Diane Dobry didn't intend to become an importer of Hungarian wine.
But while learning Hungarian for a master's in international education, the 50-year-old New York public relations executive discovered fruity, delicious wines that she thought others might enjoy.
With an ancient grape-growing history, the country established a rating system in the 1500s comparable to the one created in Bordeaux three centuries later. But when Communism conquered Hungary, the nation's winemaking fervor was quashed, according to Greg Tatar, a New York importer.
"It's not like they're the Johnny-come-lately," says Tatar. "Part of the symbol of ancient Hungary is the grape. It's integral to their history."
And, with 22 winemaking regions each with its own unique qualities, Hungary is poised to leap onto the wine scene with sophisticated, full-bodied, flavorful vintages.
Kristof Wines—Dobry's company—is one way Americans can taste what Hungary has to offer. Named after her Hungarian immigrant great-grandparents and incubated for four years while she visited vineyards and learned about importing, Kristof brought 4,000 bottles to the States this month—four reds, one white and one dessert wine. They're available for purchase in New York, New Jersey and Texas. Come spring, she'll add a dry rosé and two more whites to her inventory.
Although Hungarian vineyards have deep roots and a long history, many were decimated by an 1882 phylloxera epidemic. Some indigenous varietals were replanted, but not all. "They've been making wine since before the Romans," asserts Dobry, whose great-grandfather, Istvan Kristof, was a baron's wine taster in the 1800s. He and his wife, Erzsebet, made their own wine.
Americans don't know much about Hungarian vintages because of a simple lack of marketing. "Chile has similar-sized wine-growing regions but spends nine times the money to market their stuff," says Dobry.
And don't worry if you can't understand the language. Due to European Union commerce regulations, labels on Hungarian wine bear English translations.
This is the best-known area, on geographical par with the LoireValley and once known for producing "the wine of kings, the king of wines," according to Louis XIV. Its sweet wines are popular, but dry vintages should not be overlooked. "They're making really beautiful dry white wines that compete with any others on earth," says Greg Tatar.
With a dry climate and late spring, this region produces 19 varietals, from Chardonnay to Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris) to Merlot. The region that produced Bull's Blood, a low-quality well-known Hungarian wine, this ancient sea bed-turned-mountain sits beside a volcano. "It's possibly the best red wine region," says Tatar. Volcanic soil produces an earthy, spicy wines.
The hills of Mátra protect from harsh winds, creating a favorable micro-climate. Ten varietals grow there, including Muscat Ottonel, Cabernet Franc and Kékfrankos.
International varietals grow there, with temperature swings mitigated by mountain protection. Balaton wines have an herbal flavor.
Hungary's southernmost wine-growing region. Some say this is Hungary's best area for reds.
Hungary's warmest wine region has the longest growing season. Fifteen varietals grow there, including Rhine Riesling and Kékoportó.
A balanced climate means rare frost. Eighteen varietals include Green Veltliner, Zwiegelt and Olaszrizling.
Winemakers there produce more full-bodied wines than anywhere else. Some Zinfandels, too.
On the way to Vienna, this region deals with a good amount of mildew, but produces good red wines and sweet wines that rival the quality of Tokaj.
A thin-skinned, greenish-yellow late-ripening grape. Very acidic, slightly bitter. Produces a crisp, light-bodied, dry wine.
name describes leaf shape, sometimes translated as Linden Leaf. A highly acidic, late-ripening white grape with a light, spicy aroma.
Near East ancient origins. Several grow in Hungary, with Sarga Muskotály (yellow Muscat) the most common. Strong, floral aroma used in small amounts to add complexity.
Brought to Hungary in the late 1800s. Aromatic, early-ripening. Soft and sweet, similar to German Riesling.
One of Hungary's most popular. Grows in all regions except Tokaj.
Means "gray friar," for the Burgundy monks who first cultivated it. Produces crisp, pale Pinot Gris.
Nutty aroma with slight floral undertone.
Hungary's most established red grape. Dates to the 16th century, brought by Serbian tribe called the Rac. High in acid, low in tannin. One of few red grapes made into aszu wine. Fully ripe, has chocolate and cherry overtones.
Rose to attention in the mid-1800s. Makes big, full-bodied wines with hints of pepper and cherries.