RICHARD ESLING: Hungary for Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc from Hungary
Cabernet Franc from Hungary

No, it’s not a spelling mistake in the title.

The red grape variety Cabernet Franc is making a bit of a name for itself in a country which, more recently, has been more known for its delicious sweet wines from Tokaij and some rather variable reds – marketed some years ago, as ‘Bull’s Blood’.

Hungary is not a country which immediately comes to mind when thinking of top quality red wines, yet there are a number of producers making wines from ‘international’ grape varieties, worthy of gracing any connoisseurs table – not cheap, but they won’t break the bank either.

Cabernet Franc is one of the great grape varieties of the world, but often seems to be seen in the shadow of its more illustrious and powerful cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. In James Bond terms, it’s the difference between Roger Moore, with elegance, finesse and charm and Daniel Craig with power, force and full body. Cabernet Franc is often used for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, such as in Bordeaux, adding its elegance, lightness and defined aromas. However, as a single varietal it has long been a great success in the Loire valley, with such wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, together with being blended with Chenin Blanc in sparkling wines. It’s reputation as a single varietal seems to be spreading, principally as a result of ‘terroir matching’, a concept of searching out the optimum places for growing particular grape varieties. This is happening in many parts of the world and last year I, together with my fellow judges, was astonished at the high quality of wines from this grape variety from Chile, during judging at the International Wine & Spirit Competition.

And thus, in Hungary, it has found a niche in several of the country’s wine regions, where it is perfectly adapted to the climate and terroir, producing wines of astonishing complexity, aroma and finesse.

Indeed, some wine commentators have described Hungary as the new home of Cabernet Franc, achieving high levels of varietal expression, combined with great depth of flavour and good ageing potential. The grape variety fairs better in slightly cooler climates than Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be somewhat astringent and stalky. The climate in Hungary suits it well, particularly in regions such as Villany, Eger and South Balaton.

Recently, I had the opportunity of tasting three of the top Hungarian Cabernet Franc wines. The first of these was Villanyi Franc 2012 from the Heumann winery, run with passion by a Swiss German couple. In Hungary, the variety is often just referred to as Franc, dropping the Cabernet word, perhaps to avoid confusion? Villany is the prime red wine region in Hungary, producing some of the highest quality wines of the country, many of which are regularly rewarded by medals in international competitions. The Heumann Villanyi Franc 2012 is a serious wine, with buckets of raspberry, blackberry and elderberry fruit. A fruity style of wine, but with oaky aromas of smoke and vanilla fudge. The tannins are ripe and firm, with good body, depth and long, chewy fruit on the palate. Some bramble jelly flavours with hints of dark chocolate make for an altogether delicious wine. Widely available in Hungary, in the UK you will have to go to a specialist importer such as Danube Wines, currently offering it at £28.90 per bottle.

Another of the wines was Csanyi Chateau Teleki, also a 2012 from the Villany region. Less dominant oak than the previous wine, it is softer and more medium bodied, but with enough concentration and depth to allow further time for it to develop greater complexity.

The third wine was called Balla Geza 2011, from the Romanian border, with more similarities to the Chilean Cabernet francs than those from the Loire Valley. This was very oaky on the nose, with spices, tobacco, cigar box and bonfire ash. The wine has strong tannins, but balanced with fruit and rounded by oak ageing. Already showing complexity, it should develop even greater harmony in a year or two.

All in all, a brilliant set of serious wines with defined character and pedigree. Brush-up on your Hungarian and seek them out!

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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