Sparkling Wines of Hungary

Making great sparkling wine is a challenge combining art and science. It requires precision, good technology, cleanliness, and organization. With sparkling wines, you can’t just get lucky. You have to be a pro. We might say, it’s one for control freaks.

There are two main methods of sparkling wine-production. The highly exacting and time-consuming method is referred to as méthode traditionnelle – traditional method, named after the technique used in Champagne, the mother of all sparkling wines. Cava is also produced using this method. The easier, cheaper, and faster way is known as Charmat or tank method, and Prosecco is a famous example.

Traditional method sparkling wines have a nearly 200-year history in Hungary. The first winery to specialize in sparkling wines was set up in 1825, and over the course of the 19th century the new fashion spread throughout the country. Hungarian sparkling wines may not have been as famous as Champagne, but some were well-known and highly regarded internationally. The modern method of tank fermentation did not appear until the 1960s, when it became the standard process as it was cheaper and faster, and could produce affordable wines. Today, however, the trend in Hungary is undoubtedly moving towards the traditional method once again as serious winemaking is on the rise countrywide. And it is not only producers but equally consumers who are choosing excellence in quality.

Unsurprisingly, some of the best Hungarian sparkling wines come from volcanic regions: Tokaj, Badacsony, and Somló. The volcanic soil and the local microclimate contribute in no small way to the mineral, crisp, and youthful character of these wines. Some wineries use indigenous grape varieties such as Furmint, while others follow the traditional recipe: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Again others will create blends of these.

In Tokaj, there’s no question about making sparkling wines without Furmint. Furmint is the signature white grape of Hungary, and the predominant variety in Tokaj wines. It has great acidity and a fairly neutral flavour, and responds readily to the soil and local conditions. It is thus a great choice for producers who want their wine to be expressive of terroir. Furmint also has fantastic ageing potential, which, in the case of sparkling wines, is another important factor.

The vintage traditional method sparkling wine made at the family-owned Patricius Winery is a blend of the three famed Tokaj varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sárgamuskotály. Currently available is their Sparkling Brut 2015, which highlights beautifully the virtues of each variety: Furmint brings intense acidity, while Hárslevelű and Sárgamuskotály contribute fruity and floral aromas, rounded out by buttery and toasty notes from bottle-ageing.

North-west Hungary’s Somló region may be tiny but it certainly punches above its weight in terms of quality and professionalism. The volcanic soil of Nagy-Somló Hill produces wines admired for their minerality, concentration and longevity. The great news is that the majority of producers here have decided to shift to organic viticulture and hopefully in a few years all Somló wines will be produced organically.

One of the most prestigious wineries here, the Kreinbacher estate, makes some of the classiest traditional method sparkling wines in the country. They work with a French consultant who is cellar master at a renowned Champagne grower, and indeed their non-vintage Brut Classic, a harmonious blend composed of Furmint and Chardonnay, is a lovely example of classic Champagne style, yet with a distinctive local character. A winner of Decanter Platinum 2017 and Decanter Gold 2019 awards, this elegant wine is characterized by a fine but persistent mousse, lively acidity, citrusy flavours and toasty notes thanks to lees-ageing for at least 18 months. Made from Furmint, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc with around 5% of red wine, Kreinbacher’s Rosé Brut indulges with an abundance of red fruit, complemented by citrusy, tight acidity.

Another outstanding méthode traditionelle sparkling wine comes from central Hungary, a region characterized by vast flatlands and sandy soil. Here the Frittmann family winery produces Gold, a non-vintage brut wine that won a silver medal at the 2020 Sommelier Wine Awards. Made from three white varieties, none of which is a typical Champagne ingredient, this wine delights with its balance, precision and elegance. 

