Hungarian Wine | Time To Talk About Tokaji

Harry Lambourne
25th April 2024

Hungarian wine doesn’t dominate wine lists, or space on supermarket shelves. However, it is a nation with a rich wine-making history and is responsible for some of history’s most revered wines.

We will take you on a tour of this wonderful wine-making nation and introduce you to the history, key regions and grape varieties of the Hungarian wine world. Then, we will dive into the rarified sweet wines of Tokaji Aszú. These wines were the toast of Kings, before falling on hard times. Now, they’re back in action again and should be a must-have for any wine lover.

Let’s learn about Hungarian wine.

The History of Hungarian Wine

Hungary has the most long-standed and well-respected wine-making tradition amongst all the Eastern European countries. Hungarian wine has been revered for some time.

Austria sits to the west and certainly has gained a lot of acclaim from the end of the 20th century onwards. However, for centuries it was Hungarian wine which was the most desired.

As far back as the seventeenth century, Hungary possessed a wine culture that would’ve been second only to France and Germany at that time.

In the 1600s, it was the Hungarian wine region of Tokaj-Hegyalja, (not Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Mosel), that developed the first system for ranking wine based on quality. 

By the 1700s, this Hungarian wine region had first, second and third class designations that were backed by royal decrees to ensure vineyard and winemaking practices were standardised and geared towards the production of excellent wines.

Modern-day Hungary sits among the nations of Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Austria. Yet, it was not long ago that Hungary, (as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), was one of the major seats of power in Europe. The empire contained the countries mentioned above, as well as Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Poland, Montenegro and even parts of Italy, (MacNeil 623).

Viticulture in Hungary was flourishing from the 1600s onwards, but it is likely that vineyards have been planted in this region since Roman times. The Magyars, (an ancient tribe from the Ural Mountains), are the predecessors for modern Hungarians and it is reported that they found vines growing across the land when they settled into the region in the ninth century.

The Magyars also helped to form the basis of the Hungarian language. This is one of the few modern European languages with different roots. This is important for the world of wine. Soon, we will run through the various grapes and wine regions of Hungarian wine and you’ll see they are harder to pronounce than simpler terms such as Chianti, or the Rhône Valley.

Beyond that, they’re simply unfamiliar. Wine in other countries may be called ‘Le Vin’, ‘Wein’, ‘Vino’ or ‘Vinho’, in Hungary wine it is instead ‘bor’, (MacNeil 623).

Lake Balaton - Hungarian Wine
Lake Balaton – Key Influence on Hungarian Wine Regions

The Key Grapes & Regions of Hungarian Wine

Hungary is land-locked and the landscape is permeated by grassy plains, vibrant orchards, imposing forest and of course, vineyards.

It is split almost exactly in half by the Danube River. In Hungary, it is called the Duna, which runs from the north to the south through the entire country.

In terms of latitude, Hungary sits in roughly the same position as Burgundy. This points to a growing environment that is cool. This lends itself to crisp and light white wines. Yet, many parts of the Hungarian wine environment is continental with long, warm summers. The hotter portions of Hungary are also capable of producing bigger, bolder red wines.

70% of the production of Hungarian wine is white wine. Most wine is labelled varietally with the wine region noted on the label, (MacNeil 624).

There are twenty-two Hungarian wine regions. However, seven are perhaps the most well-known. Far and away, the number one region is the historic area of Tokaj-Hegyalja, (more on that later). It sits in the north-east part of the country known as the Northern Massif. The six other Hungarian wine regions of note are Badacsony, Somló, Villány-Siklós, Eger and Mátra, (MacNeil 625).

Badacsony and Somló are in the central region of Hungary, in an area known as Transdanubia. A key feature of this region is the huge Lake Balaton, (one of Europe’s largest lakes). 

Badacsony is known for white wines, primarily those from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris (known in Hungary as szürle barát), and Welschriesling, (known as olasz rizling in Hungary and not to be confused with Riesling). 

Somló is one of Hungary’s more unique regions. It is tiny and remote, with next to no paved roads or electricity in the particularly rural vineyard areas. The soil is volcanic, (like Etna in Sicily), and they specialise in wood-aged, partially oxidised and powerful white wines from Furmint and Hárslevelu.

