Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hungarian Winemaking 101

I just started a job at a college in Kecskemét, Hungary, where I will be teaching English Language, American Civilization and Media Studies. There are three main departments in the school--Early Childhood Education, Horticulture and Engineering/Technology.

In my first few days living in the brand new professor's house, I've hadthe good fortune of attending a couple of events, specifically one that highlighted the horticultural department's work. I had heard there would be a wine tasting and a lunch party and I was invited to attend.

Because I had been an importer of Hungarian wines, I was interested to see which wines and wineries would be featured at the tasting. I did not recognize the labels or bottles, but was happy to taste a Cserszegi Fűszeres and a Kékfrankos, both of which were my favorites among all of them. The Kékfrankos was not too heavy and had a smooth finish. The other reds, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cuvee were heavier, had more tannin feel and would have been nice accompaniments to red meat dishes or a good hard cheese.

There was a rosé, which my lack of Hungarian language skills prevented me from learning what grapes went into it. It was pretty good, but not as good as a French rosé, unfortunately for the Hungarians.

What was interesting about these wines was that they did not come from a big winery in Hungary, but they were made by the students in the horticulture department of the college. One woman told me that they were not for sale, however, an English-speaking student told me that I could buy them, and he gave me his email address to arrange for it. (Deos he sell them from his dorm room, I wonder? Just kidding.) I asked him if I could find out more about the winemaking program and what is taught to the students along with their wine marketing skills and courses. An interesting chapter for a book on Hungarian wines, for sure.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Balaton on a Hot Summer Saturday

I'm fortunate to be participating in the Balassi Summer Institute, to learn to speak better Hungarian and to becomebetter acquainted with Hungarian culture. And what better way to improve understanding about a culture than to drink wine and eat good food? (besides, I usually speak better in Hungarian with the help of a few glasses of some sort of alcoholic beverage).
Our group travelled by bus from Budapest to Balaton Lake--first stop, Tihany. Thelovely church far above Balaton's waters apparently holds the oldest written document in the Hungarian language -- unfortunately, I did not see it because I did not know it was part ofour tour, so I don't know if it was written in the ancient runes or in the alphabetical characters. There were lots of small shops along the road up the hill tothe church with foods such as Kürtőskalács and ice cream, ices, and Langos.

After paying 100 fts. to use the facilities (I'm not used to paying to use the bathroom in Hungary--it has not been the default as it waswhen I traveled in France, Germany and Austria), I walked along the roadswithElise, another
in our group (from Bordeaux). We scoured the shops that sold pottery, folkware plates, magnets (I bought one, of course), lavender items, jewelry andtoys. The toys were mostly quaint little wooden things that we can get in the US except that in America they are made from plastic. However, here, the wooden toy selection also included miniature cross-bows, swords of all sizes, daggers and other ancient warrior items. The arrows had rubber tips but the rubber looked like iron forged into a dangerously sharp point. (The Hungarians, we've learned, were formidable warriors with bows and arrows). One shop even sold long leather whips. Elise said she loves the smell of leather, and, in my usual search for past life clues, suggested she might be harking back to a former existence as someone who rode horses (and the leather saddles and reins). She did say that if she gets a good job contract in France, she would like to buy a horse.

The weather this weekend is quite hotand sunny. Most of the younger women are thrilled. I, however, in my stage of life, am not. Wearing my swimsuit under my clothes didn't help.

After an hour of shopping, we left for Badacsony to have lunch and wine tasting at a small winery on a hill -- Szent Antal Pince in Szigliget-Antalhegy.

This photo shows the wine cellar, where they have tastings, but we were fortunate to sit outside under the arbors as a fire burned under a huge black enclosed casserole pot cooking our gulyas. We tasted three wines -- an Olaszrizling with aromas of tropical fruits, banana, and a light color. It was very smooth and dry with some fruit on the palate. It was well balanced. After the first wine, our food was served. The vegetarians had an interesting dish--a stuffed, twice baked eggplant (like a twice-baked potato), in which the roastedeggplant was pureed with other flavorings, put back into the eggplant "shell" and browned in the oven. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. I felt it did not have as much flavor as the gulyas we were served. The meat was very tender in the gulyas, but yet it was still pink in color, and it was not from the red paprika. Fresh Hungarian bread was served with hot pepper sauce that was, unfortunately, not packaged for sale.

