Old World Shiraz

December 12, 2007

What an oxymoron. Syrah, the grape they refer to in Australia as Shiraz, is mostly planted in the old world in the Rhone Valley of France and there it is referred to the same way as it is in most of the US, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere: Syrah. They are experimenting with Syrah in other European countries, and also generally call it Syrah. Not so in some parts of Hungary, as in the example of Vesztergombi, a great wine maker from the Szekszard region, about 200kms south of Budapest. He calls it Shiraz.

I had a discussion with Mr Vesztergombi a couple of months ago and I asked him why he calls it Shiraz when in most of the old world this grape is referred to as Syrah. He promptly set the record straight that what I refer to as old world is actually really quite new when you put it in perspective. Syrah, or Shiraz, was first planted by the Persians near the city of Shiraz in where Iran is today 7,000 (!) years ago. They have been making wine from this grape for 7 millenniums in this region and our measly 2-3,000 year wine tradition pales in comparison. So the reason Mr. Vesztergombi calls his Syrah Shiraz is to yield to tradition and give respect to the origins of the grape that he is using for this fantastic wine.

The Vesztergombi Shiraz, 2006 is a mouthful. It is dark, earthy, I taste leather, quite a load of spice that you get from the Shiraz fruit and a long alcoholy finish. I am more and more surprised that wine makers can make young wine, such as this 2006, to be quite full bodied, fruity and complex. This wine is clearly made to satisfy current market demands, which to me means it fits modern tastes and is pushed to market at the earliest possible time. There is nothing wrong with the wine, in fact it is quite nice, but I feel it is almost tastes unnatural for something that was still grapes 14 months ago.

Vesztergombi makes quite a range of reds and whites, though to me there are only two standouts. This Shiraz is one of them and the other is the product of the new Vesztergombi generation, his son and wine maker Csaba. It is aptly named Csaba Cuvee and it is one of the top wines I have ever tasted. It roughly costs 40 euros retail (would probably even pay double for it), but if you can ever taste it I promise it will be a unique experience.

Name: Vesztergombi Shiraz, 2006

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 12 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Vesztergombi Shiraz, 2006

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Best Value Tokaj Wine

December 9, 2007

Tokaj is most famous for its Aszu desert wine, but there is a lot more to this region than Aszu. In fact most experts agree that the real future in Tokaj will be in dry whites, predominantly from the Furmint grape, which is also the main varietal in Aszu. You can already see many dry Furmints on the market from top wine makers, such as Szepsy, Kiralyudvar and Demeter Zoltan.

There is a whole other category of Tokajis, which are late harvest wines, also predominantly furmints, though some are hárslevelű, the other grape used in Aszu. While strictly speaking all Aszus are late harvest as they leave the fruit on the vine to botrytise, or in simple words to rot, late harvest wines in Tokaj do not rot, they are picked before they are botrytised. Most of these late harvest wines are also expensive, but one can occasionally find good values. The best I have ever found was Tokaji Hétszőlő‘s Dessewffy Kastély Hárslevelű. This is a beautiful late harvest wine, which although is sweet, it is not too sweet to enjoy more than a small glass of it. It is full of concentrated tropical fruits, pineapple, mango layered with honey. Yet, it is not too heavy, it is quite drinkable standalone and pairs perfectly with spicy Asian dishes. I would think, though never tried it, it also pairs well with foie gras as most Tokajis and other similar wines, such as Sauternes do. Now all I ask, where do you get wine that pairs well with foie gras at 6 euros a 750 ml bottle?

Name: Dessewffy Late Harvest Hárslevelű, 2005

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 6 euros

Got it at: Monarchia Wine Store, Budapest, Hungary

Dessewffy Late Harvest Hárslevelű, 2005

Pannonhalma Pinot Noir

December 9, 2007

Hungary does ok with some International varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir is generally not one of them. For one thing it has only in the last few years become a fad to make Pinots in this country and with such a finicky grape I think more experience is necessary to work out the kinks. As a result, with a few exceptions, Hungarian Pinots I have tasted were borderline bad, but at best mediocre. This was the case with the Pannonhalmi Apatsagi Pinot Noir, 2006.

Now I realize that they make Pinots in many regions outside of the Burgundy and there are horrible examples of this varietal from Alsace, to me still Pinot Noir is supposed to be a complex, mult-layered, smooth wine with a long finish in which you can discover different tastes over time as you sip on it. In contrast, this wine is super simple, has little complexity and you will definitely not find the treasures you would in a nice Burgundy. It is more similar to a Sancerre Rouge than it is to a Burgundy Pinot, though it lacks the heavy minerality of the Sancerre as well. I am not a huge fan of red Sancerres either so perhaps that is the reason I do not like this Pinot.