Somlo Mountain | Somlo | Hungarian Wine Region
Somlo Mountain

These aren’t always well received by your every-day wine consumer, but Hungarians swear by these brooding wines and their pairing ability with heavy Hungarian foods. The Habsburgs, (a key royal family from the 15th to 20th century), also believed that drinking the Somaló wine ‘Juhfark’ would guarantee the birth of a body – take that for what you will, (MacNeil 626).

To the south of Transdanubia, there are two more important Hungarian wine regions. They are Szekszárd and Villány-Siklós. These are some of the more forward-thinking regions and it is here that you’ll be most likely to find producers using modern equipment and new oak barrels. This is also a red wine area. Kadarka is a regional speciality. It makes light colour, medium-bodied wines with fresh fruit flavours and subtle spiced qualities.

Villány-Siklós is one of the warmer Hungarian wine regions. Here, small producers are known for full-bodied reds. These are made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, (also known as ‘Kékfrankos’).

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

Kékfrankos is most well-known in the region of Eger. Here, you’ll see it in wines labelled ‘Egri Bikavér’ which is known as ‘bull’s blood’. This is one of the most famous Hungarian wines, (particularly for a red wine). The name comes from a conflict, (MacNeil 627).

The Magyars were besieged by the Turkish during the mid-1500s. Apparently, to help them fight this battle the Magyars drank huge amounts of this particular red wine. The Turkish were particularly frightened by the combination of ferocious fighting from the Magyar, as well as their red-stained faces. They thought that the Magyars attained their prowess from drinking the blood of bulls. However, we now know it was simply some delicious Blaufränkisch.

Matra is located close to Eger, yet this is white wine territory. Olasz Rizling and Muscat dominate production, alongside good quality examples of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. There is also a regional speciality known as Királyleányka, (we told you some of these words would be difficult). This name translates to ‘little princess’, (pronounced kir-all-ee-lee-an-ka), is a big, aromatic white wine which is lower in acidity much like Gewürztraminer, (MacNeil 627).

It is also worth bringing your attention to the Great Alföld portion of Hungary. This is a vast and hot flat plain to the south of Budapest. This isn’t the destination for high-quality wine, but it accounts for half of the vineyards in the country. They’re simple, inexpensive wines. Expect international varieties of Chardonnay and Merlot to come from here. 

Hungarian wine was controlled by the state for around 40 years until 1989. State run farms produced wine through large cooperatives and the bulk of wine was exported to the Soviet Union and East Germany. Unsurprisingly, quality was unremarkable, (MacNeil 628).

Hungarian wine is now moving back into the spotlight. There were challenges over vineyard ownership following the fall of communism, but following government intervention, foreign investment and a move to modernisation – things are changing.

IT’s Time To Talk About Tokaji

This is Hungary’s premier wine region and produces some of the world’s best wine, so it deserves a section in this article all to itself.

Tokaji Wine Region
Tokaji Wine Region
The History of Tokaji

Tokaji is one of the most historic examples of wine which is still available today. However, the region has been through political struggles, war and waves of disease. This delectable drink could’ve been consigned to history. Yet, it has endured.

This sumptuous delicacy was the toast of royal courts and a style of wine which Louis XV ‘referred to as ‘the wine of kings and the kings of wines’, (MacNeil 629). Let’s discover the history behind Tokaji.

Its downfall began with the classic wine pest phylloxera. The toast of Kings in the 18th century was forced to near extinction by bugs at the start of the 20th century. The vineyards were carefully brought back to life before World War 1, the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and World War 2 stalled things even further. Then, Hungary fell under Communist rule and things continued to dive. 

Wineries were confiscated and nationalised. The highly-prized Tokaji grapes were chucked into the communal lot and blended en masse with other grapes at coops. Similar situations have arisen with Croatia, Romania and other former Eastern Bloc countries. Vineyards were neglected, equipment deteriorated and the overall quality of the wine being produced fell. Soon, the Tokaji wines of the late 20th century were unrecognisable from those which were loved by Kings and Tsars.

Yet, Tokaji was set for a comeback when Hungary regained independence in 1989. Hungary worked with foreign investors to form the Royal Tokaji Wine Company. The company included 63 of the best remaining Tokaji wine growers. Investment continued to grow from here as many sought to revitalise the Hungarian wine which they knew had such great potential.