The second wine was a Szurke Barat (Pinot Gris), which the interpreter mistakenly said was a "French wine," but of course, a Hungarian winery would not serve us French wine unless they are promoting a French vineyard as well. So I believe it should have been interpreted as a French varietal. It was also quite good--smooth with a malolactic quality -- creamy, buttery aroma and taste--like an American chardonnay. In the cellar, I only saw oak barrels and did not see steel, but of course, there could be other aging and finishing rooms on the premises.

The third wine was a rose made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir grapes. The color was very pale for a rose, and not very pink. I would have thought it was a white. The aroma was nice, with a touch of berries or cherries, but the taste was not as nice as the others. Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to do well.

After filling our bellies with delicious foods and relaxing with some pleasant wine, we were off again to swim in the lake in the late afternoon. The hot sun was no longer around -- to the dismay of some, to my relief, however. The "beach," which consisted of a large, grass and dirt (mud) area, with some sandy areas for volley ball and a sort of foot volley ball, was adjacent to some snack bars and a brick shower/toilet building. Along the edge of the water were stones and a walkway with benches. There were peddle boats and other kinds of watercraft to use (rent, I presume). Two blue cylindrical booths were for changing. It looked as though if you used the plastic chaise lounges, you would have to pay someone for the privilege. We put our towels on the muddy grass and surrounded the non-swimmers among us with our bags and belongings and we went to the narrow little bridge over the stones where we could descend, one by one, down some rubber-matted steps into the somewhat murky water. It was lovely and refreshing--though Otto, our Miami man, was having none of the cold water. The air temp was posted as being about 88 degrees and the water temp was said to be about 76 degrees.

Our dinner at the institute was cancelled for the day, so we all feasted on langos, ice cream and, on the way back, leftover sandwiches from our breakfast-to-go.

We were gone about 12-13 hours, and as we stepped off the bus upon our arrival back at the institute, it was raining lightly. Maggie said it was the "best day" she'd had since she arrived. I'd have to agree, it was a very good day. (More photos will be posted soon).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Far Above Egér and Mátra

June 2010 was a cool, wet month in Hungary -- indeed, in Europe. I was fortunate to have a few days of comfortable sunny weather, which allowed me to accompany my friend, Janos, on a flight in his ultralight plane above the popular wine regions of Eger and Matra. Eger is known primarily for Egri Bikaver or Bull's Blood -- a mixture of red Hungarian wines, normally including kekfrankos, the blue franc varietal so familiar to Hungarians--and for the Szepasszonyvolgy or Valley of the Pretty Women (photo)--a collection of quaint wine cellars all in one location --which is visited by tourists from around the world. They also produce nice Merlots, Kadarka (another traditional indigenous varietal often blended into Bull's Blood), and Pinot Noir. However, the Pinot Noir I've had in Hungary has not, in my experience, been what an American would expect, and while some were pleasant to drink, this is not a varietal I've found to be a Hungarian masterpiece.

Matra, the hilly region next door, is also known for lovely red wines -- also kekfrankos, Cabernet sauvignon and Cabernet franc, as well as, from what a wine aficianado told me, a kick-ass Shiraz...though I have not tasted it myself or heard of it from any other source.

Matra and Eger also feature several white wines including Kiraleanyka and Leanyka--that have a light, aromatic quality, sometimes sweet or half-dry. I've tasted some nice versions of these varietals which had a light honey taste. And the price is normally reasonable. The dry Leanyka is also quite nice, light and easy to drink.

Familiar whites -- Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (known as Szurkebarat in Hungary -- gray friend), and Sauvignon Blanc--are not bad, particularly the Pinot Gris. But they are not what an American Chardonnay fan or Sauvignon Blanc fan might expect. No buttery oak detectable in the Chardonnay, and I personally have not tasted one that measures up to the French. There may be some--Hungarians know their wines and their winemaking. They like smooth, light wines -- or at least they make them that way more often than not. Which is why it's worth giving indigenous Hungarian varietals a try -- no preconceived expectations based on American, French or Chilean styles to compare to.

Hungarian varietals to try, that Eger and Matra produce, include Olaszrizlings, which can be sweet, dry or half-dry, and should not be confused with Rhine Reislings. Olaszrizling literally means "Italian Reisling" but is not Italian. It is a Welsh Reisling. I personally did not bring it into the US when I was importing because just using the term "rizling" would risk more prejudice in what drinkers would expect. But it is a nice, flavorful white that I liked to pair particularly with turkey.