Some wine makers here are experimenting with more Burgundian style Pinots, particularly in the Eger region, such as St. Andrea and Gal Tibor. Both of these are pretty good, though quite expensive for the quality. In Villany they are working on more concentrated, heavy, almost new world style Pinot Noirs. There are a couple of decent examples I have had, such as Ebner’s and Tiffan’s. Andreas Ebner, who is originally from the South Tirol Region of Italy but is now living in South Hungary near Villany, particularly makes Pinot in a Cabernet Sauvignon style. This may sound weird, but the result is actually really interesting in a positive way. Innovation is good and Pannonhalma should also take a different, more individualistic route with their Pinots.

Name: Pannonhalmi Abbey’s Winery, Pinot Noir, 2006

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: 12 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Pannonhalmi Abbey’s Winery, Pinot Noir, 2006

Hungarian Beaujolais Nouveau

November 20, 2007

New wine has started to become a fad in Hungary over the past years. I am not going to spend a lot of time on this as I am not a huge fan of this category. Beaujolais Nouveau is the predominant vin de primeur, new wine, in France. It is made from the Gamay grape and they use a unique fermentation process called carbonic maceration. This means they do not crush the grapes, but ferment them the way they are harvested. This wine is drinkable, that is if you like this kind of stuff, just a few weeks after harvest.

The past few years you are seeing more and more “Uj Bor”, new wine, on the market in Hungary. Some of these are made in the Beaujolais Nouveau style, yet some use more traditional malolactic fermentation (much more typical in Europe.) One of the better new wines is St Andrea‘s Uj Bor. Instead of Gamay, they use local varietals such as Kekfrankos, but they do make the wine using the carbonic maceration process and it does resemble Beaujolais Nouveau. St Andrea’s Uj Bor 2007 does taste new. It is not bad, but don’t expect much complexity or finish. It is very fruity, super simple, with small to medium weight (which to me is important as super light with no structure is a really bad combination) and a lot of freshness. Despite being a red wine, you drink it chilled. I am not sure if it is to suppress the taste with the cold temperature or to enhance its freshness 😉

Anyways, I do not think I will be buying a lot of these, but it is definitely worth a try one time.

Name: St Andrea, Uj Bor, 2007

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Body: Light to Medium

Price: 12 euros (retail price 5 euros)

Got it at: Gerloczy Kavehaz, Budapest, Hungary

St Andrea, Uj Bor, 2007

Rose Bubbles

November 17, 2007

Let me start by saying that I am not a big Champagne fan. In fact I only like very few Champagnes, most of them are rose. My favorite, if I have one, is Laurent Perrier‘s Rose Brut. I like it perhaps because it is made from pinot noir, one of my favorite grapes, and I can taste the connection. Or perhaps because of the memories I have attached to this rose, the details of which are completely off topic now 😉

So the problem with LP’s Rose is its price. I do not like to spend a lot of money on a category that I am not fond of, even if the wine in question is one of the standouts. So I am always on the quest to see if there is an alternative. Let’s just say it is not easy to find. That is what I thought, until I came across Franz Weninger’s Brut Rose this past summer.

Franz Weninger is an Austrian wine maker near the border of Hungary. Weninger has three properties. One in the central Burgenland region of Austria, one in the Sopron/Balf region of Hungary and a joint venture with Attila Gere in Villany, one of the best red wine appellations in Central Europe. Mr Weninger has entrusted the operations of the Sopron/Balf winery to his son, Franz Reinhard, who is making some really interesting wines. One of these is a quite untraditional, yet quite tasty, sparkling rose brut made from the Central European Kekfrankos varietal.

The Weninger Kekfrankos Rose Brut is a fantastic sparkling wine. If you like rose Champagne, you will like this one. The bubbles are a bit more sumptuous and a bit rougher than those of LP’s rose, which means the wine is a bit less elegant but also very approachable and not intimidating by any means. It is fruitier than the LP, and because of the Kekfrankos grape, it has a bit higher acidity, but all in all I think it compares favorably. If you want to celebrate, I still recommend the LP rose, but if you want to just open a bottle of sparkling wine on a hot summer night, I think the price/value ratio of the Weninger rose brut is hard to beat. Good luck finding it, though, Franz Reinhard does not make more than a couple of thousand bottles a year. I really think there is a large market for high quality and not so pricey sparkling wines internationally. Any wine importers reading this blurb?

Name: Weninger Kekfrankos Rose Brut, NV

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 18 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Weninger Kekfrankos Rose Brut, NV

Otto Legli is running one of the premier wine houses in the southern Balaton region of Hungary. With the exception of one rose, he makes pretty much only white wines, which is typical for this region. Legli has a whole range of of whites from light, smart, fresh ones to full bodied and oaky Chardonnays.

