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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Hungarian Wines at Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party

Hungarian wines at the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas party

Though elusive and hard to define, this [Hungarian] national character exists without visible physical racial characteristics. Magyars do not belong to any particular race, they do not present any noticeable religious, political or social conformity – in fact, the very diversity in these fields seems to be one of the typical characteristics of this people.
The definition of their national ‘ethos" is therefore a very complex task. For one thing, Hungarians are usually too emotional to be able to form impartial judgements of themselves while foreigners are rarely familiar enough with their culture and history to form valid conclusions.
- "A Way of Life": HungarianHistory.com
Despite my many visits to Magyarország, Hungary has always remained to me an impenetrable place, a land that I have only ever travelled through rather than ever feeling fully at home.
Descended from a people of Central Asian origin, adrift in a sea of Slavs, the lilting language full of quaint vowels is simultaneously reassuring and opaque, the culture historically and geographically remote, the topography and landscape of the Carpathian Basin indistinct.
If the Austrians are the missing link between the precise, Teutonic Prussians and the dolce vita of the Italian outdoor lifestyle, then the Hungarians are the other side of the same coin.
Like their grander, more neurotic Imperial cousins up the road in Bécs, the Hungarians both pay a Northern European lip-service to the system of rules yet have a simultaneous Southern disregard for it; Budapest is no less a place of shady business deals than Vienna.
Yet Hungary's markedly southern hedonism lives a low-lying, landlocked and continental, rather than Mediterranean, lifestyle; Budapest is a bewildering mix of imperial boulevards and coffee houses, backstreet pavement cafes, beer halls and hearty food eaten out of doors.
Perhaps it was the wide-ranging ambition of this tasting that hindered a deeper understanding.
Perhaps modern Hungary, after 50 years of Communism, followed by freedom and EU accession is still finding its way oenologically.
Or perhaps the Hungarians simply saw no pressing need for order, focus and structure in what was essentially more of a celebratory event.
For I did not come away with the ordered and structured overall impression of Hungary's wines that I had hoped for.
Taken individually, they were as technically well-made and fault free as I remember them from my many encounters.
But with so many regions, grapes and styles represented, I gained only a limited impression of what contemporary Hungarian wines are all about.
However, key shared features were a precise, clean modernity, a subtle elegance and plenty of fruit expression; like an extended family gathering, there were common traits, but no overall defining feature.

The original fizz, Champagne, was developed as a way of making an unpalatable wine drinkable; that is, the process does more than merely add bubbles.
The various fizzes here were elegant enough, but somehow unexciting; they felt like adequate wines with bubbles added.
Here was the greatest diversity of styles: indigenous and international grapes, varietal wines and blends, various oaking and lees-aging regimes.
All technically well-made, all ripe with good fruit - but little to make the heart beat faster.
With plenty of international varieties and the judicious use of oak, the reds were recognisably influenced by Bordeaux and the Rhone.
One producer truly stood out - Bock's wines were elegant, adept and harmonious. Takler, managed by Bock, had a similar, only slightly lesser, feel; Gal Tibor's wines were supremely elegant; St Andrea Merengő Egri Bikavér superior 2009 had a Rhone-esque spicy earthiness.
Pre-dating Sauternes, the sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary's north east, are its legendary calling card and only Champagne has spawned as many anecdotes.
It is made into some of the greatest dessert wines in the world by a combination of noble rot, high-altitude vineyards on volcanic soils and a unique production method of adding puttonyos of aszu grapes to a base wine.
The best here (Barta, Beres, Dobogo, Patricius) were intense, powerful and athletic, yet married to ballerina-esque lightness and freshness.

Image credits: Zsolt Szentirmai
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