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Exotic comfort: Pair Hungarian foods with native wines

| Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When it comes to tempting comfort foods, Hungarian cuisine stands second to none with delicious possibilities. Pairing the dishes with Hungarian wines enhances the pleasures while providing discoveries of exotic styles outside the mainstream of most Americans' experience.

Situated between Austria to the west and Romania to the east, Hungary bridges the gap between Western Europe and Central Asia. As such, Hungarian cuisine delivers an intriguing melange of flavors and colors to delight the senses.

Hearty stews and casseroles predominate and feature chicken, beef, pork, lamb and wild game. Colorful peppers, cabbage and potato dumplings also play prominent roles along with caramelized onions and thick sour cream.

Hungarian dishes use plenty of spices including bay leaf, black peppercorns, caraway seeds, garlic, horseradish and oregano. Above all, Hungarian food embraces fiery red, yet slightly sweet paprika.

Paprika is derived from dried, finely ground bell and chile peppers. The latter originated in the Caribbean and eventually arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus' initial voyages. Portuguese explorers then transplanted the peppers to India. Traders along the spice routes brought the peppers through Central Asia and Turkey back to Hungary.

Hungarian vineyards date to the Roman era and continued through the Magyar invasion in 896. Subsequent waves of Serbs, French, Italians and Austrians each influenced the wine styles.

The robust contemporary Hungarian wine industry encompasses 22 growing regions. It features little known grapes such as olaszrizling, hárslevel and furmint for whites and kadarka and kékfrankos (also known in German as blaufränkisch) for reds. International varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot have also risen in popularity.

Try the following tasty combinations for an introduction to Hungarian comfort food and wines:

Chicken Paprikás offers the classic Hungarian Sunday dinner.

Paprikás recipes abound on the internet. Essential ingredients include chicken thighs, legs and breasts, butter, sauteed yellow onions, black pepper, sweet paprika — and a dash of hot paprika if you prefer a spicy version — plus chicken stock and sour cream. Slowly cooking the stew holds the key to success.

The creamy, savory flavors pair beautifully with the 2010 Royal Tokaji Furmint Tokaji, Hungary (Luxury 45598; $16.99). Made in a northern Hungarian region more famous for sweet dessert wines, this dry, well-balanced white wine uses Furmint grapes.

After Mongol invaders withdrew in the 13th century, the Hungarian king recruited European winegrowers who may have brought the furmint vines from northern Italy. The vine has been solidly rooted in Hungary ever since.

Partial fermentation in oak barrels lent honey and nutty notes to this wine's naturally fruity apple and lime aromas. Ripe, fruity citrus flavors balance with crisp acidity and creamy notes through the dry, elegant finish. Highly recommended.

Hungarian Goulash has roots with the nation's cattle herdsmen. While driving animals to market, the herdsmen would typically make a hearty beef stew incorporating red wine, garlic, tomatoes, bell peppers and, of course, paprika.

Goulash remains essentially the same today, albeit with a little sour cream and presentation over egg noodles.

Pair it with the tasty 2010 Sauska Cuvée 13, Villány, Hungary (Luxury 45785; $21.99), a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah grown in southern Hungary. After harvesting by hand, the grapes are fermented in the state-of-the-art winery's stainless-steel tanks to capture fruity intensity. Aging for four months in previously used French-oak barrels added levels of subtle complexity.

The saturated purple color offers ripe dark plum and cassis aromas with peppery notes. Ripe, vibrant dark fruit flavors burst on the palate. Fresh acidity and soft, elegant tannins carry the fruity, yet dry finish.Highly recommended.

For a pricey, yet exquisite, Hungarian dessert in and of itself, try the 2005 Disznók Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, Hungary (Luxury 31961; $48.99 for 500 milliliters.). Made from ultra-ripe Furmint grapes shriveled by Botrytis molds, the dark amber wine bewitches with marvelous peach, honey and citrus aromas and flavors. Vibrant, fresh acidity to avoid cloying sweetness on the finish. Recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media.

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