The Tokaji Wine Region

The Tokaj region, (known formally as Tokaj-Hegyalja), is about 120 miles north-east of the Hungarian capital of Budapest. It encompasses 27 villages which are spread over beautiful rolling hills that come from ancient extinct volcanoes. In 2014, there were just 15000 acres of vines in Tokaji, (a third of the size of the small Napa Valley), and the average size of a vineyard is just 1.4 acres, (MacNeil 631).

The region is not solely responsible for sweet wines and excellent dry white wines can be found. We’ll discuss the styles of Tokaji later, as sweet wines are the most famous. Sometimes referred to as the Sauternes of Eastern Europe, (due to their similarity to the Noble Rot wines of Bordeaux).

Botrytis Grapes with the Noble Rot
Botrytis grapes with the Noble Rot
How To Produce Tokaji Aszú?

Wines date back to the Middle Ages, but the first mention of ‘aszu’ in this Hungarian wine region, (the key term associated with sweet wines), can be found in 1576, (MacNeil 631). During the 17th centuries, local Chaplains had begun experimenting with rotting Furmint grapes and the luscious Noble Rot wines of this fabled region were born.

Noble Rot requires some very specific climatic conditions for it to set in and not ruin the crop. Thankfully, Tokaj-Hegyalja has those exact conditions. The imposing Carpathian Mountains form a protective layer around much of the region, protecting it from cold winds and creating long, gentle yet warm autumn months

The volcanic soil also retains heat well and makes the most of what is a cooler region. The Bodrog River follows along many of the hills of this region and brings with it mists and humidity. These two facts are crucial for Noble Rot to set in.

There are three major white grape varieties of the Tokaj region. The key grape is undoubtedly Furmint. It occupies 60% of all grapes planted in the region. They’re late-ripening and high in acid and particularly susceptible to Noble Rot.

The second most important grape is the Hárlevelu grapes. It is less susceptible to Noble Rot, yet it is deeply acidic and particularly rich and aromatic.

Last of our three key white grapes is Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains, (known in Hungary as sárga muskotály). Again, this is aromatic and acidic but is far more of a bit-part player in these wines.

You’ll have noted that all these grapes are particularly acidic. This is crucial as it means that even the sweetest Tokaji wines aren’t cloying on saccharine, but actually perfectly balanced. The sweetness is paired off with a wonderful acidity.

We’ve mentioned that Noble Rot requires specific conditions. Humidity settles in. This brings about mould which eats at the skin of the grapes. It causes small punctures which lets water evaporate and this causes the sugars to concentrate. If Noble Rot doesn’t set in, Tokaji Aszú will not be produced.

Tokaji Aszú
Tokaji Aszú

If we’re all lucky and they can produce these delicious Hungarian wines, then it goes like this. The first step is picking individual shrivelled aszú, (Noble Rot affected), grapes. These grapes are brought to the winery and lightly crushed into a paste. The remainder of the crop is then picked and made into a standard base wine.

The aszú paste is then added to the base wine. The amount to which this paste is measured by a term called puttonyos. A puttony is a basket which was traditionally used to gather aszú grapes and generally held around 20 litres of the aszú paste. Traditionally, a wine with 1 puttonyos on the label will delineate that there are 20 litres of aszú paste, (in 140 litres of wine).

This scale goes all the way up to 6 puttonyos. So, this means that 120 litres out of a possible 140 litres are made up of the aszú paste. As you can imagine, these are exceptionally rich and sweet. Yet, they aren’t excessively sweet. They retain balance and a mouth-watering acidity in spite of a staggering sugar content.

Now, puttonyos are measured by sugar content rather than a number of barrels but the sweetness levels are comparative. The wines are generally fermented in stainless steel, before ageing for at least three years in oak barrels and the bottle.

Other Tokaji Wines

Outside of this Hungarian wine regions fabled sweet wines, you can get some rather delicious dry white wines as well. Crisp, refreshing and complex examples of dry Furmint crop up across Tokaji and are produced in reasonable quantities in years where Noble Rot hasn’t taken hold. Expect a dry Furmint to deliver flavours of gooseberry, apple, pear, lime and lemon. They’re not that different from certain examples of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.

This has been our introduction to the world of Hungarian wine. There are tons of great Hungarian wines to get out there and try, but none are more loved than Tokaji Aszú. If you want a true and undeniable treat, then grab yourself a bottle of the good stuff. Hungarian wine doesn’t get better than Tokaji Aszú.

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