszú) as single varietal dry wines. Dry Furmint with its quince notes and linear structure, and the more aromatic and generous Hárslevelű are also ideal winter warmers for those who prefer their wines white.