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The year 2023 begins a special series for the Monthly Amaro Wine Club. We will be exploring wines from countries with rich winemaking histories that were out of reach of most of the wine-consuming world for 50 crucial years when the wine industry was just truly starting to become global, from 1941 to 1991. The countries whose wine industries we will cover in the first four months of 2023 were countries that were metaphorically "behind an iron curtain.”

Not long after the Second World War, which put pretty much all luxury goods trade in limbo, the “Cold War” began in which diplomatic relations between communist countries and non-communist countries became hostile and trade and travel was essentially severed, accentuated by a nuclear military standoff led by the Soviet Union, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), on the communist front and the United States on the non-communist front. The USSR itself was a federation that are now 15 countries, the most prominent being Russia.* Travel was severely limited on the part of the communist countries to prevent their inhabitants from defecting, hence the metaphorical term “iron curtain” that prevented fluid movement across borders, but more detrimentally, it prevented trade flow between communist countries and non-communist countries.

How does the wine industry figure in? Well, in Europe, on both sides of the iron curtain, humans had already developed a centuries-old wine-consuming habit. In most of the countries that were then part of the USSR, with a few very notable exceptions, Vitus vinifera did not thrive. Georgia and Armenia are those notable exceptions, but they were forced to adhere to draconian USSR economic policy that mandated that their vineyards be plowed under to be replaced with crops that were deemed by the authoritarian state to be more essential for the economy. Among the communist Eastern European countries, most of which were essentially satellite client states of the USSR, there were a few with rich winemaking histories, but, again, centralized economic policy resulted in plowing under vineyards, and wineries lost control over quality to volume by edict of collectivization and industrialization. Yet Vitus vinifera grew in enough abundance in some of these countries that it behooved many of them to include winemaking as at least part of their economic engines, especially as they had the sizable USSR as a consumer. Unfortunately, these wines became unavailable to the rest of the world for 50 years until the end of the Cold War in 1991, and as such we’re only just now seriously getting reacquainted with them. And these regions/countries have had a lot of catching up to do after 50 years of their winemaking industry being quasi-isolated and developmentally stifled.

As such, we start our series with Hungary.
Source: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum


We thought Hungary was an appropriate start to our series because less than a century ago, it was one of the most important, prestigious wine producers in Europe. Hungary’s many terroirs and microclimates are ideal for cultivating different expressions of Vitus vinifera, and its inhabitants are thought to have brought a winemaking culture from outside of Europe thousands of years ago. Anthropologists and linguists note that the Hungarian word for wine, “bor,” is exceptional because in every other European language, except the Basque language and Greek, the word for wine derives from the Latin word vinum because the Ancient Romans were largely responsible for spreading winemaking throughout Europe. Hence, scientists believe that winemaking in Hungary predates that of most other European cultures.

Hungary is officially divided into 22 wine regions, and these are grouped into seven: Balaton, Duna, Eger, Észak-Dunántúl, Pannon, Sporon, and Tokaj. Each of these regions and their subregions produce distinctive wines due to a wide variance in terroir and climates. Since we’re confined to three wines for our January Wine Club, we had to limit our offerings to be from three regions, so we settled on wines representing Balaton, Eger, and Tokaj. Full disclosure, most of the research, and even some choice wording, for this discussion was heavily borrowed from the writing of Athena Bochanis, an expert in Hungarian wine who has written an informative and entertaining article for the excellent wine information source Wine Folly. And even more full disclosure: Athena is the importer for all three of the wines that we feature in this month’s wine club. 
Athena Bochanis Wine Folly article https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/hungarian-wines-for-the-win/Athena Bochanis importer: https://winefolly.com/lifestyle/an-interview-with-athena-bochanis-wine-importer/
January 2023: Wines Behind the Iron Curtain - Hungary
Source: https://www.offbeatbudapest.com


