We know that Hungary is the home of “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum”, (wine of kings, king of wines), which is how King Louis XIV of France referred to his favourite sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú. These wines are made from grapes affected by “noble rot”, however, this Central European country has one of the most outstanding gastronomic cultures in the area and a wine tradition that goes beyond its extraordinary dessert wines.
Let’s learn a bit more about the wines of Hungary, one of the best kept secrets in the winemaking world.
Let’s work out where we are, shall we?
Hungary is located in the heart of Europe. It is a landlocked country surrounded by Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, and Slovakia.
Hungary lies between latitude lines 46 and 49, which is the same as some of the great wine regions stretching from the north of the Rhône to Champagne, in France. The country also has gentle slopes and soils made up of volcanic material and limestone rocks, which are perfect for vine cultivation and development, as well as for the production of fine wines.
Despite not having a coastline, Hungary is mainly a great plain with large rivers like the Danube, which crosses the country from north to south, and the Tisza river, which comes from Ukraine and crosses the country parallel to the Danube. It also has a significant lake system, Lake Balaton being the largest.
Now you know these things, you might be wondering why we don’t know much about Hungarian wines, or see many of them on the shelves?
A bit of history
Hungary has the honour of having the first vineyard classification system in the world, introduced in 1700, and until a century ago Hungary was one of the most significant winemakers in Europe. Hungrian white wines and red wines as well as dry wines and the exquisite Tokaji sweet wines have found their way onto the most prestigious dining tables.
But the aggressive phylloxera attack on Hungarian vineyards at the end of the 19th century, the two World Wars and more than 40 years of communist rule took a heavy toll on the Hungarian wine sector which, fortunately for all of us, is beginning to recover and show us what it is capable of.
Young winemakers have emerged to revive the country’s wine-making tradition and to teach us that Hungary’s richness is about more than just its “liquid gold”, the sweet Tokaji wine. They have started producing both red and white wines that are catching people’s attention and becoming a more and more common sight on our shelves.
Furmint and Harslevelü, the leading white varieties
A wide range of native varieties grow in Hungary, which give the wines their own personality and identity.
Of all the grapes that grow here, there are two that stand out: the Furmint white variety, an intense grape with a firm structure, and Harslevelü, which is gentler and more fragrant. Both are unrivalled leaders when it comes to producing sweet wines influenced by “noble rot.”
Dry white wines made with the Furmint variety, although less well-known than the sweet Tokaji wines, tend to be very similar to those made from the Riesling variety and offer notes of citrus with smoky and spicy nuances, making them perfect to enjoy with Asian dishes, chicken or fish.
“Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum”
You cannot talk about Hungary without mentioning the “wine of kings, the king of wines”: Tokaji sweet wine. This gem of the winemaking world is made in the Tokaj region from grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as “noble rot.” This fungus causes the berries to become dehydrated, the sugars in the pulp to concentrate and the grape skins to dry out.
Dry white wines are also made In the Tokaj region, so you have to know how to tell the difference. Those made with noble rot grapes are given the name ‘aszú’ meaning ‘dry’, and they are usually made with the Furmint and Hárslevelü varieties. The amount used to make a wine is calculated in ‘puttonyos’.
The word puttonyo or puttony is the name of the basket that was used to store the botrytised grape pulp that was added to each barrel to make this sweet wine. These baskets have a capacity of 25 kilos and the more puttonyos a wine contains, the sweeter it is.
Tokaji Aszú Eszencia wines contain the highest number of puttonyos, 7 in total, which almost makes them a delicious, beautifully complex nectar with surprising acidity despite the sweetness. In short, this is an elixir worthy of royalty.
Taking all of this into account, Hungary offers a broad range of wine to experience. Why not try some of these:
4 Hungarian wines to whet your appetite
Szent Tamás Mád is the perfect introduction to Hungarian dry white wines. Made with the country’s leading variety, the Furmint, this is the more modern face of the work of young winemakers like István Szepsi Jr, who runs the Szent Tamás winery and who has made this delicious fresh and herbal white wine with a beautiful mineral touch. What are you waiting for? Try it now!
From the same winery as the previous wine, we would recommend Szent Tamás Nyulaszo to discover the virtues of the country’s two leading white varieties, Furmint and Hérslevelü, at their most elegant. This white wine has a subtle influence from its barrel aging that gives it a silky mid-palate accompanied by citrus and floral flavours. It also has great aging potential.
We are on a journey towards Hungary’s best known wines, their sweet wines, but Disznókö Tokaji Late Harvest is a subtle stop on our trip. This wine is made in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region with Furmint grape variety that are harvested late and then a minimal amount of botrytis cinerea-affected grapes are added. This results in a slightly sweet wine that retains a lot of liveliness and freshness and is a great introduction to Tokaji wines.
With Tokaji Oremus Aszú 3 Puttonyos, we take a deep dive into the world of the exquisite Tokaji sweet wines. It is made by the Oremus winery, which belongs to the Tempos Vega Sicilia group, an indisputable guarantee of quality. This is a sweet wine that combines aromas of tropical fruits with floral, honey and balsamic notes. A delicious treat that is not to be missed.
With Château Dereszla Aszú Eszencia, we reach the pinnacle of Aszú Tokaji sweet wines. This wine is practically a nectar, and as the name suggests, it is the pure essence of the elixir produced by vinifying grapes affected by “noble rot.” An exquisite wine that is dense, but with an acidity that brings freshness. A luxury that must be tried at least once in your life. There is good reason it is know as the “Wine of kings, king of wines.”
This is just a glimpse of what Hungarian wines have to offer. They are undoubtedly one of the best kept secrets in Central Europe, with great qualities still to be discovered and enjoyed.
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