Another indigenous varietal to these regions, Harslevelu, is a white wine also associated with the Tokaj region, but that is not to say it is a sweet dessert wine. Harslevelu is a great dry white. Crisp, light and fruity. I've tasted some nice ones with hints of white fruit and melon. While Tokaj has several selections of this varietal, Eger and Matra are close enough to be competitive.

Tramini, the Hungarian term for Traminer, is a really nice, often full-bodied white from this region--and they can be sweet or dry. I imported a really nice dry Traminer that I liked as a winter white, because it was not a crisp, light wine that one looks for in the heat of the summer. It was great with poultry dishes and soft cheeses. My research tells me that the Traminer grape is the parent grape of the more well-known Gewurtztraminer as well as the trendy Gruner Veltliner.

Aside from its key position in the Hungarian wine producing areas, Eger also offers thermal spas with natural hot springs (which were very popular with the communist leaders, back in the day), a minaret (photo)built when the Turks were dominating that apparently is still open to tourists, and the ruins of a castle or fort where the Bull's blood battle is reputed to have occurred. (one of my earlier posts describes how this red wine got its name -- when the meager army of Hungarians, concerned they were outnumbered by the Turks, drowned their worries in red wine, and when the enemy saw the red stains all over their faces and clothing, ran in fear that this army had ingested the blood of bulls in order to increase their strength).

Well, here, I hope, is the video of my take-off with Janos in the plane as we flew above Eger's airport (some buildings in a field) and over the Matra hills. Though I tried to narrate, the plane's engine was louder than I anticipated--so next time, separate microphones. What I liked about it was seeing just acres and acres of vineyards below me, so much green and open space, with a cluster of buildings where the town was. The miles and miles of Matra hills, with little lakes below, as well as large areas of recent flooding that were hard to differentiate from the lakes, showed just how spread out the region is. It's one of the hillier areas I've seen in the east. Of course, Hungary is surrounded by the Carpathian mountains, but when driving down most roads in this small, but lush country, the flatness and farming potential is evident.

(more video to come later)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hungarian sommelier discusses Hungarian wines

Tibor Meskal, sommelier for the Grand Hotel Hungaria, discusses the pairing of Hungarian wine varietals with foods at the hotel restaurant.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Kristof Wines -- Wine Tasting Basics

Andrew Harwood from NYC Wine Class discusses how to taste red and white wines, interviewed by Frank Ferrante for Kristof Wines, Inc.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Everything You Wanted to Know About Hungarian Wine, But Didn't Know Enough to Ask

After having countless consumers, retailers and distributors tell me they didn't know Hungary made wine and ask me things like, "What is the wine region in Hungary?" I decided that it is time to bring this information to light in America. Stores and restaurants say that they don’t carry Hungarian wines because no one is asking for them. It’s hard to ask for something when you don’t know it exists…

For hundreds of years, Hungary was, with France, the premier wine producing country in Europe. Popes and Kings throughout the continent sought land in Hungary on which to plant their vineyards. Every inch of land in Hungary is suitable for planting vineyards. In spite of the political and economic changes, that winemaking tradition still lives on in the Hungarian culture. To ignore it is to miss out on a hidden gem.

As the President of Kristof Wines, Inc., I have been fortunate enough to travel throughout the Hungarian countryside visiting wineries and winemakers, tasting the whites, reds, rosés, and famous dessert wines, learning about the regions, the varietals and the history behind wine in Hungary. While I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, I am still learning and will share what I find with the readers of this site.

I travel to Hungary at least once a year, and I’ve gone twice this year, tasting dozens of wines every day for two weeks. I visited tiny wineries in Tokaj to a sprawling spa-like winery and conference center in Etyek (just a half hour outside of Budapest--see photo) and lakeside festivals near the long Balaton Lake, which is sometimes called "The Hungarian Sea." Those discoveries will be revealed in my next post.

I’ll talk to experts in Hungarian wine, suggest food pairings, describe the wine regions and the varietals that I have discovered. Every year I learn something new, and this year, six years after my quest in the Hungarian wine venture began, is no exception.

I hope you’ll join me in this adventure of discovery.

Diane Dobry

To read a little about the beginnings of Kristof Wines, go to my first blog "A Taste of Hungary."