Thursday, March 21, 2024

Tokaj & Hungarian Wine

Few wines are weighted down with more romantic legend than the great Hungarian Tokaj. Made first in the 13th century, Tokaj is an extraordinary sweet wine that is little known or appreciated by today's wine drinkers. 

The number of truely great sweet wines can be counted on one hand: Sauternes, German beerenauslese, Portuguese Port, Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles and Tokaj.  There are other very good to great sweet wines, like  Madeira and Australia's Liqueur Muscat, but they don't quite measure up to the top six. 

It's one thing to say that Tokaj is extraordinary, but to become a true believer, you need to taste an entry level Tokaj Szamorodni alongside a top-end Tokaj Aszu. The difference is like putting Ch. Pontet-Canet, Fifth Growth Pauillac/Bordeaux against Ch. Latour, First Growth Pauillac/Bordeaux. 

Hand-hewn Tokaj cave

The differences between Tokaj Szamorodni and Aszu, price aside, may be subtle, but the discerning taster will notice a depth of aromatics, more concentration, layered flavors, added complexity and above all, a definable elegance in the Aszu  that is absent in the Szamorodni.  

Just what is this wine called Tokaj and why is it so special?  Here's a brief synopsis of Tokaj, followed by a few words on Hungarian wine, including a look back at my first taste of a Hungarian red wine, with a name that should have scared me away, but didn't.

Hungarian Tokaj

The first thing you should know about Tokaj is that it is not the same as a California wine called Tokay or the French Tokay d' Alsace.  Interestingly, the original name for the Hungarian wine was "Tokay."  And the Alsatian wine is now called Alsace Pinot Gris; a righteous move as Tokay d' Alsace never had anything to do with Tokay or Tokaj.

One more technical point: Tokaj is a town in Hungary, near a volcano named Mount Tokaj.  Locals prefer to call the wine Tokaji -- the "i" denoting from, but universally it is known as Tokaj. 

Tokaj is made from two indigenous grapes: Furmint, a high-acidity grape susceptible to essential botrytis and Hárslevelű, genetically related to Furmint, this hard-to-pronounce native grape makes wines with spicy flavors and good aging potential.  Tokaj is a botrytised wine but, contrary to common belief, it is NOT a fortified wine. 

Historically, there are both dry and sweet Tokaj, with the sweet wines better known in export than the dry wines. Sweet Szamorodni is made from select botized grapes, while the dry style can be a blend of botrytized and non-botrytized grapes. Some wineries are exporting a Dry Furmint.

Aszu Tokaj is the classic sweet wine, made only from botrytized grapes that have been soaked for hours in new wine, before fermentation. The old way of classifying the style or sweetness levels, was by puttonyos (loosely translated as a picking basket). The highest was 6 puttonyos or about 18% residual sweetness. Today, all Aszu most have a minimum of 12% RS.


Eszencia, the fabled upper end of Tokaj Aszu is sweeter and rarer than 6 puttonyos Aszu.  It is not unheard of to find older Eszencia today at 45% RS and sweeter.  Rarely available commercially, Eszencia is usually used for blending.

The Royal Tokaji Wine Company is the major exporter of Tokaj wine to the United States, although a few other firms are making inroads.  Look for 6 puttonyos Aszu  from RTWC, Kvaszinger, Samuel Tinon and Disznoko. Price range is $65 to $75 for a 500 ml bottle.   

Hungary's Other Wines

In 2009, Hungarian wine fell into compliance with EU regulations and the designation of 36 official appellations that fall into three geographical groups: Transdanubia, The Great Plain and The Northern Massif. 

The wines of Transdanubia, in western Hungary, are strongly influenced by the Danube river and Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe. A variety of grapes include native varieties Furmint and Hárslevelű, along with Traminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Muscat and Olaszrizling, a variety also known as Welschriesling, although it has nothing to do with the noble Riesling.  

Red wines, mostly from the native Kadarka, Merlot and Syrah, are important in the southern districts of Villany and Szekszard. Perhaps Hungary's best known red wine, Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood" is made in Szekszard and the Northern Massif district of Eger.  More on Bikaver wines below. 

The Great Plain lies between the Danube and Tisza rivers, in south-central Hungary. About half of the country's vineyards are planted here, ranging from Chardonnay to Kadarka and Olaszrizling. 

North of the Great Plain, on the border of Slovakia, is The Northern Massif.  Among the handful of small districts are Tokaj and Eger, one of two areas making Bikaver red wines. 


Personal note: One of the first European wines I tried was from Hungary.  The  black and red label had an angry snorting bull under the words "Egri Bikaver."  I was intrigued, so I turned the bottle to read the back label. 

A short description of the wine included the meaning of Egri Bikaver as "Bulls Blood," an appropriate name for the wine's blood-red color. The rustic fruity wine   was likely made then from the native grape, Kadarka, while today's Egri Bikaver has gone the way of many other wines, using international varieties like Merlot, to supplement a pair of other indigenous grapes.

The volcanic soils of this mountainous region yield white and red wine, with a recent influx of young winemakers experimenting with international varieties like Pinot Noir. Although there is some interest in Chardonnay and Riesling, native grapes are still the most popular for white wines.

In the late 1980s, Hungary became a post-communism free-market economy, linked with the European Union.  Although interest in Tokaj wine outside Hungary is small, wine drinkers curious about new and different wines, are looking to Hungary for different wines made from local varieties.

Next post: Nebbiolo Reds

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