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Wine: Vintners intervene on behalf of nature

The natural wine movement is producing some excellent Hungarian vintages.

Tasting natural wines at CultiVini.

The natural wine movement continues to capture the imagination of wine lovers both locally and globally, but is the stuff any good, rather than just good for us (in small amounts of course)? The answer is a resounding yes, if the predominantly Hungarian wines that flowed at the second “Mitiszol?”(literally, “What are you drinking?”) tasting are anything to go by. In fact some of the finest wines made in Hungary were among their number; wines with a real sense of place and the grape varieties that made them. The wineries that were presenting their wares in the cool, contemporary setting of Millenáris on November 14 are part of the Terra Hungarica group of natural winemakers.

The natural wine movement is as polarizing as it is exciting and this year’s Mitiszol? served up plenty of unique and exciting wines, although the odd twist of nature brought about a few highly unconventional turns to the flavors. These included the so-called barnyard aromas of brett (brettanomyces), or the nail polish-like whiff of volatile acidity. This is indeed what can happen when nature is allowed to take its course and a back to basics approach adopted. Advocates of natural winemaking nonchalantly pass off fowl flavors as being much better than the conventional alternative, while detractors jokingly thank progress for the invention of herbicides and pesticides. Nevertheless, a touch of animal character can indeed bring complexity to a wine if there is good fruit alongside.

Natural wine can mean one of several things; it can be organic on paper (i.e. certified) or merely in practice (so we have to take the winemakers word for it), whereby only traditional treatments such as copper and sulfur and a bunch of natural solutions, such as rose oil, are used to treat the vines, with minimal sulfur used in the cellar to keep the wine fresh. Biodynamic winemaking takes things even further and follows the work and ideology of Austrian social philosopher Rudolf Steiner, with treatments prepared in special ways, even buried in the ground in a cow’s skull, and applied at specific times decreed by lunar cycles and the like.

One aspect of natural winemaking is the use of the yeast inherent in the grapes and cellar to ferment the wine, as opposed to deploying commercial yeast. Although wild fermentation can ultimately lead to more complexity, more can also go wrong. Commercial yeast generally makes a cleaner and quicker fermentation, with more pungent aromas. From Tokaj, Királyudvar’s natural wines are typically a tad restrained on the nose and save most of the action for the actual drinking, which after all is what wines are for. Királyudvar Sec 2012 (85% Furmint and 15% Hárslevelű) made Jancis Robinson’s Wine of the Week in October. The “Madonna of wine” is not one to be taken in by a wine that gives all on the nose but lacks the goods on the palate. She commended this one for being so “utterly autumnal” and for its “combination of nerve, density and strong quince flavor”.

From Szekszárd, Posta’s Cabernet Franc 2012 avoided the kind of alcohol burn that can blight some of the wines of this southern region and despite the warm vintage, it has a few cool climate notes of mint and eucalyptus alongside the ripe black cherry and cassis. This might have as much to do with Posta’s vineyard being in a windy spot, rather than the way it is made. While the alcohol sure isn’t low, it is well integrated with plenty of fruit and layers of flavor to carry it off. This is currently one of my favorite Hungarian reds, and blew me away when I tasted it blind and handed it 92 points. It packs in a lot of value for the great price of HUF 4,200 a bottle and is as good as anything coming out of Szekszárd. It contrasts nicely with Tamás Szecskő’s Cab Franc 2012 from Mátra which is leafy in a way that is reminiscent of how the grape performs in the Loire, as well as fresh and juicy with cranberry notes and an exciting salty finish. It was only made in the tank, which helps put the emphasis on the fruit. Szecskő’s Mátra neighbor and great friend Bálint Losonci feels that organic grape growing can lead to lighter alcohol in the wines, which could have something to do with the vines being less vigorous without an artificial helping hand. He also feels it is the best way to capture the unique qualities of the terroir. Losonci’s pale ruby Pinot Noir 2014 is another very good Pinot, following on from the superb 2013, with its precise red fruit, tingling acidity and stony finish, and while not as concentrated as its predecessor, it very much has that Pinot Noir X factor.

Franz Reinhard Weninger, an Austrian vintner who makes wine on both sides of the border, is a prime example of how a move in a more natural direction can change your wine to better capture the essence of the terroir. Now his wines are more medium-bodied than full but exude both remarkably pure flavors of the grapes that made them and the subtle earthiness of the place of growth. Both Weninger’s Kékfrankos and that of Péter Wetzer from Sopron really showed the kind of complex wines that Hungary’s most widely planted red grape is capable of at Mitiszol?

Berlin lawyer turned Villány winemaker Horst Hummel believes that pesticides and synthetic fertilizers change the structure and character of wine. Furthermore, he feels they have brought about sweet tannin character in much of the wine flowing out of Villány. Hummel, and fellow German natural cellar Wassmann, have breathed fresh life and flavor into Villány wines and even made wines from the Portugieser grape seriously complex. Both will also be appearing at the Label Grand Karakterre tasting, which brings together many leading organic and biodynamic winegrowers from Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Slovakia, and Slovenia, in Vienna on December 4.

Terra Hungarica’s wines are available from Terroir Club or from the wine shop at the Terminal Market at Erzsébet tér.

CultiVini steps up natural wine focus

The CultiVini Wine Bar (Párizsi utca 4, District V) is a neat spot for getting some valuable wine tasting in at your own pace, without getting disturbed by overbearing servers and sommeliers eager to show off their wine knowledge. However, help is on hand from the expert, English-speaking staff should you be looking for it. To get tasting, you simply pick up a glass and put credit on a card (a minimum of HUF 3,000) that you insert in the dispenser containing the wine that you’re interested in.

CultiVini recently hosted the insightful Natural Wine Talks roundtable discussion in which a number of leading figures from Hungary’s natural wine movement explained their philosophies. The wine bar is in the process of increasing its selection of natural wines up from the 15 it already serves and will have 20 from December. The test of a new wine bar can be measured in its ability to surprise and it was here that I first tasted wines from Badacsony’s Bencze Birtok, which included an invigorating Olaszrizling and a savory Pinot Noir, both from the 2013 vintage. In all, CultiVini has 52 nicely selected wines that offer a comprehensive overview of Hungarian wine. More than 150 wine labels are available to purchase to take away. Look out for the wines of Rejiji from Villány, which is the cellar of the Finnish/Hungarian husband and wife team who own CultiVini.