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Off the Vine

Hungarian whites make a comeback
Saturday, August 18, 2001

Even cabernet lovers need a holiday occasionally. There are times -- the muggy, dog days of summer, for example -- when the palate clamours for something fresher, cleaner and, well, whiter. Times when even a crisp red Beaujolais, essentially a white wine in drag, can taste like a compromise.

Sultry August afternoons were made to enjoy zippy, unpretentious whites. And thankfully, the selection has much improved in Canada since the 1970s, when Kressman and screw-cap soave ruled the land.

Technological advances, such as freshness-enhancing stainless steel fermenters and vine-training techniques designed to maximize ripeness, have helped improve quality. So has the emergence, or in some cases renaissance, of wine-producing countries that take their whites as seriously as they do their reds.

Like Hungary. Nowhere has the overthrow of communism tasted so sweet, both literally and figuratively, as in the vineyards of this Eastern European country. Much has been written about the impressive revival of Hungary's famous dessert wine, the viscous, cellar-worthy Tokaj. But the country's reputation for richly flavoured dry whites, such as sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc and chardonnay, is also rising to new heights.

With a history dating back to Roman times, the Hungarian wine industry was possibly the most advanced in Eastern Europe midway through this century. Unlike Bulgaria's, though, it stagnated miserably under Soviet supervision. State farms and government-run wineries ensured that almost no money was invested in new equipment, and the rotgut that poured forth was mostly channeled into the Soviet Union by way of a monopoly distributor. (Karl Marx, wine lover and son of a well-to-do Mosel vineyard owner, must have been turning in his grave.)

But during the past decade, Western investors have poured significant capital and parachuted globe-trotting vintners into the region, with impressive early results.

A showcase example, and one of the best-value whites to arrive recently in Ontario, is Dunavár Connoisseur Collection Pinot Blanc 1999 ($6.95, Product No. 565820). Medium-bodied, ripe and juicy, it hails from a terrific year, with a deliciously fruity, almost plump core of green apple, peach and pear flavours. Delicious on its own, it would also pair nicely with many foods, from light fish to roast chicken.

The pinot blanc is not to be confused with its sibling, Dunavár Muscat, which is delicate and attractively floral, but, as you would expect from a muscat, grapey and very much an acquired taste.

Chile needs no introduction when it comes to affordable whites, but the newly available Santa Ines Sauvignon Blanc 2000 ($8.95, No. 350009) stands out. Light-bodied, it's soft for a sauvignon blanc, with notes of citrus and pear and a crisp, fresh finish. It's delicious on its own or with seafood.

Sauvignon blanc can't yet be considered a Canadian forte, but big strides are being made here with that vigorous vine. An impressive effort from Niagara is Hillebrand Estates Vineyard Select Sauvignon Blanc 2000 ($9.95, No. 386128-00). There's terrific varietal character here, with nuances of herbs and citrus, an impressively fleshy core and a crisp finish. The wine is available by direct order through or by calling 1-800-263-8465.

Pick of the week

Dunavár Connoisseur Collection Pinot Blanc 1999 ($6.95, Product No. 565820). from Hungary is light and fruity with a plump core of green apple, peach and pear.

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