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.

nimrodfurmintvertical

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.

2013_nimrodpinotnoir

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.

njk_nimrod

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!

 

Unique Portugal: An interview with the venerable Tony Smith

I had the chance to sit down with the venerable Tony Smith of Lima Smith Lda., which owns Quinta de Covela and Quinta da Boa Vista of northern Portugal.  This was a unique opportunity to sit down with this former editor, previously based in the UK, of Conde Nast  and discuss how he went from being a editor to the owner of these prestigious properties in the Douro River Valley.  Tony went from living in São Paolo, Brazil (population: 58 million), to São Tomeo (population: 681). In the interview, he talks about his experience with this change as well.

The Covela Boys: Gonçalo Sousa Lopes, viticulturist, Rui Cunha, winemaker, and Tony Smith, partner, at the end of the 2012 harvest

The Covela Boys: Gonçalo Sousa Lopes, viticulturist; Rui Cunha, winemaker; and Tony Smith, partner; at the end of the 2012 harvest

Lima Smith Lda. is the brain child of Tony Smith and Marcelo Lima. They both initially purchased Quinta de Covela through an auction in 2011. They later went on to purchase Quinta da Boavista, a former Offley estate from Sogrape Vinhos, in 2013, and also took over the Quinta das Tecedeiras brand.

I had the opportunity to visit Quinta de Covela and stay on the estate. It had the most gorgeous views of the valley and was situated in the middle of the Vinho Verde region of the Douro River Valley. The estate has 70 hectares, with approximately 20 hectares-49 acres of vines under production, with another 50 hectares available to plant. Right now their current production is about 100,000 bottles—8,333 cases of 12 bottles—annually.

Quinta de Covela 3

Dating back to the 1500s, the estate was formerly known as Casa de Covela, where, to this day, the ruins of the old stone Renaissance manor home still remains. The estate went on to belong to various owners, but in 1980s it was acquired by the businessman Nuno Araújo, who created the brand Covela. In 2007, Casa de Covela gained the classification as a bio-dynamic producer, which at the time was above and beyond what others in the region had done. Unfortunately, the estate was later abandoned, and when the property was first purchased in 2011, it was in disrepair and in need of a little TLC.  After two years of neglect, Lima Smith picked up the winery and, resurrecting it, refocused it from 50/50 red-to-white production to 20 percent red and 80 percent white under the direction of renowned winemaker Rui Cunha.

Rui had been involved in the original project back in 1992 and later returned to help revive this beautiful property; he also has a consultancy and makes his own wines through Secret Spot. Rui made the decision to return to help rebuild Covela because he could finally make the wines he always wanted to under the new ownership. When he came back to Covela, he was able to make a single variety wine out of the Avesso grape variety, which has now gained national acclaim. This grape variety wine turns out to be one of my favorite Vinho Verdes.

Wine Notes: Avesso 2012 Edicion Nacional. Covelo- first vintage.

Sold out (Unfortunately!)

Covela Vinho Verde 2012 Avesso

Covela Vinho Verde 2012 Avesso

It has a touch of baked goods with a crisp lemon-lime mouth; it is dry and delicious.

Price:        $16.

Importer:  David Boland

The winery has sold its wines mainly in Portugal in the past, but its focus for the future is to sell 40 percent of their wines nationally and sell 60 percent internationally, first into 3 new markets opened this past year: US, Brazil, and Germany, with plans for three other new markets.

NEWS:

In recent news, Quinta de Covela was just awarded the Trophy of “Best Viticulture” at the annual 2014 gala of “The Best of the Year” organized by Revista de Vinhos magazine.  This is one of the most prestigious awards of the wine and gastronomy industry in Portugal. Congrats!

For more information on Quinta de Covela, visit www.covela.pt/en

This concludes my series on Portugal. Next up is Portland and the urban winery movement as well as additional regions of interest in Oregon. If there is something you are interested in learning about tweet me @SacredDrop or leave a comment below.

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Welcome to the Valley of Gold: Douro, Portugal

The Douro River Valley has steep and twisting canyons that have been sculpted over the years into terraces by hard-working farmers. The birthplace of port wine, the Douro River Valley was demarcated in 1756 by the Marquis of Pombal and is one of the oldest regulated wine regions in the world.  It is also one of the most beautiful regions in the world to visit. Indeed, this spectacular region was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. It’s not surprising, given the history and beauty of this place. I was rendered speechless by the majesty of this region, this valley of gold, and what it has to offer.

