After a short break, we are back with the remaining episodes of NG Wine School Season Two. This week we have left Switzerland and Germany and are moving on to look at the wines of Austria and Hungary.
Watch the full episode here.
Episode 25 - Austria and Hungary
Hungary has a long tradition of winemaking and had a superb reputation until the close of the 19th Century. At one point, sweet Tokaji was considered superior to Sauternes, even Chateau d'Yquem. Two world wars and decades of Communism took their toll. Soviet winemaking was targeted on quantity, not quality, but enough traditions were kept alive and, alongside modern winemaking know-how, the Hungarian wine scene has been transformed. There are many wine regions, and much of the production of the great central plains is table wine, but the four main quality regions are Villany, Nagy Somlo, Eger, and, most famously, Tokaj. Hungary is surrounded by mountains, in the Carpathian basin, and the growing season can be surprisingly long, giving rich, sometimes spicy whites and deep, tannic reds.
In Villany, most producers have gone with the French Bordeaux varieties, with some impressive results, and there are also some great wines made from the native Kekfrankos, also known as Blaufrankisch in Germany, and some Portugiser which we also saw last time in Germany. Kekfrankos makes …….. and Portugiser light, fruity reds.
Nagy Somlo’s signature grape is Juhfark, a white grape that often makes intense, powerful whites. In fact intense is a word that applies to most Hungarian wines. Forget delicate, perfumed, light Mosel Rieslings or pale fragrant Pinot Noirs, White or Red, these are gutsy wines. Which brings us on to:
Eger and its most famous wine outside of Hungary, Egri Bikaver or Bulls Blood and as the name implies, this is not a light picnic wine. A blend of at least 3 grapes and a minimum 50% Kekfrankos, it is rich, spicy and tannic and, unsurprisingly, stands up well to rich spicy food, particularly involving Paprika.
Tokaji is unquestionably one of the great wines of the world, and its most long lived. The main grape here is Furmint which, like Semillon, is thin skinned and susceptible to Noble rot, and it is thought this method of making sweet wine from nobly rotted grapes in Tokaji predates Sauternes and Mosel versions. The 27 villages of Tokaj are in an area with a microclimate very suited to Noble Rot, here called Aszu, with morning mists similar to those in Sauternes encouraging the Botrytis fungus to infect the ripened grapes and shrivel them to unsightly but deliciously sugary concentration. The wines are made from very dry to extraordinarily sweet and every style between. Szamorodni can be anything from Dry to Sweet depending on the proportion of nobly rotted grapes- there is generally no selection, then the Aszu levels of 3, 4, 5 or 6 Puttonyos, 6 being the sweetest. The Puttonyos refers to the container in which the mashed Aszu grapes are carried, the more containers of sweet grapes, the sweeter the wine. Unlike Sauternes and Mosel, the grapes are added to a base wine made from non-botrytised grapes and a second, much slower fermentation takes place. The rare and expensive Eszencia is made from free run juice from the Aszu grapes which can ferment slowly for years and is more of a syrup than a wine. Some traditionalists also age the Tokaji in traditional barrels under a sherry like Flor to give them extra character- If you think of Fino, this is not oxidative ageing but adds a layer of complexity and richness to the wines. This is done in cellars covered in black mould which is also thought to impart character to the developing wine. Characteristic of sweet Tokaji is Apricots and blossom with a very long finish and balancing acidity.
Given good sweet Tokaji is pretty expensive, I thought we’d try a dry example of the wine: Kardos dry Furmint, from the key grape of the area, has bags of character- lime blossom, grapefruit and a good finish, this is a great match for a wide range of food from Seafood to poultry, particularly the traditional Hungarian Chicken Paprikash.
Austria on the other hand has a surprisingly different style of wines for such close neighbours. One unfortunate blot on Austria’s reputation, some of you may remember, was the scandal in the eighties when some unscrupulous producers put Glycol, which is in antifreeze, into their wines to boost their body and apparent sweetness. It all but destroyed the industry and it took them decades to recover. Just to mention that quickly as, if it is in the back of your mind, banish all thoughts of it because Austria has some of the most stringent wine quality laws and the overall quality has never been higher.
