Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Hungary, Diversity and Quality

Because of Tamas Torok and Frank Dietrich, I'm more informed and more enthusiastic about Hungarian wines tonight than I was this morning. Torok, proprietor of the restaurant Seasons in Davis, and Dietrich, managing director of the importer Blue Danube Wine Company in Los Altos, teamed up this afternoon to conduct a thoughtfully structured, relaxed and patient tasting of Hungarian wines in the restaurant's private dining room.

I still have much to learn about Hungarian wines, but if future lessons are as pleasant and enlightening as they were today the challenging names of such grape varieties as kiralyleanyka, olaszrizling and harslevelu should be tripping off my tongue in another decade or two.

Those unfamiliar names really should be the only obstacle for anyone curious about Hungarian wines. Even then, the palate-wrenching names need not be much of a barrier if a supportive and engaging wine merchant is on hand. Two of them also were at the tasting - Michael Chandler of The Market at Pavilions and Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers. How persuasive was the character and quality of the wines? Both Chandler and Corti ordered several cases.

By and large, I found the wines strikingly aromatic, richly textured, finely balanced and almost invariably long in the finish. Even the white table wines were unusually complex. And while both white and red almost without exception were solid and rich, they weren't at all heavy on the palate. They were, in a word, refreshing. Here are notes on a few of my favorites:

- Hilltop Winery Craftsman 2009 Akos Kamocsay Cserszegi Fuszeres (11 percent alcohol; $12): "Cserszegi Fuszeres" is the name of the grape. According to Hungarian native Tamas Torok, "fuszeres" translates as "spicy," which this light, dry white table wine is, as well as floral and sweetly fruity, not unlike gewurztraminer. It's in stock at Corti Brothers.

- Patricius 2008 Tokaji Sarga Muskotaly (14 percent alcohol; $18): The "Tokaji" on the label doesn't refer to the honeyed sweet wine for which Hungary is best known, but to the region where the grapes were grown. The grape variety is the "sarga muskotaly" on the label, which translates as "yellow muscat." As that name suggests, the wine is a heady white, with a floral aroma, a fruity flavor not far removed from ripe chardonnay, a somewhat viscous texture, and a touch of residual sugar that rounds out the wine more than sweetens it. Both Chandler and Corti ordered some of this.

- Zoltan Demeter 2007 Tokaj Harslevelu Szerelmi (14.5 percent alcohol; $35): Zoltan Demeter is the winemaker, Tokaj the region, harslevelu the grape, and Szerelmi the vineyard. They all add up to an unctuous white with ripe tropical-fruit flavors, a suggestion of green olives, and a touch of creme brulee. Americans who like big and oaky chardonnays could transition easily to this equally formidable but more exotic dry table wine. The bottle at the tasting, unfortunately, was the last Frank Dietrich could get his hands on, though it may be in some restaurants and wine shops.

- Attila Gere 2008 Villany Portugieser (12.5 percent alcohol; $15): My favorite wine in the tasting, this is a light and bright red meant for everyday drinking. The smell is of young and fresh grapes, the flavor youthful in its zesty fruitiness. While uncomplicated, it lingers astonishingly long on the palate. This is a true summer red, quaffable on its own but with the structure and depth to pair with barbecued burgers and other grilled foods of similar weight. At Seasons, the wine is a huge hit by the glass, said Torok. Chandler ordered some, and Corti either has it or a similar version already in stock.

- Patricius 2004 Red Lion 3 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu (12 percent alcohol; $20 per 500-milliliter bottle): Customarily, Hungary's intensely sweet white dessert wines are priced too high for anyone unfamiliar with the style to invest in them. Thus, this honeyed, floral, citric and spicy interpretation is a great place to start; the price is a bargain for all the breadth and depth it delivers. The "3 Puttonyos" refers to the concentration of sugar in the wine, and by Hungarian standards this isn't terribly high. (Two other interpretations in the tasting were labeled "5 Puttonyos" and "6 Puttonyos," and they were heavier and more complex. But they also were much more expensive, the former $50, the latter $80.) Often, botrytised dessert wines such as this don't deliver much life to the palate, but this take was remarkably vibrant. Corti ordered a bunch of all three of the Tokajs.


  1. Thank you for this post. It is exciting to see that even with this relatively small group of wines you saw so much diversity. Hungary is indeed a hot bed for indigenous, long produced wines with individual character. Your assessment reminds me of when I was first properly introduced to the wines of Hungary, also by Frank Dietrich. Especially in regards to the Gere Portuguiser. Wow what a pleasurable wine! Lord knows we have the climate and food for reds of this weight. It is not a blockbuster, or legendary or impossible to get (although Gere does make these too) it is everyday and delicious; you never get bored of it. The Portuguiser is not alone though. Hungarians enjoy a whole host of wines that fall into the same low tannin, moderate acidity, aromatic and can handle a bit of a chill spectrum. My hope is that as more Americans taste these wines, after receiving advice such as yourself, they will come to realize the pleasure, function and value that this style of wine delivers. Not to mention the rest of the wines you wrote about, but I can go on forever. Thank you again.

    Hot for Hungary,
    Stetson Robbins
    Blue Danube Wine Co.

  2. Hello, I do not agree with the previous commentator - not so simple