Not all sparkling wines have to be in the heavyweight category though. For these, tank fermentation (méthode Charmat) is a perfectly respectable method of production and can result in excellent wines. The traditional method, in which the autolysis and yeasts play a crucial role and will determine to a large extent the flavour of the wine, works best with neutral grape varieties such as Chardonnay or the above-mentioned Furmint. But if you want to make your bubbly out of aromatic varieties packed with intense fruity and floral notes, yeasty flavours will only get in the way, and tank fermentation, or even simply carbonation, will be the preferred process. The Frittmann Winery has used the latter method in producing its Irsai Frisecco, a cheerful frizzante-style bubbly made from the indigenous white variety Irsai Olivér, and which won a gold at the Women’s Wine and Spirit Awards 2020. Bursting with floral and fruity aromas, this wine is light-hearted and dynamic, full of the love of life.

The Badacsony-based Laposa estate has opted for tank fermentation in producing their sparkling wines. Following the Prosecco model, brother-and-sister team Zsófi and Bence Laposa have created two youthful, easy-drinking wines with a refreshing fizz. Their Pinot Grigio (Szürkebarát) Extra Dry is the more charming and playful of the two, with sweet pear drops and floral notes. The Furmint Brut has a crisp, citrusy, elegant character. Both wines are expressive of the exciting volcanic terroir of the region north of Lake Balaton.

Choose one of the more complex, traditional method wines for truly unique moments, or enjoy a fruity and youthful style with your friends and family – and a slice of fruitcake! Whether you’re preparing for the festive season or planning a candle-lit dinner with someone special, you will doubtless find a wine to match the occasion.

Visit bestofhungary.co.uk to buy these and many other Hungarian wines online.

Egri Bikavér – a brand is reborn

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Bull’s Blood – what a name for a wine! There’s a story behind it, of course, and it takes us back to the sixteenth century, when Hungary was under Ottoman invasion. The fortified city of Eger in the north was one of the major strongholds in this war. The captain of the castle told the women of Eger to bring red wine for the men fighting on the city walls. As the men drank in haste, the wine spilled all over their beard and shirt, which made them look as if they had drunk blood. The news spread like wildfire among the Turks: the Hungarian soldiers are drinking the blood of bulls, that’s why they are so strong! And so they gave up the siege of the city.

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The problem with this fascinating story is that there was no red winemaking in Hungary at the time – only white grapes and white wines. It was after the Turkish conquest that immigrants brought with them red grapes and the tradition of red winemaking.

Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) has been the flagship wine of Eger since the nineteenth century. It is a dry red blend, with Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch) as the main component. Bikavér wines are typically spicy and racy with high acidity. Interestingly, the first Bikavér was not made in Eger but in Szekszárd, a wine region in the south of Hungary. To this day these are the only two places in Hungary where Bikavér is made.

eger regi card

The first mention of Egri Bikavér is from 1825, but up until the end of the nineteenth century the term simply meant a strong red wine. It was sometimes also called ‘black wine’. After the devastation caused by phylloxera in the late nineteenth century, as the vineyards of Hungary were being replanted, major reforms were introduced as to how the grapes for Bikavér should be grown, as well as to winemaking methods. For the first time in Eger, the grapes were vinified separately, producing a number of varietal wines which were then blended together. This led to a huge improvement in quality because it meant producing the best wine of each variety and then creating a balanced blend in which each variety could contribute in its own way: bring acidity or colour, fruity flavours or concentration. Today winemakers blend local with international grape varieties to produce a blend that best reflects their own individual style and the characteristics of the terroir. Most commonly used are Kékfrankos, Kadarka, and Portugieser of the local varieties, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot of the international ones.

 

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In the communist era the quality of Bikavér was very poor, creating a bad reputation internationally for decades to come. To encourage the consumption of red wine, the Hungarian government had launched a ‘Bikavér programme’ in the 1970s, which meant planting lots of red grapes in the Eger region and encouraging large-scale industrial production of red wines. Quantity was to the detriment of quality: it meant huge yields, exhausted grapevines, and early harvests, when the fruit was still unripe. Wines were produced using cheap technology to keep prices low, so that even the poorest people could afford to drink Bikavér. Export was a prime goal, so cheap Bull’s Blood was created for the British and German markets. This was what led to the brand name being associated with cheap reds of a poor quality. What’s currently happening in the Eger region, however, is the complete rewriting of this negative history.