Being relatively cool, Austria’s production is mostly White, with the indigenous Gruner Veltliner grape being dominant. Gruner is a fantastic grape, making wines with notes of White pepper, lime blossom and lemon with lip smacking acidity. All of this makes it a hugely versatile wine for food pairing. Pinot Blanc, here called Weissbugunder, makes some great wines, Riesling is also important, as well as Welschriesling, though we don’t see much of that in the UK. For reds Blaufrankisch, which we just saw in Hungary as kekfrankos- makes some superb wines, St Laurent has good acidity and flavours of damsons and cherries, often described as a powerful Pinot Noir, and Zweigelt, a crossing of Blaufrankisch and St Laurent grape making reds in an almost sweet and sour style with elements of cherries and a tart acidic finish, it is sometimes likened to and in the USA sometimes blended with Pinot Noir. Portugiser is also found here making lighter reds, but it is not quite of the quality of the other reds.
Practically all of the wine-growing areas are clustered in the east of the country, unsurprisingly as the rest is mostly Alps- great for Ski-ing but not so good for viticulture. The east is split into three main areas: Niederosterreich- or Lower Austria- Burgenland and Steiermark.
Steiermark includes the regions of Sudoststeiermark- southeast Steiermark- Sud Steiermark and West Steiermark and produces mostly Whites from Pinot Blanc and some excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Muller Thurgau.
Burgenland encompasses the Neusiedler Lake, a very shallow (only 3 feet deep) and wide lake which acts as a kind of heat sink keeping the surrounding vineyards warmer right through to Autumn which can be quite early in other parts of Austria with its short summers. Most importantly, as the land around is quite flat, is the autumn mists that emenate from the lake make it ideal for Botrytis and some excellent Sweet wines are made here. Riesling suits this style, but even rarer, I have seen examples of botrytised Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Away from the lake itself, this area is warmer than most of Austria as it is at the western edge of the plain that stretches through to Hungary and Reds do particularly well here. In fact, most of the vineyards were planted in the last 20-30 years as a result of EU investment. Blaufrankisch does particularly well here, and we’ll try an example at the end.
Moving North, Niederosterreich or Lower Austria is where two thirds of the country’s wine is made, and it includes more historically revered regions.
Wachau is the area most associated with quality in Austria, its own Mosel, if you like and the steep slopes around the bends of the river Danube are strikingly similar. Riesling does well here and Gruner Veltliner. Warmer than the Mosel, the wines are generally fuller and higher in alcohol, but the acidity is retained by cooling night breezes. Generally, Gruner Veltliner favours the lower slopes, Riesling the cooler, higher points. Although small, producing just 3%v of Austria’s output, Wachau is divided into over 900 areas or Rieden, and its own classification of wines as Steinfeder for the lightest, Federspiel for those a little fuller and Smaragd for the fullest and highest in alcohol.
Kremstal and Kamptal are perhaps less revered than Wachau, but the wines can be superb and sometimes offer better value. Kremstal is essentially an extension of Wachau but the vineyards spread out more away from the river on rocky, free draining soils and being a bit warmer its whites tend to be a bit fuller and some Reds are also produced. Kamptal is similarly warmer than Wachau but in some areas the vineyards are so steep they need terracing. Langenlois is one of the key wine towns in the region and one of the best- if not the best- producers is Willi Brundlmeyer and we have next the Kamptaler Terrasen Gruner Veltliner from Brundlmeyer.
One of the unique things about Vienna as a capital city is it has vineyards almost into the city itself, and these traditionally made jug wine for the Inns of the city, called Heurigen. More recently there has been a move towards what is now called Gemischter Satz which have to be made from a minimum of three grapes, minimal oak contact and they are now seriously above jug wine in quality, they can be some of the best wines Austria produces and we are starting to see some excellent examples over here.
Lastly then to the Red wine, the Blaufrankisch and this also ties us back in with Hungary, as I mentioned Kekfrankos being an important grape there and it really is the crossover between the two countries. This is the one grape that you find across both countries and it does really well in both. A bit like the Gruner Veltliner I would like to see it more widely planted across more parts of the world.
This wine has a lovely fragrance, very fresh but lots of damson in there, hedgerow fruit. Lots of acidity in there, and I know I keep going on about acidity in all of these talks but that lovely sour cherry in there its just such a lovely refreshing, vibrant wine and it really is alive. It’s not a sort of dark bruding shiraz monster, it’s not light and perfumed like pinot noir, it’s very much its own thing, it’s of its place, I think it’s a great, great wine for the price. Really exciting, lots of complexity, lots of length and I just think it’s just such a fantastic little wine and a great place to jump off away from Austria and Hungary.
This concludes our look at Austrian and Hungarian wine, we hope you enjoyed learning more about them in this week’s Wine School Episode. Join us next time where we are back on home soil in the UK looking at the vineyards of England and Wales.