Friday, February 12, 2010
Hungarian Dry Whites? Forge Ahead/VINOS
By ERIC ASIMOV
COMFORT zone? Believe me, I understand. At restaurants, I’m always fighting the impulse to order a beloved dish again and again. I have to struggle against sticking to customary territory in music, books and, especially, in wine.
Habit partly explains the appeal of the familiar. The desire to drink nothing but Burgundy, for example — assuming you can afford such a desire — stems certainly from the titillating satisfaction derived from the wine. Like a laboratory rat touching a button wired to the pleasure center of the brain, you want to repeat the experience endlessly. With time, the quest broadens to the point where you want to learn as much as possible about this complex, nuanced region.
People who are just beginning to grasp wine naturally want to dive deeply into the pantheon regions. They have read such ardent descriptions of the thrills of these wines that they are no longer willing to settle for vicarious enjoyment. Again, with experience, comes the desire to focus and learn. Who can argue with the notion that one can lose oneself forever in the wines of Italy?
Yet no matter how alluring the desire to fixate on a particular set of wines, experimentation has great virtues. Practically speaking, wines from lesser-known regions are often cheaper. But more to the point, drinking wine with blinders on can deprive you of unexpected, deeply satisfying, even thrilling bottles.
Case in point: the dry white wines of Hungary. Who even knew Hungary made dry white wines? The country is best known for Tokaji aszu, gorgeously honeyed, lavishly sweet wines of such balance and precision that they can accompany savory meals. The history of this legendary wine stretches back centuries, and most likely, near the beginning, the wines were more dry than sweet. Now, in the post-Communist age, Hungary is making dry whites again, and some of the wines are stunningly distinctive and delicious.
It was by chance last year, at Terroir, the wine bar and merchant in San Francisco, that I first tried the 2006 dry white from Kiralyudvar, a winery that I knew made wonderful sweet wine. The ’06 was only the second vintage of this dry white, made mostly of furmint, the region’s leading grape, yet it was extraordinary, with a gorgeous aroma of herbs and flowers, and the luscious texture that comes from fermentation in oak barrels.
The wine was absolutely dry and balanced, with the waxy, lanolin quality that I find so alluring in good white Bordeaux. Yet it had an indelible stamp of sweet richness to it, as if botrytis, the fungus that so beautifully intensifies the flavors of Tokaji aszu — and Sauternes, for that matter — had somehow insinuated its way into this wine as well, though I knew it hadn’t.
I’ve had this wine several times since, and have not been let down. Moreover, it has spurred a fascination with dry whites from Hungary that has led to a few highly satisfying bottles, a number that is small because production of dry whites is still in its infancy in Tokaj, and few make it to the United States.
Still, in an Indian restaurant I managed to find a 10-year-old bottle of dry furmint from Tokaj Classic, and its delicate floral flavors complemented the spicy food beautifully. I also found a 2007 furmint from Royal Tokaji, with beguiling aromas of exotic fruit, Asian spices and anise. It, too, had that waxy quality, as did a 2005 from Dobogo, which had gorgeous fruit aromas and an attractive, almost savory mineral flavor.
All these wines come from the Tokaj region, about 130 miles northeast of Budapest in the foothills of the Carpathians. But I also found a bottle of 2006 Szent Ilona Borhaz from Somlo, in the western part of Hungary near the Austrian border. This wine, which had a floral aroma and a tangy apple and mineral flavor to it, was a blend of 30 percent furmint, 60 percent harslevelu and 10 percent juhfark. Talk about leaving a comfort zone!
At least I can pronounce Kiralyudvar — it’s KEE-rye-oohd-var, which means king’s court. Although the estate is historic, with records dating back to the 11th century, it was reconstituted in 1997 when it was bought by Anthony Hwang.
Mr. Hwang, an American businessman, is also the majority shareholder of Huet, the iconic Vouvray producer. His co-owner at Huet, Noël Pinguet, who oversees the winemaking, has worked closely with Kiralyudvar. Fittingly, chenin blanc, the grape of Vouvray, shares with furmint the capacity for making complex dry wines of elegance and finesse, and the versatility to make a range of long-lived sweet wines.
Because dry wine is relatively new to the region, Mr. Hwang wrote in an e-mail conversation, Tokaj producers are still working out the kinks. But he is optimistic about the future.
“Sweet winemaking mind-sets and techniques are at times practiced too often when making dry wines in Tokaj,” he said. “The results are high-alcohol, tannic wines where the wonderful terroirs are obscured. As more producers find their own voices, more precisely made, terroir-expressive dry furmints will be produced.”
Mr. Hwang suggested that most producers consider dry wine to be vital to the region’s future growth, and that the region’s greatest challenge is overcoming the public perception that Tokaj makes only sweet wines.
“The challenge is to get people to taste well-made dry Tokaj furmint,” he said. “Once tasted, the wine speaks for itself.”
That was certainly my experience. I’ve had a few other good dry furmints, like the Oremus Mandolas, refreshing with well-integrated oak flavors — oak and furmint take to each other very well. I’m still looking for a dry white from Disznoko.
Interestingly, Oremus is owned by Vega Sicilia, the great Spanish producer, and Disznoko is owned by Axa, the French insurance giant, which owns a number of top-flight wineries. Foreign ownership certainly recognizes the potential of Tokaj. It’s up to the rest of us to have a look.
Del New York Times, edición del 10 de febrero, 2010
Imagen: Viña Kiralyudvar, Hungría
Posted by Claudio Ferrufino-Coqueugniot at 2:16 PM