While there are numerous theories on why this region was called Douro, the name might be traced to the Celtic god of water Durius, or perhaps to the phrase “De ouro,” which means “gold” in Portuguese. Either way, this region is a region of many riches and experiences to be had.  While this valley is known primarily for its port wine, it is now starting to be recognized also for its high-quality table wines.  All of these wines come from the terraced vineyards of Portuguese grapes, such as you can see in the photo below.

The Douro River actually begins in north central Spain, where it is called Duero; it then flows from there to Porto, Portugal, where it is called Douro.

How to get there: As you can see from the map below, the easiest way to get to the Douro River Valley is actually via a flight from Lisbon to Porto.  Then you can travel by boat or train to Régua or Pinhão, the two most popular cities of the Douro River Valley.

Plan on spending at least two days in this beautiful valley. Port wine enthusiasts will likely want more days to visit all the beautiful Quintas (country inns or estates) along the river. When planning your trip from Porto, it is about two hours in car, or two to three hours by train, to the cities of Régua or Pinhão. It is advisable to visit during the week, since weekends in the summertime may be quite busy.

 GLPWorldwide.com Map of Enticing Douro

Where to visit: Quinta de Covela– S. Tomé de Covelas Covela My recommendation would be to take the train from the São Bento station in Porto directly to Régua. While in Régua, stop off and visit the Vinho Verde region of the valley. Visit Quinta de Covela, where some of the best tasting Vinho Verde is made. (The direct translation of vinho verde is “green wine,” otherwise known as white wine.)  Under the management of Mr. Tony Smith, part owner of Quinta de Covela, and renowned winemaker, Rui Cunha, Quinta de Covela has come back from near ruin to prosperity.  Their award-winning wines are making strides in the wine world—in particular, their Covela Escolha Branco 2012, and my personal favorite, COVELA Edição Nacional Branco.  This last wine is made with 100% Avesso grapes.  I had the pleasure of enjoying their wines and their beautiful Quinta this past fall. I even had the chance to go running with the Covela dogs, Teddy, Alef and Spot, through the small towns of Portinha and Covelas. Stay tuned for my interview with Mr. Tony Smith.

Quinta de Napoles– Niepoort Winery in Santo Adrião Niepoort, while well-known in Portugal for their high-end quality Ports, their modern still wines are stunning. I have yet to have a Niepoort that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed.  This beautiful Quinta de Napoles is situated in the town of Santo Adrião and has a brand new facility with state of the art equipment and a spectacular view of the valley. If not for the wines, come for the view.

State of the art facilities at Niepoort.

State of-the-art facilities at Quinta de Napoles of Niepoort

What to experience: 

One of the most beautiful times of the year to visit this region is during harvest, usually around September of each year.  If you happen to visit during this time, I recommend taking a three-hour boat river trip along the Douro River, starting in the morning to mid-day, and departing from Pinhão.  You can take the train back to Regua and spend the evening at Quinta Sta Eufêmia, where you can experience grape stomping in traditional lagares (a large, typically stone trough in which grapes are stepped on and pressed, separating the grape skin from the pulp to create must, grape juice).

When I first came here with the University of La Rioja as part of my master’s program in viticulture and enology, I left with unforgettable memories, including wading in grapes while dancing to accordion and drums at Quinta Santa Eufêmia Winery in the Douro River Valley. Take a look!

Quinta de Vesuvio– W.J. Grahams of Symington Family Estates

I had the pleasure of studying under Pedro Leal of Symington Family Estates and experiencing harvest in the Douro River Valley for the 2011 Vintage at one of the most prestigious and well-known Quintas, Quinta de Vesuvio.  The 2011 Vintage is now known as one of the best years for wine in general, as well as the best Vintage year for port wine.  I was honored to be a part of the punch downs of the Tinta Roiz (also known as Tempranillo grape varietal) while I was there.  Watch this:

Where to eat:

While there are plenty of great places to eat, one of my most memorable and exquisite experiences was at the Restaurante DOC- Rui Paula in the town of Folgosa, located off Estrada Nacional 222:

tel.: +351 254 858 123, e-mail: doc@ruipaula.com.

Every small plate was paired with a regional wine. Needless to say, there were many glasses of wine and many, many memories to pair it with.

Here is an example of their version of Terra/Mar or Surf and Turf.  All I can say is that it was one of the best meals I had ever had in my life.

If all of this isn’t reason enough to visit, I don’t know what is.  Time for you to add this beautiful valley of gold, the Douro River Valley, to your list of must-see places!

Note:  It is highly recommended to call or e-mail for reservations at this world-class restaurant.

If you are interested in having me lead you through a tour of the valley to a number of unforgettable Quintas in the Douro River valley, please contact me to discuss options.

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