Great Reds from Hungary at the Florida International Wine Challenge

More than 200 wines from all over the world were swirled, sniffed and sipped this weekend at the Florida International Wine Fair.  It was my first time at the FIWC and I was glad I was able to attend both the Saturday and Sunday tastings to fully enjoy the experience.

FIWCThe wines were spread out along tables in two rooms, allowing you to serve yourself.  This was good for trying the wines at your own pace, but not so great if you were hoping to learn about the wines beyond what was written on the label.

On Saturday I arrived 45 minutes after the tasting started and found it was extremely crowded.  When I was able to get through to the tables I found that many of the bottles were already empty.

One of the great things about the tasting also caused some problems.  If you were staying for dinner at Smith & Wollensky you were able to take two bottles with you and not pay a corkage fee.  It seemed people claimed their bottles early on, removing them from the tasting which hurt those of us who arrived late.

The experience was much better on Sunday, with far fewer people and no frenzied scramble for bottles to drink in the restaurant (that night you couldn’t claim bottles until an hour and a half into the tasting).  Assuming the format is the same next year, I’d recommend arriving early or paying the higher price to attend Sunday’s tasting.

I can’t complain too much about Saturday’s tasting because I found two great red wines from Hungary.  I’m not sure if it was a lack of familiarity with this country or its grapes, but these bottles seemed to be largely ignored during the tasting.  They were mostly full when I claimed them to take to dinner.

MerengoThe first wine was the 2006 St. Andrea Merengo Egri Bikavér Superior.  It’s from the Eger region in northern Hungary.  The word Bikavér translates to “bull’s blood.”  This type of wine gets its name from a 16th century legend about a small group of Hungarian soldiers who withstood a siege of the fortress at Eger by 150,000 invading Turkish troops.  To motivate and support the Hungarian soldiers, they were served a lot of red wine.  Word spread among the Turkish troops that the wine was mixed with bull’s blood — the reason for the Hungarians’ inexplicable strength.  The rumor demoralized the Turks, and the siege ended.

Ten different grapes are allowed to make up Bikavér, though regulations state it must contain at least three.  St. Andrea’s Merengo is a blend of 50% Kékfrankos (called Blaufränkisch in other parts of Europe), 20% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot.  It’s an elegant and well structured wine, with delicate notes of ripe red fruit and white pepper.  Gentle tannins are balanced out with a nice acidity.  It’s a versatile wine that can be paired with pasta, poultry and red meat.  I’m not sure where in the U.S. this wine is available, but I believe it retails around $60.

Blue DiamondThe second wine was the 2006 St. John Blue Diamond.  I haven’t been able to find out much information on this wine.  It’s also made with Kékfrankos but I’m not sure what other grapes it contains.  The Blue Diamond is more full bodied than the Merengo.  It has flavors of black fruit and an earthy and slightly gamey taste.  The wine truly came alive at dinner, when we paired it with steak.  This is a wine that needs to be served along with food — in particular heartier meat and game dishes.

While I didn’t find too many wines I was wowed by at the Florida International Wine Challenge, I lucked out by finding these jewels from Hungary.  Members of the tasting board also enjoyed the Merengo, awarding it a Silver medal.