By Wink Lorch
Once upon a time, all most of us knew of Hungary’s wines was the legendary sweet wine Tokaj, said to revive monarchs on their death beds, and Bull’s Blood, the red wine reputed to put hairs on everyone’s chest. Today, Tokaj and Bull’s Blood still exist, if somewhat battered, but the country is buzzing with other good wines emerging from several different regions, the absolute star for reds being Villány, in the south.
When Hungary emerged from communism around 20 years ago, a flood of inexpensive whites rolled onto the UK’s supermarket shelves, so it felt odd that my first visit to Hungary in 1999 was an invitation to discover the country’s reds. However, when our first stop was in Villány, both a region and a sweet little wine town, unlike any I’d seen before, I began to understand. Finally after 12 years, this year, I managed to return.
What is so striking about the town of Villány and the neighbouring villages in the region are the little whitewashed cellars, with bright-coloured doors and shutters, lining the streets in neat rows. Behind the doors, the traditional winegrowers combined press rooms with barrel storage, and latterly they have been converted into tasting rooms. Wine has a long history in the region, but it was the Germans who came here in the 18th century who first really established it as a fine area for reds.
Villány, together with neighbouring Siklós, best known for its white wines, claim to have created the first wine route in Hungary, and certainly I remember back in 1999 that the Attila Gere Winery, who now have a very smart hotel, already had a simple pension, where we stayed. Vying for position in both the quality of their accommodation and their wines is the Bock winery, run by Joszef Bock and his family, which incorporates a fine hotel and restaurant . This was the focus of our visit this summer.
The team at Bock took our group of wine educators out of the town to visit two of their historic vineyards, one above a plunging valley known as Devil’s Creek, and another, the historic vineyard Jammertal above the actual town of Villány. The word Jammertal means ‘wailing valley’ in German and refers to the cry let out by the Turks when they were defeated here in 1687 during the Ottoman wars. This is deemed to be not only a historic vineyard and cellar (now used only for storage), but also one of the best sites for red grapes in the Villány region.
The climate is mainly continental, but with some Mediterranean influences from the south, and the long sunshine hours make it ideal to ripen a range of red grapes. The region’s most famous variety is the widely planted Portugieser, making quite a juicy, sour-cherry style of red; the well-known Kékfrankos (Austria’s Blaufränkisch) is also grown giving some delicious blueberry flavours, but today the stars are Cabernet Franc (which ripens more reliably than Cabernet Sauvignon, also grown, but only in the sunniest sites) and Syrah, pioneered here by Joszef Block, is also doing well.
Bock’s Cabernet Francs as well as other good examples from Villány have a real deep fruity character, and what I particularly like are those that haven’t spent too much time in new oak and offer that Loire-like green capsicum or even lead pencil character. Bock’s finest wines are blends and I adored his 2006 Capella, a ‘Bordeaux blend’ of 60% Cabernet Franc 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot, aged for two years in new oak. Bock is the German word for goat, and Capella is the so-called 5th star or goat star, the rather garish label has a large red goat adorning it.
We had a wonderful meal at the Bock restaurant, which has a big terrace outside the winery where, depending on the time of day, you can choose simply to have a wine tasting, or indulge in a meal. If the weather is not fine, then the tasting area inside is extremely pleasant. Hotel rooms were comfortable and practical, and there is a small pool and spa area – this would make a fine base from which to tour the area. Bock also own a wonderful wine shop and friendly bistro in downtown Budapest, the Bock Bisztro, where we also enjoyed an excellent meal before driving down to Villány.
Whilst in Villány, we also enjoyed a visit to Csaba Malatinszky’s tasting room and bistro right in the middle of the town. An ex-sommelier from Budapest, he very much focuses on wines to match food, and from his range I enjoyed, in particular, a lovely 2009 white blend from Siklós, named Serena made from Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat Ottonel, which matched a range of Mediterranean-influenced snacks on toast, and his red blend named Tenkes from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with a touch of Kékfrankos. My favourite was the less expensive of his Cabernet Francs, without too much of that new oak influence.
There is no question that Villány-Siklós is perfect for an independent wine tour by car. However, if you only have a short time in Hungary, I can recommend the highly regarded day tours organised by Carolyn and Gabor Bánfalvi of Taste Hungary. Carolyn is an American journalist based in Budapest who one day in the future I hope will write our Wine Travel Guides to Hungary. Having enjoyed a Budapest market tour with her husband Gabor, I can vouch for their approach combining fun with dedication to great food and wine!
Disclaimer: my thanks go to Hungarian wine specialists in the UK, Mephisto Wines, and to Bock and Malatinszky wineries, who paid for our internal travel arrangements and provided our accommodation.