Apart from the occasional ‘Tokaji Aszu’, Hungarian wines are no longer a destination in the wine aisle in your supermarket, and wines from this part of the world can be hard to find even in your local specialist wine store. However, don’t let that stop you from seeking it on-line or on an inspired wine list as the rediscovery of the diversity of Hungary’s twenty-two wine region’s and many native grape varieties gains momentum around the world.
It was a very different scenario in the 1980’s when exports of Hungarian wine alone was more than is produced in total today. Unfortunately, the majority of the wine exported today is sold as inexpensive bulk wine with many vineyards are owned by German companies that sell the wine in their domestic markets. However, as the next generation of winemakers start making their marks, there has also been growth again in the quality end wine production. It is time again to get Hungarian wines back into your glass.
While there are nearly 150 grape varieties grown for wine production, it is perhaps Furmint, Hárslevelű, Juhfark, Kadarka, Kéfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch) that are the best known. I have certainly noticed more Furmint wines available outside of Hungary, particularly dry Furmint. However, like the rest of Europe, after the late 19thcentury outbreak of Phylloxera, the internationally recognised varieties have been planted alongside the native varieties.
The Zsirai family winery is currently in the custodianship of sisters Petra and Kata Zsirai. Their father, Csaba started the winery initially as a hobby which grew into the family business and the family now has 19 hectares of vineyards across the country. It is in the heart of the famed Tokaji region that they have based their winery and according to the sisters, they share their father’s ideals of preserving heritage as well as for making fine wine. It is no surprise then to find some of Hungary’s ‘forgotten’ varieties amongst their vineyards and styles in their range.
I saw these wines at a tasting in London in 2018, and recently got to ask the sisters about their family’s legacy of wine:
What varieties are planted in the vineyards owned by the family?
Our focus is on native Hungarian varieties with a couple of more international varieties. In each region, we grow:
- Tokaj- Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains), Zeta, Kövérszőlő
- Somló – Furmint, Olaszrizling, Hárslevelű, Juhfark
- Villány – Kékfrankos, Kadarka, Portugieser, Cabernet franc
When we make Tokaj Azsú, we also make a Fordítás version. This wine specialty is not commonly made these days. It is made of the second soaking of the Aszú grapes and takes on some of the aromas and flavors of aszú, but it is less sweet, so it’s easier to match to menus.
What is the Zsirai family’s winemaking story?
It was our father’s dream to own vineyards in these wine regions and to make wine. After his death in 2011, just eight year’s ago, it became our dream as well, and we try to continue his work in the same style and quality.
We would like to maintain our family’s quality reputation in the markets, both in Hungary and abroad. One of our goals is to make quality wines from each of our region’s. For this, we experiment with the winemaking process; we would like to know better our vineyards. We think that we have enough territories, so now we focus on winemaking instead of growing the size of our vineyards.
Which ‘Zsirai Wine’ vintage has been the most memorable for you?
2013! It was a very good vintage because the weather was very nice during the whole year. We did not have to rush, so the grapes had time to grow and ripen well. We could make full-bodied dry wines, very interesting late harvest wines and high-quality Aszú wines.
This was the vintage we wish for always.
What varieties are your favorite or your most challenging grape varieties to work with?
Kata: My favorite grape is Hárslevelű because from this variety you can make very interesting wine. It can be very flowery in the nose, but it is full bodied and very characteristic at the same time.
Some people say that from this grape you can make feminine wines, and I think it can be true in one hand, but in the other hand on good soil, you can make a very serious wine too.
For me, the most challenging grape is Furmint. I think it is not easy to make very good wine from this variety and you need to really understand this grape. Wines from Furmint can be very robust, full of acidity, and you can feel the minerals. So, you have to find the correct place for it, you have to choose the harvest time very wisely, and during the winemaking, you have to be very careful.
What are your vineyard management and winemaking philosophy?
You can make high-quality wines only from grapes which are in a very good condition. So that’s why we make extra efforts during the grape growing season.
We do not use harmful sprays, and in time we would like to care for our vineyards in the bio way. Our winemaking philosophy is that the wine has to reflect the vintage, the grape variety, and the terroir. To achieve this, we use spontaneous fermentation, and we don’t use any additives except sulfur.
Every member of our family believes in the “traditional” way, so we use only Sulphur, but sparingly.
We mostly work with Hungarian grape varieties. This is our heritage and we have to keep it for the future.
In your opinion, what makes the wines so distinct from in each region?
Two things – the grape varieties, and the soil.
Hungarian grapes are not so common in the world, so makes for our wines unique. We can say that this is rare for people. In Tokaj, the soil is very diverse (volcanic, but some part you can find limestone as well), in Somló it is mostly basalt, and in Villány it is limestone with loess and clay.
Three totally different parts of Hungary, three totally different soils. Our country is a very small one, but we have 22 wine regions, which show the richness of the vineyards. These are the most distinctive facts which give us a lot of possibilities to make unique wines.
What makes ‘Zsirai Winery’ so special?
Family, 3 wine regions, traditions, natural, uniqueness ….
If you had the opportunity to drink a wine with any person in history:
Kata: Who would it be? It would be the writer, Béla Hamvas, because I really love his writings about wine and wine drinking. Which wine would it be? It would be a wine from Somló. I think a furmint is always a good choice. What would you talk about? Mostly wines, but I would like to know about more the life which he lived.
Petra: Who would it be? It would be someone from Hungarian history, who had vineyards in Tokaj before the phylloxera. Which wine would it be? It would be a wine from their time. I am really curious about the wines from that time, especially the Aszú. What would you talk about? Wine, and the methods they used for the vinification.
To see a review of some of the wines available from Zsirai Winery, please click here.
Zsirai has limited availability outside of Hungary. If you live in Poland, Germany, Belgium, UK, and China you should be able to find Zsirai wines. Visit zsiraipinceszet.hu for more information on the family and their wines.
To find out more about Hungarian wines, visit hungarianwines.eu.
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