Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Returning from business in Vienna, we took a late flight from Budapest in order to schlep some otherwise unobtainable Hungarian wines back to Slotovino's base in London. After reading Alex Lidell's 'The Wines of Hungary' interest in local grape varieties was high. Since publication (in 2003) almost everything has changed. Our plan to have lunch in the cellars of the Hilton Hotel in Buda and then visit the Magyar Borak Haza (House of Hungarian Wine) opposite came to nought. The cellars closed a year or two ago and there was hardly any choice of Hungarian wines by the hugely overpriced glass at the lobby bar. Worse; the House of Hungarian Wine closed this summer after a fire.
Nonetheless, the kind Hilton doorman directed us to the Kiraly Borhaz (Royal Tavern) a couple of hundred metres down the hill. There we found a beautiful new underground wine shop, tasting rooms and museum in what looked like the palace dungeons. There is a fee for entry but having lost our way in the (not very interesting) museum we concentrated on tasting and buying.
The most helpful and knowledgeable Petra helped us to choose 10 wines for tasting and even threw an extra one in for free. Top of our list were white varieties Juhfark, Ezerjo, Harslevelu, Leanyka, Kiralyleanyka and Czerszegi Fuszeres and reds including Kadarka, Kekoporto (Blauer Portugieser), Kekfrankos (Blaufraenkisch) and Blauburger. Not all were available but those that were (plus a pinot noir which Petra insisted we tasted) helped enormously, together with the invaluable advice and comprehensive knowledge of Mr. Illes Molnar in the wine shop in selecting the following 9 bottles (there are currently 306 Hungarian Forints to the Pound and 261 to the Euro);
Harslevelu (Tornai) 12.5% (HUF 3,430)
Harslevelu (Tornai) 13% (1,430)
Furmint (Tornai) 12% (1,320)
Leanyka (Toth Ferenc) 13%
Cserszegi Fuszeres (Gelbmann Pince) 10.6% (750)
Keknyelu and Olaszrizling (Badacsonyi Tomaj Cuvee) 12.5% (2,090)
and the evocatively named Juhfark by Pantlika at 12.5% (1,380)
Kadarka (Duzsi Tamas) 12.5% (2,890)
Cabernet Franc - just for a laugh - (Tamas & Zsolt Gere, Villanyi) 13% (4,470)
Petra had nice stories about two of these varieties. Juhfark is beneficial to women wanting a male child: Empress Maria Theresa needed a male heir (after bearing was it 5 girls?) and so drank Juhfark. The result was the enlightened Emperor Joseph II, friend of Haydn, Mozart, lamented by Beethoven etc. The other fable was concerning the derivation of the name Kekfrankos (Blue Franc). This is supposed to have originated when Napoleon's troops wanted to buy wine on their way through Hungary. The only Hungarian they learned was Kekfrankos signifying the 5 Franc note which was blue. If true, the same must have happened in Austria with Blaufraenkisch....it is pretty unlikely the French soldiers even bothered to pay for their wine but there is a connection with Napoleon: he admired the port-like Kekfrankos of Sopron. He seems to have admired many wines on his 'travels'. St. Peray is another.
We were hoping to get some real finds from the duty free shop at Ferihegy Airport but Terminal 1 is very much poorer than T2. Nonetheless among the hugely overpriced and disturbingly alcoholic cuvees from Villanyi and Eger (typically 14.7%) we found two Egri Bikavers, one by Tibor Gal for Gundel for 1,932 at 13% and the other by Thummerer at 2,772 (13.5%) as well as a Bock Kekfrankos from Villany (13%) at 2,380.
That made 12 bottles - a record Schlep!
There ia slo an excellent chain of wine shops all over Hungary called Bortarsasag. We cased the Bazilika branch in central Pest. They have a great selection but are significantly and consistantly more expensive than Kiraly Borhaz.
We will taste the Hungarian booty over the next months and report any 'finds'. The Hungarian wine scene is developing at a tremendous rate. We hope they don't abandon their priceless heritage of native varieties and tradition (as in so much of Eastern Europe and the ancient winegrowing lands of Greece and Georgia) of low alcohol wines. Prominent producers include Bock, Gere, Thummerer, Toth and Weninger.
It has taken many years but finally Slotovino has discovered the wine Mecca of new York. Astor Wines and Spirits is at 399 Lafayette St at East 4th and has as big a range and as knowledgeable a staff as we have found anywhere. Honcho 'David' is an amateur of rare grape varieties and steered us to a Pelaverga from Piemonte; a grape we had never heard of. We also bought the Pineau d'Aunis 'Les Mortiers' which we had admired at Grammercy Tavern (whose wine list is unparalleled) a Piedirosso from the Campi Flegrei (Campania) and a Menu Pineau (Arbois)/Sauvignon Blanc blend from the Loire. There are many other fascinating wines. Check out their excellent website.
Now that Vintage New York have closed their shop in the Village and only have Broadway and 93rd St in NYC (they have otherwise an outlet at the Rivendell Winery in New Paltz in the Hudson valley), Astor is one of the only places downtown we know of where you can buy New York wines.