Last week, I managed to snag an invite to a tasting of wines from “Tokaj and Beyond” at the Embassy of Hungary. My conclusion? I don’t drink enough Hungarian wines.
First, some background – as most people, myself included, are clueless when it comes to wine from Hungary.
The nation has 22 wine regions, the most famous of which, of course, is Tokaj. And they’ve been producing wine there for hundreds of years. The earliest written record of the region’s signature wine, Tokaji Aszu, dates to 1550 – and Aszu wines have been regulated by the government since 1665.
In 1703, King Louis XIV of France called Tokaji Aszu, the “wine of kings, king of wines.” (Barolo has been described with the same phrase, but only since the mid-19th century. Take that, Italy.) The wine is even memorialized in Hungary’s national anthem – “In the grape fields of Tokaj, you dripped sweet nectar.” Perhaps we should mention Napa Cabs in the Star Spangled Banner…
Despite such a long and storied history, though, Hungary’s wine industry is in its infancy. Until the fall of communism, very little Hungarian wine was exported.
Literally translated, Aszu means “dried.” But to make Tokaji Aszu, growers must first let their grapes become affected by botrytis, and then harvest them by hand. (Harvest typically takes weeks).
Once all the Aszu grapes are selected, they’ll be trampled into the consistency of paste, and then combined with dry wine. At that point, the juice will be racked into casks for fermentation.
Tokaji Aszu wine is sweet, of course, but there are varying degrees of sweetness. That’s because once harvested, Aszu grapes are put into large baskets called “puttonies.” When full, each puttony holds about 50 lbs of grapes. Depending on the desired sweetness level, three to six puttonies go into each cask of wine.
Grapes grown in Tokaj principally consist of Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Yellow Muscat. Elsewhere in Hungary, most international varietals are grown. The most important red, though, is Kékfrankos, a late-ripening variety grown throughout Central Europe that scientists call “Blaufränkisch.”
Is your head spinning yet?
The embassy tasting featured a number of different wineries – one of which was the state-owned producer, set up during communist rule. It still handles about 20 percent of the region’s overall wine production, and is making a huge push into the United States. (Check out www.drinktokaji.com.)
In the 1990s, international investors poured millions into Hungary’s wine industry. That’s why, today, many of Hungary’s wines are distributed throughout the United States.
At the tasting, the wines being poured by the state-owned producer were – by far – my least favorite. And I promise this has nothing to do with my political biases! They were the only wines that literally smelled alcoholic – rather than the honey, apricot, and flowers one hopes for when sticking their nose into a glass of Tokaji, most of the sweet wines from the state-owned producer smelled like brandy. They were priced well, though. While many Tokaji Aszus top $100 per bottle, some of the wines from the state-owned producer are available for less than $20.
Virtually every other Tokaji Aszu, though, was absolutely delicious. And some of the late-harvest and dry wines were also quite tasty.
My favorite wines were being poured by Alana-Tokaj. While the winery is new – its first harvest was in 2005 – the vineyard they’re sourcing from is legendary. Alana-Tokaj was pouring a few different Tokaji Aszus (one of which received 95 points in Wine Spectator), a handful of dry wines, and two wonderfully delicious late-harvest wines – a 2005 Muscat and a 2006 Furmint. Both the late-harvest wines are worth seeking out. They were stunning.
Blue Danube Wine Company was also pouring a number of different wines, most of which can also be found in the states. Sadly, one of my other favorites from the tasting — Beres Vineyards and Winery – doesn’t have a U.S. importer or distributor.
Next time I’m at a good wine shop, I’m certainly going to check out the selection from Hungary. My cellar doesn’t have a single bottle of Tokaji Aszu – and that’s a real shame!