For the most part, Hungary’s wine is still made as it has long been made, by small vineyard owners and wineries and down-to-earth, everyday folk. Fertilizer use is infrequent; sustainable farming practices are common.
This somewhat bucolic image belies Hungary’s past as a winemaking country. From the 17th to the early 20th century, Hungary had the third-most sophisticated wine culture in Europe, after France and Germany. As early as the 1600s, Hungary developed the first system in Europe for classifying wine on the basis of quality (well ahead of Bordeaux or Burgundy).
Nonetheless, taken as a whole, Hungary’s wines today have little of their former stature, save for one wine, the famed Tokaj aszu. But the potential for renewed greatness is there and, if Tokaj is a model, a foregone conclusion.
Hungary possesses all the elements required for fine winemaking: a mix of soils, pocketed throughout the country; favorable climates; a range of grape varieties, both indigenous and “international,” such as sauvignon blanc; a long history of making both table wines and one of the world’s most sought-after dessert wines; and, finally, the present period of peace and independence.
Hungarian wines can be difficult to understand, especially because of the tortuous Finno-Ugric language that the Magyars introduced to this part of the world. (The names of the white grapes “harslevelu” and “szurkebarat” do not come trippingly off the tongue.)
But one Hungarian grape variety that is easy to pronounce is the basis of Tokaj aszu and is also made into a crisp dry white wine gaining favor for its flexibility with food. That grape is the furmint.
Furmint is extraordinarily high in acidity (which nicely balances Tokaj’s sweetness). Thus, it gives dry white wines made from it an exceptionally racy edge. It also can intrigue with its aromas, of green apple or pear, lime, nuts and, often and most interestingly, smoke.
But from furmint comes what Louis XIV called “vinum regnum, rex vinorum,” the wine of kings and the king of wines, Tokaj aszu (toe-KAY or toe-KAI ah-SZOO).
During the years 1682-1725, a detachment of Russian soldiers stationed themselves in eastern Hungary, near the town of Tokaj. Their sole purpose was to return to Russia after each harvest with sufficient Tokaj aszu for their boss, Czar Peter the Great.
This wine, one of the great sweet wines of the world, is just now regaining that bygone renown, after warding off the relentless destruction visited upon it by — in succession — the plant louse phylloxera, two world wars and the nationalization of its wineries by the political successors of Peter the Great.
Since 1989 and the democratization of Hungary, much foreign investment has bolstered Hungarian winemaking, especially that of Tokaj aszu.
“Aszu” is the Hungarian name for the dry, rotting grapes affected at the end of harvest by the beneficent mold Botrytis cinerea, those grapes that are made into a luscious and unctuous wine in ascending degrees of sweetness. (The same thing occurs in France, in the sweet wines Sauternes and Barsac, and in the late-harvest rieslings of Germany.)
Botrytis is a “good” mold because, while it does rot grapes, it does so in a way that both does not spoil them and brings about a sought-after quality. As Botrytis spores puncture the skins of the grapes, it draws out water to feed itself but does not allow a grape’s great enemy, oxygen, to get inside the grapes.
And as it dehydrates the grapes, it progressively concentrates their sugars and acids. When these grapes are picked (often one by one) and made into wine, the result is nectar.
Tokaj aszu is constructed from four different grape varieties, the predominant one being furmint, though all four grapes share one aspect in common: high acidity. Such acidity is a nearly necessary foil to Tokaj aszu’s sweetness and is, indeed, the one characteristic that distinguishes Tokaj aszu among its peers in the world’s rare sweet wines.
Tokaj aszu is made by picking the infected grapes and crushing them into a paste. A substantial quantity of uninfected grapes (Botrytis is not universal in a vineyard) are made into a base wine. The aszu paste is added back to the base wine in various proportions and then everything ferments into the finished sweet wine.
The paste that is added back to the base wine is measured in what are called puttonyos, about 50 pounds or a little over five gallons, of aszu. The more puttonyos, the sweeter the Tokaj aszu.
2013 Royal Tokaji Dry Furmint “The Oddity,” Tokaj, Hungary: Pear, green apple, minerals, energetic and extraordinary acidity. $17
2012 Royal Tokaji “Mad Cuvee,” Tokaj, Hungary: Named after Tokaj’s neighbor town, Mad, this is essentially a straightforward late-harvest furmint; apricots and orange marmalade; beautiful honeyed character. $21 (375 milliliters)
2008 Royal Tokaji Tokaj Aszu 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj, Hungary: Intense Botrytis character of burnt honey, dried apricot and orange marmalade; campfire smoke marks the finish as does the telltale furmint acidity, as sharp as a whip’s crack. $35-$55 (500 milliliters)
2007 Royal Tokaji Tokaj Aszu 6 Puttonyos, Mezes Maly Vineyard, Tokaj, Hungary: Liquid sultana raisins; oily in texture; a whopping, teeth-vibrating 221 grams/liter; residual sugar in the end balanced with drying acidity. $125 (500 milliliters)
By Bill St. John, Chicago Tribune (TNS)