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