Today we have a quick review of the Legli 333 vintage 2006, which is more on the fresh, light end of Otto’s spectrum. He aptly calls this wine 333, because he starts selling it every year on the 333rd day. It is a cuvee of early riping varietals, Irsai Oliver, Muscat Ottonel, Zenit (which in France is called Muscadet) and Müller Thurgau. All four of these are very typical white varietals to Central Europe, with the exception of Zenit or Muscadet, which is grown most in the Loire Valley of France. The wine is of course young, refreshing, has a definite muscat undertone but still dry. It is better for a summer night, but pairs well with fish any day of the year. Most of the time the 333 does not see the summer as at this price it sells out in a few months long before summer’s arrival. After all, Legli only makes about 2,000 cases of the 333 each year.

Legli’s winery is open all year to visitors on weekdays 9am-5pm and no appointments are necessary. I have not been yet, but I bet it is a fun few hours if you are in the area.

Name: Legli 333, 2006

Rating: 7 out of 10

Body: Light

Price: 4 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Legli 333, 2006

Dammit Wine

November 15, 2007

The other day I went into my local wine store to pick up some every-day table wines. The guy smiling on the picture (if you click on the above), who happens to extract millions from me every month, haha, tells me that they just got several new shipments. I guess it is that time of the year. They had many new wines I had never heard of and one of these was St. Andrea’s A Kutya Fajat 2006. A Kutya Fajat literally means the tree of the dog in Hungarian, but really this is the equivalent expression for the English “Damn it”. What a name for a wine!? I loved it and of course had to get a bottle.

First of all I have to say I am biased about the wine as I love the winery, St. Andrea. St. Andrea is one of the most edgy and progressive wineries in Hungary. They are brave, they innovate, they are really pushing the edge of the traditional Eger region. I mean how can you call a wine “Damn It”?

Damn it is a cuvee of Kekfrankos, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I guess you could call it a Bordeaux style blend, but the taste is distinctly different and in a good way. This is a medium bodied blend, quite fruit forward, a bit of cherries, fairly simple, but not empty, it does have substance probably partially due to the fact that it spent 12 months in oak barrels. It is the perfect table wine can you drink any night, summer or winter and it is also very flexible to pair with food. It is what I would call a happy wine. It is fruity, tastes great, does not make you think, and it is inexpensive. What a great combo.

These guys, St. Andrea, also make some really fantastic Bull’s Blood (not that cheap stuff you remember from 20 years ago), Pinot Noir and a higher-end Bordeaux style blend called Merengo. Merengo is a plush wine and while I do not have one on hand, I will probably get a bottle and write it up over the next few months. Cheers.

Name: St. Andrea, A Kutya Fajat, 2006

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 7 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

St. Andrea, A Kutya Fajat, 2006

Hungarian Viognier

November 14, 2007

Viognier for most people brings the association of France’s Rhone Valley or alternatively new world appellations, such as the Central Coast of California or Sonoma County. It is rarely grown in the old world outside of the Rhone. Some Hungarian wine makers have recently started to experiment with varietals that are not typical for the region, though most of these experiments have revolved around better known varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. Rarely does the Viognier grape show up on the shortlist of grapes to invest in.

This is not the case with late wine maker Tibor Gal. Mr. Gal was one of the premier wine makers in this small country. He had decades of international experience in several well-known wineries spanning through South Africa to Italy. In the early 1990s he was the lead wine maker at Ornellaia, one of Italy’s most famous wineries, now owned by Robert Mondavi.

Mr. Gal’s passion was to revive Hungarian wine making traditions and put Hungary back on the International wine map as a leading producer, if not measured in quantity but quality. Indeed his work as a mentor and leader was a huge part of the recent International success of Hungarian wines. Unfortunately he passed away in an auto accident in South Africa in 2005 at the age of 46. He is survived by his son who is also a wine maker at the family winery. Luckily the tradition lives on and the winery and their product is stronger than ever.

One such top performing product is the 2005 Gal Tibor Viognier, for which the vines were originally planted by Mr Gal. This wine is a good example of taking a grape that is typical in one old-world appellation, plant it in another part of Europe and actually achieve fantastic results (not unlike some of the innovations Italian wine makers have done with French varietals.) The wine is plush (almost in a Vouvray style), has quite a bit of complexity, exotic fruit with a fair amount of wood used resembling new world style whites. To me it is between a Vouvray and a California Chardonnay if that makes any sense. I like it, though, my wife thinks the oak is overbearing. It certainly counterbalances, perhaps too much, any acidity you would get from the fruit. Nevertheless, I like the wine a lot and I have been a repeat purchaser over the past year.