The fame of Tokaj dates back centuries and has been intertwined with royalty from across Europe during these centuries, particularly France and Russia. Louis XIV called the Aszú Tokaji wines “the king of wines and the wine of kings.” Similarly, the Russian czar Peter the Great was so enamored with Aszú that he had an Imperial Russian military unit stationed in Tokaj to ensure that wine imported to Moscow was never interrupted. Because of a unique microclimate in which the autumns are long and warm with mists that spread out from the Bodrog River, the region provides wide variability for grape growing including a “happy accident” from a fungus called botrytis. This fungus, also called “noble rot,” reduces the water content of grapes and can damage them unless they are managed and picked correctly to create a concentrated sweet wine. Hence, when sweet wines were all the rage, which has been the case for most of the history of winemaking, Hungary was producing the most nuanced, the Aszú, using a system of unit control, puttonyos, for regulating the amount of residual sugar to create gradations of sweetness. Wine made with this system has been mentioned in documents dating as far back as 1571. 
Cellars carved out of rock
Other than the climate that contributes to noble rot, the Tokaj terroir consists of a clay with mineral-rich volcanic subsoil. Two native varietals, Furmint and Hárslevelü, have through a millennium become perfectly adapted for this soil and microclimate combination. Also allowed in a Tokaj blend are the Kabar, Kövérszölö, Zéta, and Sárgamuskotály varietals. The Tokaj appellation has profited over the centuries from a vast system of cellars that winemakers carved out of rock between 1400 and 1600 that provide a consistent ideal temperature and humidity for aging wines. The Tokaj region is also one of the earliest appellations (by royal decree, of course) that has been in effect since 1757, which has lent to consistency and quality control. Of course, during the 50-year iron curtain years, a good deal of this quality control was compromised through industrial farming and collectivized distribution, but not enough to erase centuries of knowledge and infrastructure which serious, conscientious winemakers have leveraged over the last two and a half decades.
Featured January Amaro Wine Club Hungarian wine: Lenkey Pincészet 2018 Flow White (2020)
VARIETALS: 65% Furmint, 35% Hárslevel? and 5% Sárgamuskotály

Despite all of this talk of noble rot and the puttonyos system, we actually selected a dry Tokaj wine for the club, which is more in tune with modern tastes for white wine. Although winemakers would never completely give up on a storied tradition of sweet winemaking, for the last 15 years, the trend has increasingly been to produce more dry wines, overloading the blend with Furmint, and sometimes even vinify Furmint as a single-varietal, as this varietal has proved the best representative for a dry Tokaj wine.
This dry Tokaj is an unoaked blend of three native Tokaji grapes that come from two of the Lenkey estate’s eight vineyards. Géza Lenkey, the current owner, is only the second generation of this family winery, the newness of the estate reflecting the revival of the industry post-Cold War with small estates focusing on quality. The grapes were hand-picked, fermented spontaneously mostly in steel, and a small amount in Hungarian oak barrels (5%). After fermentation, the wines were blended and aged for an additional 18 months in steel and then a year in the bottle. Géza has followed in his father’s footsteps with organic farming, obtaining certification in 2015.

FOOD PAIRINGS: delicate Asian fare, such as dumplings and sushi, herb-crusted poultry or fish dishes, seafood, shellfish, spicy foods, chicken dishes, asparagus, vegetable soups. 
Géza Lenkey


The Eger wine region is named after the town of Eger located 134 kilometers (83 miles) northeast of Budapest at the feet of the Bükk Mountains in a climate that is much cooler than in the rest of the country. The terroir is quite varied with a patchwork of different soils. Winemaking can be traced back in records to 1004, the founding year of the Eger diocese, but is certainly older than that. Given the mountainous landscape, like in Tokaj, cellars were built into rock with underground passageways. Although now red varietal wines dominate producting in the region, it had been dominated by white varietals until the 17th century; hence, there is still a strong white wine culture.
Town of Eger for which the wine appellation region is named
Egri Bikavér is the region’s flagship appellation for red wine. In English, Egri Bikavér translates to “bull’s blood,” the name only deepening its allure to the outside world. Unfortunately, for the 50-year iron curtain period it not only practically vanished from circulation in the non-communist world, but it was particularly negatively affected behind the iron curtain by mass production that downgraded its quality and reputation considerably. As will be the theme for this iron curtain wine club series, however, it has fast made a comeback due to the work of serious, mostly small producers reinstating thoughtful cultivation, winemaking, and quality control. Kékfrankos is the main varietal in the Bull’s Bood blend, and is better known as Blaufränkisch to the world that existed outside of the iron curtain, which assumed that it was a native to Austria and Germany; however, it can be easily argued that Kékfrankos is native to Hungary and indeed a migrant to Austria and Germany where it was renamed. By regulation, an Egri Bikavér wine must be a blend of three grapes and at least 50% percent must be either Kékfrankos or Kadarka, although the former is what is now used most (pre-Cold War, Kadarka was more common).

