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.