Wine of kings and king of wines

The most famous wine from Hungary has a long and valued tradition. For publication in week starting Monday 21 March 2016.

Hungary’s most famous wine, Tokaj, is made in the north-east corner of the country in the region known as Tokaj. For centuries tokaj wine was considered one of the world’s great drinks. King Louis XIV of France famously pronounced it to be the “wine of kings, and king of wines”.

For centuries it was the world’s most expensive sweet wine, made by a process known as “noble rot” or botrytis. Records dated as early as 1650 show its high reputation well before botrytised wines were made in Sauternes and the Rheingau, the birthplaces respectively of great sweet wines in France and Germany.

The Tokaj region has long and warm autumns with mists that foster the fungus that dehydrates grapes, producing concentrated juice.The Hungarian word for botrytised grapes is “aszú” and you will see this on labels. Berries are individually picked as late as mid-November in buckets known as “puttony” and crushed into a paste. This paste is added to grape juice made from a mix of Furmint, Muscat Blanc and sometimes Zeta grapes.

Traditionally tokaj wines are aged in a similar way to sherry under a film of yeast, in partly filled barrels in cellars cut into the soft volcanic rock of the region known as tuff. Thick blankets of fungus in the cellars regulate temperatures and humidity. Wine guru Jancis Robinson MW notes that some modern producers make their wines in a less oxidative style resulting in “much debate as to which style or exact method of winemaking is more traditional or desirable”.

Tokaj ranges from dry to very sweet and has a range of labels. Szamorodni refers to wines made without noble rot and can be dry or sweet. They are usually made from whole bunches.

Botrytis affected wines are labeled “aszú” with 5 or 6 puttonyos to describe the level of sweetness. A puttony refers to the Hungarian measure for the sweetness of the grape paste before the slow second fermentation, with 6 the sweetest and generally the most expensive.

A rare and expensive form of tokai known as Esszencia is made from tiny amounts of free-run juice from botrytised grapes used to make the aszú paste. Yeasts work slowly because the sugar content is so high, and these wines continue to ferment in cask for years. Alcohol levels are low.

The Romans brought wine to Hungary and by the fifth century after Christ official records showed extensive vineyards throughout the country. Hungary currently has about 64,000 hectares under vine in 22 regions. About two in three bottles produced are white. TheTokaj region has about 5,300 hectares of vines.

Some Tokaj producers have started to make dry wines because prices for sweet wines vary considerably. They mostly use the region’s main grape variety, Furmint. These wines can be delightful, and are also age-worthy.

A tasting in London this month of Hungarian wines showed how the industry has developed in recent years. While Tokaj aszu will always be king, some Hungarian dry wines impressed. First we need to consider the naming and labeling system, which can be confusing to the uninitiated. Olaszrizling is the Hungarian equivalent of Welschriesling in nearby Austria and it grows in all 22 regions except Tokaj. Szürkebarátis is the Hungarian name for France’s Pinot Gris and means “gray friar,” in honour of the Burgundy monks who first cultivated it; Tramini is Traminer.

Kadarka was once Hungary’s signature red grape and is still found in most regions, but growers have increasingly planted internationally varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. A Serbian tribe called the Rac are believed to have introduced Kadarka in the sixteenth century. It is typically high in acid and low in tannin with chocolate and cherry notes, and is one of the few red grapes made into aszu wine.

Kékfrankos is sometimes called Nagyburgundi. It makes fine wines with hints of pepper and cherries. Kékoportó is an early-ripening variety with low acid and soft tannins offering floral aromas.

Two of the outstanding Tokaj aszu at the London tasting included the 1998 Orosz Gabor 6 puttonyos and the Barta 2010 6 puttonyos. The former had wondrous length, like rich marmalade on burnt toast plus a subtle oak influence like expensive lingerie made from the beautiful lace in Hungary. The oak provided vanilla tang. The 1998 was amber in colour yet could still be drinking well in 30-40 years.

The other wine is young but showed magnificently, its flavours lingering for what seemed like an eternity. It is only 9 per cent alcohol, making it a wine one could drink over an entire evening without any next-day regrets. The integration of acid and fruit was quite remarkable and it is a bargain compared with a Sauternes. This is another wine that would last for decades.

Laszlo Szeremley of Szeremley Birtok (estate in English) presented some of his wines. The estate is near Lake Balaton, the biggest lake in Central Europe. Winemaking started there in Roman times. The Szeremley 2015 Olaszrizling was fresh and zingy. This late ripening variety gets lots sun near the end of harvest in September but is only 12 per cent alcohol.

The 2014 Szeremley Rizling was another delicate, fresh and fruity wine, a blend of 66 per cent Olaszrizling with the balance Rhine Riesling. It is aged in old 2000-litre oak barrels for six months. The oak balances the wine’s natural mineral streak.

The 2014 Szeremley Kékfrankos is a well-balanced red with plenty of acid zing and a grapefruit tang, plus delicate aromas of dried rose petals. The 2006 Szeremley Kékfrankos shows how this wine and grape variety ages. It offered a more intense nose of those same rose petals with a pale hue in the glass liked an aged pinot.

Words: 931

Categories: Hungary, Not home, wine

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