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Following the fall of communism, in the early 1990s, hundreds of small wineries were set up. New, high-quality grape varieties began to replace the old ones that had been selected for industrial production, and the vineyards that were traditionally known to be the best were replanted.

In 1997 Bikavér became an AOC wine, that is, of protected origin. There is a so-called Bikavér codex, which ensures quality and guarantees the origin of all wines labelled Bikavér. It sets out where the grapes can be grown, what kind of grape varieties can be used, as well as methods of vinification and quality control. Today all Bikavér must contain at least four grape varieties, none of which can make up more than 50 per cent of the wine. The main component must be Kékfrankos – a grape that brings spicy flavours and high acidity to the wine. Bikavér must be aged in oak barrels for at least six months. Three classifications are distinguished within the appellation: Egri Bikavér Classic, Superior, and Grand Superior. Superior must contain at least five grape varieties, and the minimum ageing is one year in oak, plus six months in bottle. Grand Superior wines must also come from a single vineyard.

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Today’s young, ambitious winemakers merge tradition and professional expertise to create outstanding wines that express the best qualities of both land and grapes. Bikavér has a number of qualities that will make it a favourite: these cool-climate wines, produced on mostly volcanic soil, offer an attractive combination of freshness, power, complexity and elegance. Egri Bikavér has been winning awards at the most prestigious national and international competitions, and some of the best wines from all three Bikavér classifications are available in the UK through merchants such as Best of Hungary.

 

Jandl: Kékfrankos as it should be

On a frosty winter day in the Fertő-tó (Neusiedlersee) region of north-west Hungary, the family decided to go on a wine-tasting adventure. Guess who was behind the plan?

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And so it happened that we visited Jandl, a winery just up the road from our lovely bed and breakfast. This small family cellar is run by father-and-son duo Kálmán and Arnold, in what seemed to me perfect harmony. Their small production – 35,000 bottles on 10 hectares – and emphasis on quality struck a chord with me even before we got round to tasting any of their wines.

Not unusually for a family in this corner of the country, the Jandls originated somewhere near the Frank-Bavarian border, and they are able to trace their history back to the tenth century. For many generations, the family lived in Sopron, and 25 years ago they moved out to the banks of lake Neusiedler. Following the Second World War, Kálmán tells us, they lost many of their vineyards, and building the business up again has been a long and slow process. ‘But we have no ambitions to grow any further. Our ambition is to keep our business going with the vineyards we have now, and by maintaining this quality.’

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As we taste a lovely flight of wines, Kálmán gives us a brief history of winemaking in the region, and in his own family. Today 80 per cent of the wine production around Sopron is reds, but this wasn’t always so. When the first Jandls started trading their wines in the large international markets of Kraków, the main commodity of Sopron was white wine, mainly made from Furmint, Hárslevelű, Pinot Blanc, and some Muscat varieties. With the phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century this changed, and the region is today almost exclusively associated with reds, mainly Kékfrankos. Phylloxera, however, was not the real disaster; that came with the loss of markets as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed after the First World War. This was immediately followed by the Treaty of Versailles (Trianon), in which Hungary lost much of its land and population to neighbouring countries. Then, if this weren’t enough, in 1946, in an incomprehensible act of retaliation, the post-war communist government expelled the German-speaking population of Hungary. This sadly meant a loss of precisely those experts who had an in-depth knowledge of the vineyard areas and grape varieties of the Sopron region.

Under communism, the general trend in winemaking was ‘the more the better’. The Soviet Union, Hungary’s main export market at the time, swallowed up unfathomable quantities of cheap plonk, and so this was what had to be produced. It is this attitude that needs to be changed today, and Kálmán’s wish is for Sopron to become once more a well-respected region that produces high-quality wines. ‘The general perception is that this region is just too far north and too close to the Alps for quality wine. On the contrary, these are all favourable factors’, he says. ‘When I was a child, we had 700 mm of rain per year. Today it’s down to 400. We are facing new challenges in the vineyards.’

