Hungarian Rhapsody

Everywhere I go at the moment I keep stumbling across excitingly different white wines. Many of them are made from grapes and in regions that I am aware of, but have only very limited experience of tasting until now – I suspect that is a good thing as wines are so much better now than in my youth. I am sure that if I had tried wines from these places 28 years ago then I might have not been anything like as impressed as I am now.


Hungary is a sadly underestimated wine producing country, which is a pity as it makes some wonderful wines. Recently I was fortunate enough to try some wines from the Tornai Pincészet winery which is breathing new life into the fascinating Somlo region of western Hungary. Somlo has a long history, but after the Second World War the vineyards were divided up into tiny parcels of land, which meant the tenants farmed the vineyards and and sold the crop through the co-operative, or made the wine as best they could for themselves. Tornai started like that in 1946 with just 1 acre. Three generations and the fall of Communism on they now farm 54 acres and are the driving force of the region having introduced modern winemaking practices. These really suit the traditional grape varieties of the area which are HárslevelűFurmintWelschriesling, Traminer, Chardonnay and even some Sylvaner although the real speciality is the rare Juhfark (ewe-fark).

With just 550 acres, Somlo is Hungary’s smallest wine region and clings to the slopes of Mt Somlo which is a 400 metre high extinct volcano with the top blown off – like Mt Brouilly in Beaujolais but larger. It is one of the few spots of high land on the Hungarian Plain, which once formed the bed of the Pannonian Sea. This height gives a little respite from the often hot and humid conditions, so elegant white wines can be made. It also gives south facing slopes that help the grapes to soak up the sun and ensure excellent ripeness. Also, just like in Etna and  Santorini the volcanic soils impart incredible minerality to the wines.

The Tornai Winery with Mt Somlo behind

2008 Tornai Furmint
Nagy-Somlói (Somlo)
Furmint is rapidly becoming one of my favourite white grapes, right up there with Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Of course Furmint is much more famous as the grape is used to make the wonderful dessert wines of Tokaji, but it has always made dry whines too and modern wine making has made sure these get better and better.

This appetising wine has a pale gold colour, even a touch of coppery peach skin to show that it is not a total lightweight. The aromas give stone fruit and some spice and floral notes. The palate is fresh, but still offers some rich texture and succulence to balance the moderately high acidity and fresh minerality. It leans towards a light-bodied style, but with a dash of weight to it which makes it wonderfully drinkable and enjoyable. A joyous dry white wine that is just a little unusual – 89/100 points.

2008 Tornai Juhfark
Nagy-Somlói (Somlo)
Juhfark (ewe-fark) is Hungarian for Sheep’s tail which the grape clusters are said to resemble. The grape is very hard to cultivate and has really only clung on in two areas of Hungary; Szekszard and its traditional home turf of Somlo. As far as I am aware no one else has Juhfark, unlike Furmint which is grown in many neighbouring countries.

This has a modern well made brightness about it, but is much richer than the Furmint. The fruit has a honeyed quality, almost oily in fact – from the ageing possibly, but there is high acidity and minerality in the background keeping it fresh and balanced. There is real succulence and texture on the palate too, nectarine and quince vie with each other for dominance along with the structure – this is a serious wine, complex and enjoyable and it would go with a wide array of foods, even rich and creamy dishes – 90/100 points.

If you want to treat yourself to delicious dry white wines that are a little different and not terribly expensive, then Hungary has a great deal to offer.

Tornai wines are distributed in the UK by Astrum Wine Cellars

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