The history of wine in Hungary dates back to the Pannonia of Roman times (Sanskrit pani, ‘water’). Today, the country counts 22 disparate wine regions. The bulk of production is destined for domestic consumption. Furmint aside, exports are geared towards international varieties such as Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer. The most significant black varieties are Blaufränkisch (Kéfrankos), Zweigelt, and the Bordeaux varieties. Beyond these, there are also, of course, a number of indigenous varieties.
The big names, especially on the export markets, are Tokaji and, to a much lesser extent, Bull’s Blood of Eger (Egri Bikavér). It is said that Abbot Szepsi Laczko Máté perfected the method of making Tokaji in 1631. Louis XIV of France held Tokaji in such esteem as to call it Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum (‘Wine of Kings, King of Wines’). The Russian tsars stationed a garrison of Cossacks in Tokaj-Hegyalja (‘Tokaj Foothills’) to source the wines and escort them to Petersburg. Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary, used to gift Queen Victoria Tokaji for her birthday. Every year, he sent her one bottle for every month that she had lived, sending her a grand total of 972 bottles on her last, eighty-first, birthday. Tokaji is even name-checked in the Hungarian national anthem: ‘In the grape fields of Tokaj, You dripped sweet nectar.’
Under communism, mechanization, overcropping, oxidation, and pasteurisation led to a tumble in quality. Since 1989, heavy investment, especially in Tokaj, has begun to root out the rot, but some of the region’s greatest terraces still lie fallow.
The lie of the land
Hungary, and the Pannonian Basin in which it lies, is bisected north-to-south by the Danube, which flows through the capital of Budapest—one of twenty cities to have been nicknamed ‘the Paris of the East’ but probably the most deserving of the title. To the east and south is the Great Plain, which, owing to sandy soils, has been spared from phylloxera. To the east and north are the volcanic hills of Upper Hungary, with the best vineyard sites on steep, south-facing slopes. The entire area to the west of the Danube is referred to as Transdanubia. Transdanubia can be divided into three principal wine producing regions: Northern Transdanubia, Central Transdanubia around Lake Balaton, and Southern Transdanubia. The climate in Hungary is continental, with hot summers and cold winters. Autumns are long and relatively dry. To the east, the arc of the Carpathian Mountains encloses the Pannonian Basin and shelters it from cold continental winds. To the west, Lakes Balaton and Neusiedl give rise to distinct and favourable mesoclimates.
The delimitation of Tokaj-Hegyalja and the classification of its vineyards predate those of the Douro in the mid-18th century. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon left a small part of this delimited area outside modern Hungary in Czechoslovakia (modern-day Slovakia). Tokaj-Hegyalja lies on a small plateau in a nook of the Carpathian Mountains, at the confluence of the Rivers Bodrog and Tisza and the meeting point of hot and cold airstreams. During the long Indian summer, morning mists dissipate into sunny and breezy afternoons. These conditions could not be more ideal for the development of noble rot and the shrivelling of berries on the vine. The subsoil is volcanic tufa, largely andesite in the west and rhyolite in the centre and east. The topsoil is clay, or loess around the hill of Tokaj to the south. Average vineyard size is very small, and the dominant state winery contracts grapes form almost 3,000 small growers. Six white varieties are permitted: Furmint (60% of the area under vine), Hárslevelü (30%), Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (5%), Zéta (Furmint x Bouvier), Kabar (Hárslevelü x Bouvier), and Kövérszóló.
Several styles are produced, ranging from dry wines to Eszencia, the sweetest wine in the world. However, it is Aszú for which the region is famed. Aszú (shrivelled and botrytized) berries are individually picked and trampled into a paste. This ‘aszú dough’ is mixed with must or wine and stirred from time to time to ‘break out’ the sugars and facilitate fermentation (cf. Austrian Ausbruch). After about 24-48 hours, the wine is racked into Hungarian oak casks and left to mature in cool cellars carved into the subsoil. These cellars are coated in a thick growth of Racodium cellare, a black fungus that feeds on the alcohol vapours and maintains humidity in the range of 85-90%. Once matured, the wine is entered into 500cl bottles labelled with a puttony number. The puttony number traditionally referred to the number of puttonyos (wooden tubs) of aszú dough added to a Gönc cask (136l barrel) of must or wine. Today, it simply reflects the residual sugar content, with 3 puttonyos equivalent to 60g/l and each extra puttony adding 30g/l. Since 2013, all Aszú must be made with a minimum of five puttonyos, and must be matured for at least 24 months, 18 of which in oak. Eszencia, which is made from the free-run juice (or syrup) of aszú berries, typically has a sugar content of 500-700g/l! This holy of holies is added back to Aszú wines to adjust sweetness, but can also be fermented and bottled pure. The fermentation takes at least four years (yes, four years) to complete, at which point the alcohol level ranges from 2 to 4%.
The extreme longevity of Aszú wines can be attributed to Furmint, and in particular to its high levels of acidity and sugar. Compared to Sauternes, with which it is often confused, Tokaji Aszú is a darker, copper colour with higher acidity and notes of apricot, orange zest, barley sugar, honey, spice, and tea. Other common notes include fresh and dried figs, raisins, dried mango, vanilla pod, and cinnamon. Dry Furmint is quite a different animal, lemony in colour, with notes of smoke, pear, citrus fruits, and almond kernel, with hints of mandarin, peach, apricot, honey, and spice. On the palate, it is medium bodied with high and jagged acidity, medium-high to high alcohol, and a salty finish. Dry Hárslevelü can also be complex and balanced, but seems to suffer from its difficult name!
Other styles of Tokaji are Szamorodni (‘As it comes’), made from bunches of grapes with a high proportion of botrytized grapes; Fordítás, made by pouring must on spent aszú dough; Máslás, made by pouring must on aszú lees; and late harvest wines ready for release from just one year after harvest. Depending on the proportion of botrytized grapes, Szamorodni is either dry (száras), made under flor like a fino sherry, or sweet (édes). Note that Máslás is fairly rare.
Leading producers in the region include Barta, Degenfeld, Demeter Zoltán, Disznóko, Erzsebet Pince, Hétszölö, Majoros Birtok, Oremus, Royal Tokaji, Samuel Tinon, Szent Tamas, and Tokaj Kikelet.
Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting