Heavenly Hungarians; Part 6 – István Balassa


You like Tokaj? Then I hope you enjoy reading this article and, if not already exploring the region’s wines, will start doing so. Wine Virtuosity is also on Facebook as a page. More stuff to find there. For links, click the Follow Me tag to the right. Welcome!

Did you read my piece on the boutique winery of Gizella Pince in Tokaj? Here’s one more and just as exciting! István Balassa belongs to that group of producers you should keep an extra eye on. As is the case with Gizella, the production is extremely small-scaled and bottled under different single vineyard sites, but the quality of the wines impresses so much that it’s worth seeking them out.

István Balassa, a teacher in biology from the start, came in contact with wine-making by pure accident in 1999. It didn’t take him long to fall in love with the handicraft and a few years later he started his very own winery. Starting up a winery isn’t cheap and if the ambition is quality above all, it takes some time to find the sites one wants. István owns some of the parcels himself, others are rented.

Both István and László at Gizella Pince shows a side of Tokaj, and Hungary in general, which few knows of; a dynamic approach to wine and lots of enterprising. They both have the product, one that I’m pretty sure will be highly appreciated for it’s unique style and terroir, but now the hard and sometimes discontolated efforts called marketing, needs a boost in the right direction.

Hungarian wine is bought and drunk in….Hungary. The wines have good visibility domestically and many producers receive some well-deserved attention. If you’re a boutique winery you could settle with this, but then that’s just like monoculture, risky business. To rely on one market. No, Tokaj and it’s new and dynamic producers are worth a bigger audience and we, the consumers, will be amazed how great dry Furmint can be. I’ve said it before and are happy to repeat myself; this is perhaps the region to dig into the most the coming years.

István greets us at the Szent Tamas site where he currently rents a small lot. Perhaps the greatest site in all of Tokaj, at least the higher part of it. Standing here, looking at the steep land, the soil which almost has a reddish shimmer, one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand it’s difficult to work the vines. There’s alot of rocks in it and when it rains, you better rely on some serious leg muscles.

But it’s worth it. István’s 2009 Szent Tamas Furmint is one heck of a wine. At the same time as it’s concentrated and quite intense, it is cool, elegant and gentle. I know, it’s sounds like a contradiciton but fine dry Tokaj has a special air surrounding it which sometimes is difficult to explain. It has to be experienced. Perhaps it’s the volcanic soil in combination with a unique grape? And the work of a skillful winemaker?

From the top at Szent Tamas one can see another great site, Betsek. Balassa has a small plot here as well. Differing soil, another exposure. This is what Tokaj is all about; hundreds of unique vineyard sites with their very own expressions. And few knows that Tokaj’s vineyards were classified way ahead of more well-known wine regions like Burgundy for example.

I’m blown away by the 2009 Betsek Furmint from István. If this one marks the ten years since he slipped into winemaking, I would love to hang around to see what the wines István produces in twenty years, will be like. It’s not that far really between Szent Tamas and Betsek. Yet the difference in the interpretation of Furmint is obvious. I can’t say one is better than the other honestly, but Betsek speaks to my palate. Big, expressive nose with wet rocks, yellow fruit, wool and just a slight tropical feel. The palate shows a mineral driven structure with a hint of residual sugar to balance the high acidity. Impressive concentration. As with many better Furmint wines, it has a touch of bitterness in the finale, making it even more delicious.

From his own site, Thurzo, I’m poured another style of Furmint, showing a discrete floral character. Again, minerals are a trademark of István’s Furmint interpretation. The 2009 Thurzo Furmint shows wool, yellow fruit, green apple core and some herbal honey. Spring flowers and almost an ethereal feel on the nose. Mineral driven palate with some sweetness, acidity and pure fruit. Long and intense. I can’t help but to compare it with a fine Loire Chenin Blanc.

On the Furmint theme we’re finishing with the pretty hard to find 2009 Méses Mály. István produced 300 bottles of this baby which fermented in wooden vats with its natural yeast. Then aged in oak for almost a year. Some similarity with the Betsek showing a slight tropical feel, unripe pineapples actually, wet rocks and wool. Think in terms of a top Chenin Blanc meeting a Tokaj Furmint. A slightly waxy feel, an acidity attack worthy of its name and impressive concentration. István tells me there’s 5-6 grams of residual sugar in it, but that I guess takes a really trained palate to detect. Complex stuff! Can I have a case?

We’re tasting István’s wines at the Gusteau Kulinaris restaurant in the classic Tokaj village of Mád. Besides some really fine meals here, the wine list shows what it is all about; white wines. No reds are to be found. After all, we’re in Tokaj and the Furmint and Harslevelü pairs excellently with red meat.

Before going to Tokaj I must admit that Harslevelü wasn’t a grape I had much experience of when it came to quality wine. However, I was convinced by all producers we met, that this is a variety that needs more attention, at least mine. István pours a 2009 Harslevelü which shows the floral character I often detect in the grape. Hyacints, wet rocks, herbs and almost overripe red apples. It contrasts the taste which is more of green apples acidity and restrained mineral character. Some residual sugar to balance it all up. Excellent choice with the Asian slightly spicy cuisine.

Have you ever heard of Zeta? It’s a crossing between Furmint and Bouvier, developed in 1951 by Kiraly Ferenc. Even if it is tough to cultivate and needs a lot of care, the early ripening grape is appreciated because it is very prone to noble rot. István serves the 2008 Zeta from Méses Mály. A golden color with an intense nose of honey, wet rocks, wax, dried apricots and lavender. Sweet, with an apple like acidity, dried fruits, herbs, honey and that delicious note again, reminding me of lavender. Long and intense. 193 grams of sugar. A fine wine.

Down in the cellar of Gusteau Kulinaris we’re tasting some 2011’s. István is helping out at the restaurant, with the production of their own wines. Amongst the tasted wines there’s a gorgeous Muskotaly. Wonder if the Muscat wines of Tokaj isn’t the best in the world on the grape?

To give you a hint what István Balassa produces, here’s the 2011 harvest:

Nyulászó Furmint 1,800 bottles
Betsek Furmint, 1,400 bottles
Betsek Hárslevelű, 2,300 bottles
Mézes Mály Furmint, 700 bottles
Late harvest, 800 bottles
Zéta, 750 bottles

The dedication to the wines produced at István Balassa promises a lot for the future. This guy really deserves some international recognition and his wines are just meant to be paired with food. Go István!

To get in contact with Balassa, click here.