My First Hungarian Wine – A Silver Lining of the Pandemic

2018 Wetzer Furmint, Tokaj

My First Hungarian Wine – A Silver Lining of the Pandemic
By Elizabeth Smith

While sheltering at home solo during the pandemic, Zoom interactions were my lifeline to the world personally and professionally, including wine tasting. I traveled the world through my wine glass, including appellations with which I was familiar, like Napa Valley, Lake County (California), Sonoma County, the Finger Lakes, Chablis, Mendoza, and Roussillon, but it was my first taste of a Tokaj Furmint in October 2020 that will be forever etched in my memory as a silver lining of the pandemic.

I was fortunate to have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic ambassador of Hungarian wines to advise me in my selection. I searched online and presented a short list of options available for local pickup. His recommendation was the 2018 Wetzer Furmint, Tokaj, which I purchased at Compline, a local wine shop and restaurant in the city of Napa.

I excitedly began my research about the origin of the wine, Sopron, the former capital of the Austrian state of Burgenland located in the foothills of the Alps just inside Hungary’s border. The region has a continental subalpine climate. Its primary influence is Lake Fertő, a saline lake measuring 309 square kilometers (192 square miles), with 75 square kilometers (47 square miles) belonging to Hungary. It is the country’s second largest lake (Europe’s fifth) and Central Europe’s largest endorheic lake, which guards the region from extreme weather conditions. This protection, along with its surrounding limestone hills, diverse soil types, and sunlight reflectivity effect, make Sopron ideal for grape growing.

Viticulture in Sopron dates to Celtic and Roman times. Later, early Swabian grape growers – also called Poncichter from the German word, Bohnenzüchter, which means bean farmer – planted beans as a cover crop and food source under their vineyard canopies, which protected them from direct sunlight. They chose beans because they were nontaxable and sustained them until they had finished wine. Today beans continue to be a regional menu staple, alongside the area’s wines.

Sopron is best known for reds like Kékfrankos, also known as Blaufränkisch or Lemberger in other wine regions. Pre-Phylloxera, white wine grapes, primarily Furmint, were the dominant varieties. Multigenerational wine growing families farmed the vineyards in small plots, but this tradition has been lost over time to industrialized winemaking. Winemaker Péter Wetzer’s intent is to bring this type of farming – as well as Furmint – back to life, “That has been lost here, and now we need to get it back. I’m trying to continue the past,” he said.

Wetzer, a lifetime student of winemaking and viticulture, is the fifth generation living in the family’s home with an attached cellar that is over 120 years old. In 2007 he purchased 2.5 hectares (six acres) of flourishing vineyards spanning five terroirs. Wetzer organically farms the land with minimal intervention and harvests the grapes by hand. He employs traditional winemaking practices like foot stomping and basket pressing to extract the juice from whole grape clusters. Indigenous yeast fermentation occurs in open-topped containers, then he ages the resulting wine on the lees in neutral Hungarian oak barrels, unracked, unfiltered, and unfined. “I want to make special wines that have personality and identity, delicate wines with character influenced by their origin and heritage, made with traditional grape varieties which translate the sense of place,” emphasized Wetzer.

Wine enthusiasts know Furmint made as world-renowned sweet wine, Tokaji Aszú, but the 2018 Wetzer Furmint is a dry white with only two grams of residual sugar per liter. The grapes come from four single vineyards – Palandor, Fehérkút, Úrágya and Danczka – whose vines are around 35 years old. The 2018 vintage shows more ripeness and botrytis than the previous one. Wetzer aged this wine nine months in barrel, as well as in the bottle, prior to its release. “This wine shows a bit more power, but elegant, smoky fruit and Tokaj minerality. I like it a lot and drink a sip every day,” shared Wetzer.

At first sip, I had no words to describe this Furmint, no wine flavor profile point of reference. It was different than any wine I had ever tasted. I used my Coravin to sample it over the course of a few days. I identified an aroma that reminded me of the honeysuckle that grew around my childhood home. I discerned flavors like unsweetened applesauce and honeyed lemon. The native yeast fermentation and aging contributed a pleasantly funky and savory quality. The ample mouthfeel and long finish – thanks to Wetzer’s nonuse of racking, filtering, or fining – completed the unforgettable textural and taste experience.

Recently I went online in search of this wine since it is no longer available in Napa. I found a quote from an anonymous reviewer who described it as “beautiful and rich, like honey with the sweetness turned off.” Another suggested the flavor of bruised apples. I knew I needed to taste it again. I managed to secure a second bottle from a retailer in San Francisco to revisit it in honor of the one-year anniversary of my first Hungarian wine.

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