When I began writing in this space more than 11 years ago, one of the impending developments I was most eager to report was the arrival of great wines from Eastern Europe. I had read that Hungary, the newly split Czech and Slovak republics and the countries along the Black Sea could make excellent wines, and it seemed certain that a commercial renaissance would quickly follow the collapse of communism.
Years passed. Nothing of consequence arrived. Then a trickle of sweet wines from Hungary's Tokaj region began to appear. Lush, honeyed and marvelously complex, they not only confirmed the legends surrounding Tokaj (arguably Europe's greatest wine in the 19th century), but also seemed to promise a revitalization after decades of stifling communist collectivization.
But again, that seeming promise went unfulfilled. Aside from some cheap, inferior wine, little flowed our way in the wake of those wines from Tokaj, and even they started looking like false portents. Remaining rare and painfully expensive, they were useless here to stimulate general consumer interest in eastern European wines. Most bottlings came from joint ventures or wineries that had been bought outright by western European companies, and western investors seemed content to cherry-pick Tokaj but leave other regions dormant.
As time passed, my faith faltered. Other countries beset by grave problems managed to recover as Eastern Europe lay fallow. Austria overcame a scandal and earned my admiration for making the world's most consistently pure wines. South Africa rebounded from international sanctions to export wines that can be savored by the senses and conscience alike. So why couldn't Eastern Europe get up from the canvas? Had decades of communism extinguished the entrepreneurial spirit needed for an indigenous revival?
Had you asked me that question a month ago, I'd have been tempted to answer affirmatively. But now, in my last column in this space, I'm delighted to report that a company based in Hungary has established a strong presence here with a diverse portfolio of outstanding wines. This new collection from Monarchia Wines includes bottlings in a range of styles crafted from different grapes and regions across Hungary. Almost all of the wines offer excellent quality, and though most are not inexpensive (largely because Hungary now trades in euros), they show that at least one eastern European country is ready to compete on the world stage -- and at the highest echelons.
Headquartered in Budapest, Monarchia produces some of the wines on its own and serves as an exporter for other top estates across Hungary. Imported in this country by Monarchia Matt International in Armonk, N.Y., they are distributed in the District and Virginia by International Cellars. Top performers from my recent tastings are listed below in order of preference within categories, with regions of origin and prices indicated in parentheses:
Zoltan Demeter (Tokaj) Dry Furmint 2003 ($45): Furmint is the base grape for sweet wines from Tokaj, but this bottling proves that it can produce extraordinary dry wines as well. Bone-dry but packed with aroma and flavor, it shows expressive notes of grilled nuts, wet straw and minerals on a base of subtle melon fruit.
Monarchia Cellars (Buda) Pinot Grigio 2004 ($10): This matches most Italian pinot grigios for refreshment value but outperforms them on flavor impact and undercuts them on price. If you sit quietly while tasting this, you can almost hear the wringing of hands in northern Italy.
Monarchia Cellars (Eger) "Select Estate" Pinot Grigio 2003 ($10): I've never recommended a pinot grigio more than a year old -- until now. Amply endowed with apple and melon fruit but still crisply refreshing, this is closest to an Oregon pinot grigio in style but less expensive.
Nyakas (Buda) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($14): Medium-bodied and clearly reflective of the grape variety, this sauvignon sits midway between the pungent New Zealand style and the softly fruity California profile and will prove exceptionally versatile with food.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Monarchia Cellars (Eger) Gruner Veltliner 2004 ($13.50); Nyakas (Buda) "Olivier" 2004 ($14).
Zoltan Demeter (Tokaj) Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2000 ($170, 500 ml): Now you see what I meant above by "painfully expensive," but the good news is that this features classic notes of dried apricot fruit with massive richness, strong balancing acidity and a host of nuanced accents.
Hetszolo (Tokaj) Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 1999 ($60, 500 ml): Lighter than many wines of its kind but also more elegant and less pricey, this is a charmer featuring pure fruit notes with fine acidity and intriguing undertones of spices and mocha.
Zoltan Demeter (Tokaj) Furmint Late Harvest 2003 ($35, 500 ml): Seriously sweet but still fresh and vivid, this shows lovely apricot fruit and spicy accents from oak.
Takler (Szekszard) Rose Cuvee 2004 ($13): We're deep into rose season, but this exceptionally refreshing, beautifully balanced, thoroughly delicious bottling is just the ticket for Indian summer.
Takler (Szekszard) Cabernet Franc "Proprietor's Reserve" 2003 ($95): Priced in the big leagues and ready to compete in them, this remarkable wine features a broad array of aromas and flavors, including black cherries and ripe plums, dried herbs, wood smoke and cocoa. Seamlessly integrated and sufficiently soft for immediate enjoyment, this is a stunner.
Takler (Szekszard) "Regnum Proprietor's Reserve" 2002 ($73): A blend of 45 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent kekfrankos (also known as Blaufrankisch or Lemberger), this is packed with ripe but subtle fruit. Complete and complex, it is very well integrated and quite soft in texture.
Takler (Szekszard) Bikaver "Szekszardi Cuvee" 2002 ($26): Bikaver from the northern region of Eger, marketed for decades internationally as "Bull's Blood," has consistently been a bad joke and a watery insult to bulls everywhere. This bottling will change all that, with dark, meaty fruit that is ripe and clean but also complex and faintly earthy, with a profile reminiscent of top Rhone reds.
Also Recommended: Takler (Szekszard) Blaufrankisch "Noir Gold" 2003 ($32), ripe, smoky and complex; Vylyan (Villanyi) "Evolution" 2003 ($25), a dark, intense blend that remains bright and fresh; Vylyan (Villanyi) Zweigelt 2003 ($17), a medium-bodied wine with pure berry fruit and zesty acidity akin to that of Barbera; and Vylyan (Villanyi) "Mini Evolution" 2004 ($16), a fruity charmer well suited to light meat dishes.
Michael Franz's e-mail address is email@example.com.