Come to think about it, if you were to ask most wine-drinkers to name as many Hungarian wines as possible off the top of their heads, I guess a few of them might nominate ‘Bulls Blood’ and Tokaj …. and then have to give up. This is hardly surprising perhaps, as we are not exactly over-exposed to Hungarian wine in the UK. We don’t see much of that country’s more interesting examples other than through a very few specialist importers, though happily the high street chains like Majestic and M&S are beginning to increase their slender ranges, usually with generic bottlings of Hungarian-made wine produced either from recognizable international grape varieties, or perhaps from the country’s indigenous grapes hidden behind a generic or an Anglicised label identity.
Relative rarity on British wine merchants’ shelves aside, many of Hungary’s grape varieties and the designations of their scattered vineyard sites have unpronounceable names that don’t exactly trip off the tongue. A further disincentive to buy Hungarian wines perhaps, unless, of course, you happen to be in that country yourself – consequently much of the new and vibrant winemaking scene that is modern Hungary still remains shamefully out of sight here at home. For years British budget-conscious wine drinkers trawling the supermarket bottom shelves have adjusted to the availability of standard generic bottlings of Cabernets, Merlots and Pinot Noirs produced by countries like Romania and Bulgaria, and apart from Hungary’s ‘star’ dessert wine, botrytised Tokaj, the far wider range of Hungarian wine remains in relative obscurity.
My own first brushes with Hungarian wine were in the days when the country’s light wines seemed to have had as much subtlety and sophistication as could be expected from that country’s then-Communist bulk wine-producing State again, in a second-hand bookshop I recently saw the first edition of Oz Clarke’s “Wine Book” dating from 1987, a volume of around 250 pages in which less than half a page was dedicated to the writer’s then very disparaging review of Hungarian light wines.
Startling improvement doesn’t happen overnight, though. Back in 1960 a slow beginning was being made within Hungary itself to improve the former picture, and over thirty years later in 1993 Hungarian wines finally entered the bloodstream of the EU Member States – a real revolution! Enhanced funding became newly available and the new generation of growers and winemakers suddenly found themselves with wider horizons, having learned as much from the New World as from the best traditions of their own Old World.
The Hungarian wine scene as exists today is unlike anything that went before. Hungarian wine is experiencing a complete make-over, and nowadays so many more of the country’s characterful wines can stand competition from anywhere. I just find it a bit frustrating that we don’t have better access to more of them.
Why not put it to the test this month with one of the country’s most honoured vine varieties, Furmint, a staple of Hungary’s world famous dessert wine, Tokaj? Traditionally, the late-ripening Furmint was grown in the Tokaj region under quite separate identities – szamorodni i.e. to furnish a quality wine ‘as it comes’, and the aszú – the famously ‘assisted’ dessert wine from a basis of late harvested botrytis affected grapes. In both styles the Furmint grape’s heightened acidity comes to the fore, witness the exciting initial tingle on the tongue revealed by my October choice, the dry Furmint Tokaj 2013 available from M&S in your local high street or online. Furmint vinified simply as a dry table wine is a relatively new innovation in Hungary dating from as recently as 2000. My own ‘pick’ shows a definite clean-edged personality backed by a satisfying weight and texture, with a palate hinting of apricots and ‘raw’ honey. Though dry, the wine shows an attractive ripeness, too – the Tokaj vineyards tend to benefit from the extra reflected light and warmth thrown up by the rivers Tisza and Bodrog which run across the region.
In this particular case the Furmint grapes have been vinified out-of-region by Hilltop, a well known state-of the-art winery northwest of Budapest, one that has penetrated the UK marketplace with some notable success. Great food wine, with a well judged balance and structure – worth pairing with paprika chicken maybe, or even something even spicier as detailed below.
Country of Origin: Hungary (Tokaj – Hegyalja region)
Name of Wine: Tokaj Furmint, 2013
Style: Dry, gently aromatic white
Producer: Hilltop Winery
Alcohol: 12.5% Vol.
Retailer: M&S Wines
‘Ferakh-al-Hara’ – Moroccan Chilli Chicken
The ‘heat’ of this simple dish can be varied according to the quantity of hot chilli powder used. The following recipe is only moderately hot which would allow my October choice of wine, gently chilled, to show its paces to advantage.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
5 tblsps. olive oil
Juice of a lemon
1 teasp. chilli powder
1 heaped teasp crushed garlic
1 free-range chicken, jointed
Garnish of lemon wedges
Mix the olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, chilli powder and seasonings together in a bowl.
Put the chicken pieces in a fireproof baking dish and cover with this basting mixture.
Bake for 25 minutes in an oven at Gas Mk 5 (375deg.F), basting the chicken for the first 15 minutes only…. the idea is that the surface skin of the chicken should be reasonably crisp when cooked.
Accompaniments – Rice pilaf, crisp green salad, a wedge of fresh lemon, and Arabic bread.
(NB: If you have a steamer, put 5 ozs of rice, a teaspoonful of cumin seeds previously dry-fried for a few moments, and 10 fl ozs of water in a bowl, and steam for 25 minutes until all the water is absorbed and the rice is fluffy and fragrant – alternatively boil rice in the usual way, with the addition of a little spoonful dry-fried cumin seeds.)
John Ducker – Member of the Circle of Wine Writers