 

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Kékfrankos, as I wrote in an earlier article, is a tricky variety. It has a lot of acidity, which can easily get out of control, and unless the grapes have reached full maturity the resulting wine can be harsh, thin, and austere. ‘There are many different “genres” within the variety’, Arnold tells me. ‘You’ve got to find the right clone, one that is not late-ripening and which doesn’t have dramatic acidity.’ Kálmán adds, ‘For good wine, you need three things: good grapes, cleanliness, and a careful management of oxygen.’ Good grape, he explains, means harvesting when the grapes have fully matured. Oxygen, that’s all in the barrels. ‘We use a barrel as long as it can breathe. The barrels are there not in order to add oaky flavours but for micro-oxygenation. And if the pores of a barrel become blocked over time, we steam-clean it so that it can breathe again.’

Kálmán’s conclusion is that Hungarian winemakers must relearn winemaking. ‘Our country must rediscover the old winemaking tradition. Forget all the bad tics of the past, such as quantity over quality.’ In 2004, the Jandls were invited to participate in a French wine competition. ‘We were invited as the poor east European relative. We didn’t even have to pay the application fee’, Kálmán says. After much toing and froing, they agreed, on Arnold’s insistence, to send their oak-aged Kékfrankos, which was simply called ‘Kékfrankos barrique’ at the time. ‘The wine came back with a gold medal! And so we decided to rename it Missio.’

All the reds we tasted were very well made. Ripe fruit, soft tannins, good acidity. Balanced and harmonious wines. The Jandl Merlot and Cabernet Franc are equally lovely, but here I want to recommend specifically their Hungarian varietal wines.

missioMissio 2017, 100% Kékfrankos

Old, 50-60-year-old vines. Wild yeasts, 30-day fermentation process, including spontaneous malolactic fermentation.

Prickly, leafy, herbaceous nose, very promising. Strong floral fragrance. Spicy palate with berries, currants and herbs, and a bit of chocolate. Lovely and ripe, soft acidity, smooth tannins, graphite on finish. Very ready to drink.

Jandl Rosé Kékfrankos 2018

Pale salmon colour, fresh, dynamic nose. Good acidity, citrus flavours but not particularly fruity altogether – somewhat savoury in fact, which is very enjoyable. Fresh and clean, balanced. Graphite on finish.

Kékfrankos 2017

The winery’s entry-level red, not a vineyard selection. Fermented in stainless steel tanks. Warm, fruity nose. Red fruits also on palate, prickly, leafy, blackcurrant character. Lovely acidity.

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Burgundy Junior

En primeur is one of the key terms you learn as you begin to move in wine connoisseur circles. It’s an Old World thing; to be more precise, it is a uniquely French phenomenon. Buying wine en primeur means that you pay for it before it’s ready, I mean truly and really ready. This way you get a better price, the producer gets security from the money coming in, and you get your wine when it’s truly and really ready. Since en primeur is big business, especially when it comes to prestigious and therefore expensive wine regions, en primeur tastings are commonly held around this time of the year. The wines are still very very young and therefore what you taste now is not what you’ll have in a couple of years’ time, but on the basis of certain character traits – such as structure, intensity and acidity – experienced critics, merchants, and consumers can judge already at this stage which wines will be worth investing in. If the wine turns out to be amazing – and there’s always some risk that it will not – you can make a lot of money on your gamble if you trade in it, or if it’s for your own cellar, you will have made a good deal buying something outstanding at a bargain (i.e. somewhat lower) price.

At this year’s Burgundy en primeur tasting organized by O. W. Loeb, a wine merchant specializing in Old World wine, I was mostly interested in the whites. White Burgundy means essentially Chardonnay, in two distinct styles: dry and austere Chablis and the creamier, flavour-rich wines of the Cote d’Or. The vintage under scrutiny was 2018, and the results encouraging, despite the professionals’ slight misgivings about that year.

The winemakers I spoke to all said more or less the same thing: 2018 was a tricky year. It was very warm and the harvest had to be done earlier than later to preserve the acidity in the grapes and to avoid sky-rocketing sugar levels – which would then lead to high alcohol, not a good thing. It was also important to preserve relatively low yields – in warm weather the grapes can go crazy, and abundance of fruit is detrimental to quality.

