Category Archives: Winemaking

Egri Bikavér – a brand is reborn


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.



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.


kommunista cimke egri-bikaver

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.

Eger szolofoldek

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.


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?


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.’


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.’



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.



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.


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!’

191118 furmint photo balassa borok1216

To buy Balassa wines in the UK, visit


Ladies of Chenin

French is the only language I know of where the word for ‘winemaker’ has a feminine form: vigneronne. On a recent visit to the Loire valley, I was so thrilled to see the prominence of female winemakers in several wineries – especially in the Savennières appellation. These women don’t just work in the cellar – they run the show, which is wonderful to see in a profession that is conventionally so strongly associated with men. Closel2

There was, first of all, Domaine du Closel, in the charming village of Savennières. If you fancy visiting a winery not just for the juice but also for the setting, this one is a must. The domaine is located within the walls of the Chateau des Vaults, with incredibly beautiful grounds. Upon arrival, visitors are handed a map of the premises and before going anywhere near the wines, you are given the opportunity to wander about in the gardens (park, more like), and up a little footpath to the top of the hill, where the vineyards are. To breathe in the ambience, the history, the terroir. Very romantic, and done in very good taste. Not only is the chateau magnificent in its looks, it also produces lovely wines. To our disappointment, the lady of the house and head winemaker, Evelyne de Pontbriand, was away at a wine fair, but her very knowledgeable daughter Isaure talked us through the wines and the story of how the winemaking has been passed down from one generation of women to the next. As it turned out, Evelyne’s right-hand person in the cellar is also a woman, Pauline Lair, who has recently started working for Closel, having been converted to environmentally caring viticulture at a winery in New Zealand.

Isaure herself doesn’t get involved today, even though she has a WSET diploma, but she is very much at home in the wine world and was happy to pour for us one delightful Chenin Blanc after another. Chenin is the predominant grape variety of this region, and the Savennières appellation is for Chenin only, though some people do make other wines, including some reds from Cabernet Franc. Closel was the first stop on our visit and I was yet to discover how multifaceted and versatile Chenin Blanc is.

Recommended wines (certified organic and biodynamic):

La Jalousie 2016 – light and youthful, full of fresh fruit; made from grapes harvested fairly early and aged for nine months.

Les Caillardières 2016 – a denser, creamier Chenin; harvested later, matured for longer


Tessa la Roche is the owner and boss at Domaine aux Moines, on the outskirts of Savennières. She took the business over from her mother, Monique. With her open face and nonchalant pony tail, Tessa is a feisty woman and quite a character – someone who knows what she’s doing, and she does it more or less alone.

TessaLike Closel, Domaine aux Moines is also organic, and they are converting now to biodynamic production. The grapes are predominantly Chenin, and the wines are all dry, fermented in stainless steel, although there’s some that’s made in old barrels. Botrytis (noble rot, a fungal infection that makes the grapes shrivel and can produce fantastic wines; think Tokaj or Sauternes) is avoided but a little bit of oxidation is encouraged at the time of pressing. Sulphites are not added, and the fermentation is carried out by indigenous yeasts. Here we tasted straight out of the tanks and barrels – the wines were still work in progress (2018 and 2019) and have not been bottled yet. They did taste very young and on the move, so to speak, but the apple flavours and slight bitterness of Chenin, together with that fantastic bite of acidity, created very enjoyable wines. Tessa also showed us a red she had made, which she described as ‘animal’. It did show animal, leathery, earthy characteristics – these made it chewy and intriguing.


La Coulée de Serrant is Nicolas Joly’s famed winery, which put the concept of biodynamic viticulture on the map for many wine drinkers. We are welcomed by his lovely daughter Virginie, whose little girl, the next winemaking generation, is also kicking about as we talk and taste. Considering what a legend (should I say superstar?) Joly is, the winery looks very ordinary, though again the estate is stunning, and if you decide to visit you must spend some time walking around in the gardens, which in this part of the world are not separate from the vineyards. The estate is all in one: it is where they live, grow the grapes, and make the wines. This seems to be the standard model for the typically very small Loire wineries, and one that makes them very attractive to me. The house of the Joly family is huge and majestic but has a rustic, aged feel, nothing pompous or overwhelming but lots of history. A house for living in, not for showing off. The reception area is more like someone’s grandfather’s kitchen than a renowned winemaker’s tasting room.


It was Virginie’s grandmother who first decided to make wine; then her son Nicolas took over, and now his daughter is playing a leading role. As we taste, Virginie shares with us her concern about the electromagnetic waves created by all the modern devices we use today. She believes these may well have a negative impact on the land and grape growth – as well as ourselves. Though admittedly there’s no scientific evidence for this, it’s an interesting idea, and a reflection of how much Virginie, and all the others I meet, care about the land. As if it were a beloved family member. With the physical proximity of the vineyards to the winery and the family home, this is not at all surprising.

IMG_6929Virginie’s father Nicolas decided to turn to biodynamic farming when he noticed that the pesticides and chemicals he was using in the vineyard were eliminating the flora and fauna of the area. His natural methods include using a horse for working the soil, and other unusual ideas. He started a revolution in winemaking, especially in France, and has written a number of books on biodynamic grape-growing.

The wines are fermented and matured in large-ish, old oak barrels (400-500 l), and the fermentation takes a long time – often several months. Unlike Tessa, Virginie likes to harvest with a bit of botrytis, which she says contributes to the typicity of their wines. The wines of La Coulée de Serrant all have some quirky, vegetal, spicy characteristics on top of the familiar apple compote notes of Chenin. Some have a touch of oxidation and can be deep gold in colour. All are dry.

It was quite exceptional to have seen three women-run wineries within the first few days of my visit. Strong and knowledgeable, with both feet on the ground, these women are putting their heart in the work they do. Matter-of-factly, without pretence, without fanfare. Care for the land and the environment is a given – it is how they do things, not a marketing strategy. Likeable, approachable personalities and good, honest winemaking. Chapeau!