At least as far as anyone knows for sure, the Romans brought viticulture to Pannonia (the ancient Latin name for what was to become Hungary) over two thousand years ago, though there are rival theories that assert that winemaking had spread there from Greece or the Caucasus prior to the Roman’s arrival. But regardless of how the vine arrived in Hungary, there is no doubt that it is the seat of the oldest viticultural tradition in Eastern Europe.
That said, the tradition is not wholly continuous. After Rome fell, the Magyar people that moved into the region had no viticultural tradition of their own, and later the years of Ottoman domination (another non-vine oriented culture) didn’t help things any either. But, like in so many other areas in the Old World, we can thank monks (in this case the Benedictines) and monasteries for preserving and/or reviving winemaking in the region, and the Pannonhalma Abbey founded in 996 likely occupies the very place where the Romans originally planted their vines (the common root in the names is no accident).
In terms of vine types, Hungary is covered with literally scores of native white grape varieties with such teeth-breaking names as Harslevelu, Aranysarfeher, and Csabagyongye, but for reasons that still remain mysterious, there are almost no truly native red varieties. That said, certain regions in Hungary are perfect for the cultivation of red grapes, though most of them, with the exception of varieties like Kadarka (originally from Serbia) and Blaufrankisch (called Kekfrankos in Hungarian) whose origins are still uncertain, are relatively recent imports from France, and this evening’s rose` conforms to that pattern.
This wine is made from a blend of 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Merlot, and 20% Cabernet Franc which is plainly half a “Burgundy”, and half a “Bordeaux”, but pink and not red, which seals the deal in making it decisively neither. And though this uncommon blend might seem like a cynical way to capitalize on grape names that sell well, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc happen to grow exceedingly well in many Hungarian terroirs, and though Pannonhalma is primarily known for whites, this very spirited pink is a testament to how well reds do here, and how well the Romans and the friars knew their vineyard sites.
I served this very sophisticated rose` with an odd but wonderful Hungarian classic called meggyleves which is nothing less than a chilled, creamy sweet and sour cherry and sour cream soup flavored with cinnamon and lemon, and then…fish. Yes, despite the images of piles of pork and lamb on Hungarian dinner tables, and the fact that Hungary is completely landlocked, Hungary contains the biggest lake in Europe (Balaton), as well as lots of rivers, and Hungarians are absoultely mad for freshwater fish of all kinds, with catfish being one, so for the main course, I served a very traditional dish made with said fish braised in a melange of onion, green pepper, tomato, mushrooms, paprika, and white wine, with some tarhonya (tiny egg pasta pellets) on the side, and a very refreshing cucumber and dill salad to complete the spread.
Apatsagi Pannonhalmi Pinceszet Rose` 2012
Brownish pink/orange “smoked salmon” color. Surprisingly big nose of grilled peaches, cherry, and strawberry fruit supported by notes of tree bark, rose, chestnut paste and fresh cream. In the mouth the wine is quite full-bodied, soft, and slightly viscous but still very fresh with flavors of cranberry, tangerine, watermelon, vanilla bean, and honeycomb. The wine finishes big with bitterish lime notes.