The wines I tasted were generally very ready to drink. Most of them had good acidity, though there were some exceptions, which may have an adverse effect on longevity. Here are a few I particularly recommend.

Jean-Paul Brun Crémant de Bourgogne, blanc de blanc (100% Chardonnay)

My favourite sparkling wine at this tasting. Elegant, restrained, balanced, nice toasty flavours and some smokiness on the finish.

Collet pere et filsJean Collet et Fils Saint Bris Sauvignon Blanc

This wine is the odd one out – it’s not made from Chardonnay, hence can’t be called a Burgundy, even though it comes from just outside Chablis. However, the village of St Bris has its own appellation, where Sauvignon Blanc is indeed permitted. And this particular specimen was a gem to discover. Romain Collet winemaker said, ‘I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc when it’s too green. I prefer to wait for full maturity.’ The wine is fermented in stainless steel, after malolactic fermentation it goes into barrels, and spends five months on lees.

In this wine I very much enjoyed the harmonious mingling of vegetal notes with the yeasty characteristics coming from lees ageing. The first Sauvignon of Collet – may it go from strength to strength!

Domaine Alain Chavy Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières

Soft and creamy on the palate, yet held up firmly by a strong acid backbone. Nuts and butter and caramel. Pebbles dominate the superlong finish.

Tupinier-Bautista Mercurey Blanc 1er Cru Sazenay

Very buttery nose, pretzels on palate. All the great flavours coming from the lees combine beautifully with the strong acidity. The toasty flavours linger long on the finish.

ST Aubin

 

Ramonet St-Aubin Blanc 1er Cru En Remilly

Intriguing wine with herbal notes – rosemary and thyme. Savoury character and strong acidity, but there’s a hint of sweetness from the fruit. Long, honeyed finish.

 

 

 

 

Balassa: Terroirist of Tokaj

The invitation comes as a surprise. One of the top winemakers from the famed Hungarian wine region of Tokaj is hosting a tasting-slash-dinner in a Hungarian restaurant in south London. I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Hungarian wines, so I go.

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The event is organized by Best of Hungary, a company specializing in the promotion of Hungarian gourmet products in the UK. As we sit down to dinner (traditional Hungarian fare, but, amazingly, vegan option for me), the owner, Monika Gyenes, explains their mission: ‘Instead of pushing what we have and wanting to force it down people’s throats, our aim is to try and understand what Europe actually wants, its way of thinking.’ They focus on high quality, and target a small, exclusive market – people who are seriously interested in what they eat and drink. ‘The goal is to introduce them to delicacies, to something exquisite. We have been very successful with fine food, and now we’d like to build up the fine wine side of our business’, says Monika.

On the fine wine front, Best of Hungary works in close co-operation with the Budapest-based Happy Hungarian Wine, a company run by Gábor Herczeg. ‘We want to break into the Western market with the strongest Hungarian indigenous grape varieties. Once people have come to know and like these, we can try our hand at exporting wines made from the international varieties. First, however, we must tackle the challenge of being unknown’, Gábor tells me.

The host of the evening, István Balassa, is owner and winemaker at Balassa Bor in Tokaj. He strikes me as a man of few words – but when we start talking wine, he suddenly has a lot to say, and a lot of passion to say it with. ‘In 2018 I planted Riesling [something unheard of in Tokaj], and next year we’ll have wine! Today, with good technology, the grape-growing process can be sped up and within a year or two the vines can produce good grapes.’ When I ask him how other winemakers have responded to the idea of growing a totally new grape variety in the region, he shrugs: ‘I haven’t asked them what they think. I’ll be the first in Tokaj to experiment with Riesling and this makes me proud. I’m constantly pushing boundaries. That’s how one can evolve.’

man and landscape

István is someone who believes in singularity: single variety, single vineyard, and single-minded dedication to making the best wine possible. The quality of wines, he tells me, is hugely determined by what happens in the vineyard. With Furmint, the main indigenous grape variety of the Tokaj region, the key is catching the right moment for picking. ‘Furmint makes full-bodied wines and so we don’t have to worry about high alcohol; the grape can take it. But if one harvests too early or too late, things can easily go wrong’, he explains.