By the way, if you happen to be in Hungary, the Gal Tibor winery in Eger is worth a detour for a day or so. They have a wonderful cave tour with tasting and snacks lead by English speaking guides.

Name: Gal Tibor Viognier, 2005

Rating: 8 out of 10

Body: Medium to Full

Price: 20 euros

Got it at: Decanter, Budapest, Hungary

Gal Tibor Viognier, 2005

Unless you have some roots in Hungary, I think it is unlikely that you have ever heard of the varietal Irsai Oliver, a distant cousin of Muscat. This white grape is native to Central Europe and is primarily grown there. I think the grape’s name is so strange to pronounce that everyone else gave up on producing it.

The other night we opened a bottle of Nyakas Pince‘s 2006 Irsai Oliver. I have had the same wine from previous years but not yet the 2006. The wine is one of the best value whites I have found anywhere. For 4 euros a pop you get an amazingly rich, fruit forward, flowery white, sort of tasting like a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and a Muscat. It has strong minerality, which it gets from the soil of the Etyek region right outside Budapest, and a rich, long finish. The wine has only seen stainless steel, and is made in the modern reductive style. Did I ever mention I really dislike oak in white wines? White wines belong in steel tanks period.

Ernő Malya, the lead winemaker of Nyakas has been on the forefront of making high quality wines at low prices. This is not easy to do and certainly has not been done much in Hungary before Malya. Gotta love competition, though, the market is changing and more and more producers are forced to follow. I think this is yet another trend the new world is forcing on old world producers. I am supportive of it 😉 Just think what will happen when the 2 Buck Chuck hits the shores of Europe?!

Name: Budai Irsai Oliver, 2006, Nyakas Pince

Rating: 7 out of 10

Body: Medium

Price: 4 euros

Got it at: Bortarsasag, Budapest, Hungary

Budai Irsai Oliver, 2006, Nyakas Pince

Takler is Right Up There

October 31, 2007

One of my favorite winemakers in the world is Ferenc Takler from the Szekszard region of Hungary. Winemaking runs in the family back a few hundred years, but as with many things during the communist years of a few decades after WWII things got a bit rusty. They were forced to join a coop and their tradition, know-how and the precious land was all meshed up with hundreds of other landowners and nationalized (read: confiscated by the state in the name of public ownership). In spite of these unfortunate decades, the Takler family started to revive their name back in the early 1980s first slowly reacquiring land and building out modern infrastructure.

What is amazing about the Taklers is that they perfectly balance tradition with modern technique and take into consideration how their customers’ taste has changed over the years both in Hungary, across Europe and now in the United States. Their wines are sort of a blend of new world and old world. You basically get the elegance of the old world with the power of new world wines. It sounds a bit commonplace, but what is unique is that these guys can really pull this off better than any winemaker I know.

I got to know the Taklers via Select Wines, a reputable mail order store in New York. They carry the widest selection of Hungarian wines in the States because of their affiliation with Monarchia, one of the largest negociants and retailers in Hungary. Today’s wine, Takler’s Regnum Cuvee, is the family’s #2 wine. Regnum is a typical Hungarian Bordeaux style wine. No, I will not leave you out there hanging not knowing what this means. In Hungary most winemakers who produce Bordeaux style blends use the typical varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but they also add a Central European varietal called Kekfrankos (Blaufrankisch in Austria). Kekfrankos is slightly higher in acidity than the Bordeaux varietals and gives the blend a very nice backbone, structure. Regnum blends 15% Kekfrankos with 37.5% Cabernet Franc, 37.5% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and is aged in new oak for 21 months.

This being a Takler wine, exhibits extreme elegance that you would expect from top Bordeauxs, yet you also get the velvety texture you find in Napa Valley Cabarnets. It really is a unique combination, which to me is the best of both worlds. The wine is full of black fruit, berries and is sprinkled with a hint of chocolate and vanilla. Beautiful. If you live in the States, I highly recommend picking up a bottle from Select Wines. You do not need to be adventurous to try this one, and I promise it will be one of the best wines you have had. The Regnum does not come cheap, it retails for about $50.

If you want to go all the way out, try Takler’s #1, the Cabernet Franc Reserve, 2003, which is definitely among the top 3 wines I have tasted. Takler only made 119 cases of this 100% Cabernet Franc and most of it is already sold out. If you are lucky to be able to get your hands on it do so.

Name: Takler Regnum Cuvee, 2002

Rating: 9 out of 10

Body: Full

Price: 35 euros

Got it at: Interspar, Budapest, Hungary

Takler Regnum Cuvee, 2002