Discovering the Hungarian Burgundy: Kovács Nimród Wines

When one now thinks of Hungary and its wines, one thinks of the deliciously sweet, luscious wine Tokaji (Tokay in English). Few, however, know that from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, Hungary was arguably one of the third most sophisticated wine cultures in Europe, after France and Germany.  Hungary sits on the same northern latitude as Burgundy, France, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon; this location makes it an ideal place to produce crisp white wines.  Yet interestingly enough, it also has a continental climate, which allows the country to produce riper, bolder varieties. Hungary dedicates about 70 percent of its total wine production to white wines. Few also know that Hungary has 21 wine-producing regions, seven of which were more commonly known based on the historic quality of their wines. One of the most prestigious of these is Tokaj-Hegyalja in the northeastern part of the country, along the Slovakian border. The six other regions include Badacsony, Somló, Szekszárd, Villány-Siklós, Mátra, and Eger.  Eger is where my story on Kovács Nimród wines begins.

Thanks to the generosity of Bottle Rocket Wine Works, a wine distributor, I was invited to taste some of the wines of Hungary.  I love a great Tokaji wine, and honestly, when I attended this tasting, I expected to taste a few Tokaji wines. Instead, I was met with some beautiful wines that were Burgundian in style and that I never knew existed. I had the opportunity to meet Nimród Kovács of Kovács Nimród Winery(KNW), located in the “Gran Cru” region of Eger in the northeastern part of Hungary.

The region of Eger is known for light-bodied reds as well as Hungary’s popular “bull’s blood,” a dry red wine. Bull’s blood, or Egri bikavér, is one of the most popular dry red wines. Eger is halfway between Tokaj and Budapest in the middle of the country. The legend goes that in the mid-1500s that when the Magyars (ancestors of modern Hungarians) were besieged by the Turks, the Magyars had been drinking red wine while fighting fiercely, and this had stained their faces red. Seeing their red-stained faces and fierce fighting, the Turks feared that the Magyars had been drinking bulls’ blood to obtain their fierce prowess—and they retreated. And this is how the wine got its name.

Compared to other regions of Hungary, the Eger region has a cooler climate similar to that of Burgundy or the northern Rhone region, and this allows them to produce varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as heartier reds such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is also where Hungarian varietals Furmint and Kekfrankos can be grown.  KNW tends to use for its barrels mostly Hungarian oak, which can be likened to having the best of both oaks, American and French oak.  Barrels made of Hungarian oak come from the same species as French oak but have an even tighter grain and more subtle impact.  This oak tends to convey vanilla-, spice-, and caramel-like flavors over a longer period of time than do traditionally used French and American oak. It also gives a smoother, creamier texture to the wines as well. At a price about halfway between those of American and French oak barrels, these Hungarian oak barrels are perfect for the varietals grown in this region.

My three favorite wines from this tasting were the 2010 Furmint and 2011 Furmint; 2013 Pinot Noir made with Dijon 777 clone; and the 2007 and 2009 NJK Grand Cru.

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2010 and 2011 Furmint

Tokaji, the most widely known Hungarian wine, is a beautifully luscious white-gold wine with an amazing aging potential due to the acid commonly found in Furmint, the grapes used.  Furmint has long been the dominant grape varietal for the Tokaj region in Hungary and was made popular during the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It has been used since then to make sweet wine through an aging-on-the-vine process using botrytis, which is a fungus commonly known as “Nobel Rot.” Nobel Rot keeps the grape from evolving into gray rot, the destructive form of rot, and instead allows the grape to dry out on the vine, naturally concentrating the sugar compounds.  This is a process commonly seen not only in Tokaj but also in Sauternes, regions where moist air and dry air alternate, allowing the fungus to thrive.  Furmint, however, can be used to make a dry white wine as well. In this case, this 2010 Furmint came from a difficult vintage and therefore made a truly wonderful complex wine.  This wine had medium acidity, likely in part because 30 to 40 percent of the grapes used for this vintage had botrytis, giving the wine a nice complex finish.  Nevertheless, it still had somewhat of a stainless-steel Chardonnay notes with a touch of flint and buttery oak.  I loved the pear, peach, and apricot notes that peaked with a long clean citrus finish.  The 2011 Furmint was similar, but I enjoyed it more than the 2010 Furmint due to the intensity of the crisp finish of the former.

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2013 Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a grape most commonly grown both in Burgundy, France and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The clone used for this vintage was a Dijon 777, which is known for being very dark and rich and for being commonly blended with other wines.  However, this clone is now being produced on its own, showing an intensity and complexity not seen in other clones. I personally have long been a fan of this clone since being exposed to it while working for Hyland Estates in the Willamette Valley, where I had the opportunity to try several of their single-clone Pinot Noirs.

This particular vintage tasted as if it could compete with that of an Oregon Pinot Noir, and I soon found out why. This wine was made by a RoxyAnne Oregon winemaker, Kent Barthman.

The wine had a distinctly spicy perfume with a considerable raspberry note and an almost skunky-ness, but not in a bad way.  I know it’s hard to believe it’s not bad, but I really enjoyed it quite a bit, and at a $25 price point, I would happily choose one of these Pinot Noirs to share with friends.

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2007 and 2009 NJK Grand Cru

Both vintages of this NJK wine were spectacular. These wines were aged for 24 months in Hungarian oak and reminded me of a big bold Syrah. The grapes come from the limestone-laden soils of their Grand Cru Nagy Eged vineyard and offer a beautiful leather, blackberry, raspberry, baked plum mouth that ends as elegantly as it started.

I hope I have enticed you to try some Hungarian wines—and at the price points, you really have very little to lose. Enjoy!