We have dwelled on Bull’s Blood due to its reputation and because it is the wine that we’ve selected for the wine club, but the Eger region produces a plethora of wine styles. As we mentioned, the white wines have a rich history and include native varietals (e.g., Csaba Gyöngye, Cserszegi F?szeres, Ezerfürt?, Furmint, Gyöngyrizling, Hárslevel?, Irsai Olivér, Juhfark, Kabar, Kerner, Királyleányka, Mátrai Muskotály) as well as transplanted varietals such as Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, all of which thrive in the terroirs molded by varied soils, mild winters and cool summers. As for other examples of other red wines outside of Egri Bikavér, we have already put one on the shelves of Amaro Spirits and Wine, and which we strongly suggest you purchase to experience a very different expression of a red wine from the same Eger region. Szent Donat Magma is made from 100% Kékfrankos. But, alas, let’s talk about the Egri Bikavér selection in your possession.
Featured January Amaro Wine Club Hungarian wine: Gál Tibor Egri Bikavér Superior (2019)
VARIETALS: 40% Kékfrankos, 10% Kadarka, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Syrah, 5% Pinot Noir

Again, following a post-Cold War theme of winemaking in countries that were behind the iron curtain, the Gál Tibor estate is relatively young. In 1989 as the Berlin Wall fell, Gál Tibor, who had been a supervisor at a winery in Egervin, Hungary, jumped at the opportunity afforded by the disintegration of the iron curtain to work for Ornellaia in Tuscany where he perfected his craft, catching up on 50 years of modern winemaking. By 1993, he was already back home starting his own winery. This Bull’s Blood reflects the work of his son, Gál Tibor Junior, aka Titi, who wanted to put a modern twist on an appellation that can sometimes see too much of a heavy hand. Titi’s Bikavér Superior went through spontaneous fermentation in open vats and was aged for 12 months in 500-liter used Hungarian oak barrels.

FOOD PAIRINGS: paprikash chicken, Hunter's stew and lamb chops, goulash soup, semi-hard cheeses, such as Baracskai
Gál Tibor Jr. (aka Titi)


The Balaton region is in the western part of the country and is known for its volcanic soils. The most interesting subregion/appellation is tiny Nagy Somló, which in its entirety is only 300 hectares (741 acres). The entire region occupies an extinct volcanic butte about 90 miles west of Budapest, and the soils take the word “volcanic” up a notch as they are direct remnants of ancient lava flow. The identical varietals that grow elsewhere do not taste remotely the same as when they are grown in this extraordinary soil. Especially the white wine that come from varietals grown in this soil is often described as having a type of spicy smokiness. Somló was also once known for its own brand of Aszú wine that supposedly rivalled that of Tokaj. After phylloxera ravaged vineyards, however, Aszú did not figure into the comeback plantings and winemaking. Additionally, for centuries, people believed that Somló wines were medicinal, and there are even stories of aristocrats and monarchs sending women to the area to drink the wine as they thought it would result in them birthing a male heir. 
Patriarchy aside, let’s address the varietals. First, despite the small area, let’s just say there are a lot of them; an online tourist guide, Taste Hungary, lists Bánáti Rizling, Budai Zöld, Cserszegi F?szeres, Csomorika, Ezerjó, Furmint, Hárslevel?, Irsai Olivér, Juhfark, Kabar, Királyleányka, Korona, Kövérsz?l?, Muscat Ottonel, Pátria, Pinot Blanc, Piros Bakator, Pozsonyi Fehér, Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Rózalia, Sárfehér, Sárga Muskotály, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Gris, Traminer, Zeng?, Zenit, Zéta, and Zöldveltelini. On the red side, there are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Kadarka, Kék Bakator, Kékfrankos, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Portugieser, Syrah, and Zweigelt. The tiny appellation is decidedly known more for its white wines, though, and Furmint, Hárslevel?, Juhfark, and Olaszrizling are the most planted varietals. Since our Tokaj wine for the club already features Furmint and Hárslevel?, we opted to highlight the varietal that is probably most unique for a unique region, Juhfark. The grape is native to this tiny region and is delicate and thin-skinned, so the flavors that are believed to be imparted by the region’s unique terroir are especially pronounced.
Featured January Amaro Wine Club Hungarian wine: Somlói Vándor, Nagy-Somló, Juhfark (2021)
VARIETALS: 100% Juhfark

In the spirit of operating in a tiny appellation, the Somlói Vándor Cellar winery operates only 11 acres near the village of Somlóvásárhely. Tamás Kis started the winery in 2010 after working for years in the Eger appellations even during the years that he first opened his winery in Somló, which meant traveling several times a week from Eger to his winery in Somló. For this reason, he named his winery Somlói Vándor, which means “Somlói Wanderer,” or “Wanderer from Somló.”
After destemming and a quick press, the wine runs off the must overnight, and is then transferred to second-, third- and fourth-use 500-liter Hungarian and French oak barrels where it is spontaneously fermented and then aged on the lees for a full 11 months.

FOOD PAIRINGS: steamed and fried vegetables, soups, cream soups, full-fat cow and sheep's cheeses, poultry, white fish, offal, pork and veal dishes, and gratins
Tamás Kis
* Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia (now Belarus), Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan