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  • Tuesday 1 January 2002

Striving to change the country's reputation as a source of cheap wines, Hungarian producers are determined to prove they can make world-class wine – and not just Tokaji. CATHARINE LOWE reports from Hungary.

Imagine, just for a moment, that there'd been a large volcanic eruption in 1989 in central Europe, creating a new country, quickly populated by knowledgeable winemakers intent on producing quality wines. The international vinous interest would be huge, the speculation enormous. But for a country such as Hungary, emerging newly independent after 40 years of communism, the novelty factor is non-existent – interest in its wines, except for Tokaji Aszú, is still lacking. It is up against a current generation of wine drinkers who remember only commie coop plonk, or more recently the clean, but uninspiring sub-£3.99 supermarket wines. Few consumers, if any, especially in the UK, will have had the chance to try some of the quality wines that are now being made.

This problem is exacerbated by a wine industry in need of marketing and finance, and a government that does little to help. 'We need three things: forints, forints and forints. I don't like this word 'money', but we need to spend to make people aware that good Hungarian wine is existing again,' says Huba Szeremley, founder of the winemakers' group Pannon Bormíves Céh, which was set up two years ago to boost awareness of Hungary's world-class wines, provide support, and to encourage use of its indigenous grapes such as Kékfrankos, Kékoportó, Kadarka, Furmint and Kékneylú. Two years on, with membership of the group up from 10 to 18, I travelled to Hungary to see how the guild was progressing, and how members' wines were faring.

In Villány, in the south, with its more Mediterranean climate, growers such as Ede Tiffán, Attila Gere and József Bock are making some impressive reds. With the intensely professional Tiffán we tasted his Cabernet Sauvignons 1999 to 1993, revealing a rich, meaty style, with a silky textured palate. Of exceptional note was a Cabernet Franc 1995 with deep red berry fruit and refined elegance. But as Tiffán says: 'On my own, however hard I work, however good my wines, it is not enough to change the attitude to Hungary in the world market. Internationally there are some very powerful companies here, but their success is with cheap wine – which only further damages the reputation of Hungarian wine.' Tiffán is particularly proud of his 2000 Kékoportó, an indigenous variety that shows its capabilities if treated well as a lively fresh wine with concentrated berry fruit, not dissimilar to a Beaujolais. Master of Villány's red wine style is Attila Gere, who cites Ornellaia and Pétrus as his role models, and is making some beautiful inky black, silky Cabernet Sauvignons and Francs. His Kopár 1997, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc and Merlot, has a velvety texture more Right Bank than Left. It will be interesting to taste this in 10, 20 years time. Gere also takes a lot of pride in Kékfrankos, a middle-European variety once mistaken for Gamay. 'Kékfrankos is all too often treated as a big volume grape, but with low yields and respect, this vintage, 2000, shows what it is capable of.'

On the UK market, Gere's Cabernet Sauvignon Barrique 1996 was the most expensive Hungarian dry wine on UK importer Wines of Westhorpe's books, at about £10.99. As Gere says of this UK foray: 'It should be more expensive, and yet it would not sell.' Southwest of Budapest on the north shore of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Europe, is the tireless Huba Szeremley at Szent Orbán winery. The reflective heat off the lake, the volcanic hills, and the dark lava soil that gives out heat at night, all help create a microclimate ideal for whites, giving concentration, high acidity and minerality. A number of the wines are a touch too floral for my liking, perhaps made for a Germanic market, but in some, notably (surprisingly) Olaszrisling from a number of vintages, as well as Pinot Gris, the concentration and minerality showed beautifully. Szeremley's pride is the native variety Kékneylú, 'probably the oldest in Hungary'. It is closest to Picolit, is very difficult to pollinate, has high extract and naturally low yield.

We almost didn't make it to Eger, in the Matra Hills, northeast of Budapest, as an insistent flashing low fuel light in the helicopter we'd been lent, meant an emergency landing in a field 30km short of our destination. However, rescue was at hand in the form of a Land Rover driven by Tibor Gál, another founding guild member, who set up GIA winery, after heading up Lodovico Antinori's Ornellaia winery in Bolgheri, and now consults on five other wineries. Eger has a relatively cool climate, giving a lightness and elegance to the wines, and eyes are are on Gál's Pinot Noir, 1999 the first vintage, showing spicy red raspberry fruit, a hint of earthiness, and good structure. Gál exports primarily to Germany, then Switzerland, then Japan, with a mere 50 cases to the UK. Eger is home to Hungary's once famous bikaver or Bull's Blood. Winemakers are determined to repair the damaged reputation of this wine, with some fine fruit-driven, lively wines now made by Gál and others. Tamás Pók, a later entrant to the guild, says: 'I want to produce a bikaver good enough to be presented to anyone. We have to prove that with selection, ageing and care, it can be really good.'

Pók is intent on restoring prestige to Hungarian white varieties such as Leányka and Zengó, while Kékfrankos takes on a different character in this cooler region, with Pók's 1999 revealing far more peppery, spicy, light red fruit than in Villány. 'Kékfrankos doesn't have the reputation it deserves; it suffers due to high yields, lack of canopy management and location of vineyard sites. Yet it has great potential.' Also in Eger is Vilmos Thummerer, who has planted 50 hectares with varieties such as Kékfrankos, Kékoporto and Királyleányka. His wines are sophisticated; a Pinot Noir 1997 showed good complexity, and Vila Papa Cuvée, only released in good years, is an elegant Bordeaux blend with concentration and ripe fruit.

Further north, near the Slovakian border, is Tokaj-Hegyalja, home to Hungary's best-known wine, Tokaji, and focus of much foreign investment. New winemakers (new to owning wineries, though many worked in state companies during the communist era) are unwinding misconceptions about this sweet wine. János Arvay, former winemaker at Disznókõ, says: 'Now I can create what I like; I'm influenced by tradition and history.' We spent an evening deep in the rabbit-warren cellars under Tokaj, tasting barrel samples of Hárslevelú, Furmint, Muscat Ottonel, Samarodnis and Tokaji Forditas; each differing in plots, wood used or clones – experimentation is the key word here.

The highly respected István Szepsy set up Királyudvar in 1993. He takes exemplary care of his vines and is outspoken on the need for higher standards throughout the region – keen to lobby new rules on yield levels and tighten information on labels, he has stepped down as president of the Tokaji Renaissance Association. Opinion is divided on the 'real' style of Tokaji, and Szepsy is only to happy to contribute to this debate. He's experimenting with ice wine and vin de paille, and has departed from the set path with his new Tokaji Cuvée 1999, made with overripe and botrysised grapes, presenting a clean, citrussy, minerally style – one the wine authority wouldn't grant the Aszú suffix. 'They said this is not Tokaji style; but what is the style? Tokaji should be the character of the grapes, the soil and the winemaker's style.'

Szepsy is similarly impatient of the Pannon Bormíves Céh group: 'Perhaps it was started too early – I want results now. It has to develop further, to get new markets and push quality wine forward, take bigger risks, and to do it faster.'

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