We start the tasting with two of István’s dry Furmints, fermented and matured in barrels. When I take the first sips of his entry-level Tokaji Furmint 2018, I find it hard to believe that we are at entry level. But that’s only until I taste his single-vineyard Szent Tamás 2018 Furmint. True, the former is intense and very attractive, youthful and lively, but with the Szent Tamás I find myself in an altogether different dimension. There’s serious complexity here, and even though the wine initially seems more restrained, it radiates from a much deeper place.

Szent Tamás tető

Szent Tamás is the top site among István’s vineyards. ‘There is a whole hierarchy of plots, starting with Bomboly, then on to Nyúlászó, Betsek, Thurzó, Kakas, Mézes Mály, and finally Szent Tamás. But you can’t introduce people straight to the top vineyard. Those who are new to wine should first be shown my entry-level Furmint, which is much easier to understand and through which they’ll grow to like the region and the style.’

In the fourteen years of its existence, Balassa winery has achieved quite a lot to be proud of. In the 2019 edition of the Top 100 Wines of Hungary, two of István’s Szamorodni wines are listed: his Nyulászó 2013 got third place, and Bomboly 2017 came seventh. In the category of ‘5 best late harvest wines’, Nyulászó was awarded first place. And just a month ago Bomboly 2017 also pocketed a gold medal at the Women’s Wine and Spirits Awards in London. We taste it halfway through the dinner, and it is very fresh despite all the sweetness, no heaviness here, just lots of delightful floral and honeyed notes. ‘Bomboly is a lively, fresh, playful wine, which is partly due to the complexity of the soil. Nyulászó, on the other hand, produces more rustic, lazier, richer wines with lots of minerality.’

Szamorodni is a botrytised sweet wine, not that different from the famed king of wines, Tokaji Aszú. But I recall from my younger years dry examples that I had liked, and I’ve remained quite intrigued by that style. István, however, is not at all keen on dry Szamorodni. ‘It has always been a by-product really. Botrytis kills the fruit in the wine and creates lots of creaminess. This is great in a sweet wine, but it just doesn’t work in a dry one.’ In short, Szamorodni’s got to be sweet. By law, it must contain a minimum of 60g residual sugar. But István’s Szamorodnis often have as much as 160-200g per litre.

man and grapes

When harvesting for Szamorodni, whole bunches are taken – these will contain some aszú berries, which have been affected by botrytis and have shrivelled as a result, as well as healthy ones that have not. There is no selection process, hence the name Szamorodni, which comes from Polish and means ‘the way it grows’. This is one of the main differences with Aszú wines, where the harvest is carried out by carefully checking the bunches for botrytised berries and picking these individually, over the course of several weeks. As we’re sipping István’s Bomboly, Monika lets me in on a secret: historically the sweet nectars of Tokaj were known and loved not only for their taste but also for their medicinal qualities. ‘I originally trained as a dentist. Even as recently as the 1960s, Tokaj wine was listed in the official handbook of medicines, and was suggested for the treatment of anaemia, anorexia, and depression – even for diabetes!’

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István, who by the way is also a brilliant photographer, has been called the King of Szamorodni as he has done some unique experiments with interesting selections of small plots, trying to see how the influence of different soils plays out in the wines. Remarkably, in 2017 he produced seven different single-vineyard Szamorodnis. ‘It was an incredible vintage’, he says. ‘As part of the experiment, I decided to make three different Szamorodnis from three sections of the same plot, Betsek. The geology of Tokaj is immensely complex, so that smaller segments of the same plot will often have their own unique soil.’ In the case of Betsek, the individual sections are dominated by rhyolite, quartz, and andesite respectively. ‘I found that these differing geological characteristics have a noticeable influence on the aromatic and flavour profile of the wines. I have no scientific evidence to back this up yet, but watch this space!’

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To buy Balassa wines in the UK, visit https://www.bestofhungary.co.uk/.