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Introduction to Hungary

Hungary is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde: it produces some of the world’s best dessert wines, but over half of the country’s production is too poor quality to be exported. Some commentators put this position down to events after Hungary exited from Communism – saying that many native grape types were dug up in favour of common European grape varieties (e.g. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon). However, many local grapes are now being given a new lease of life, with some really interesting wines being produced (grape types such as Welshriesling, Irsai Oliver, Kadarka, Blaufrankisch, Portugieser, Zweigelt).

However, the most important grapes in Hungary are Furmint, Harslevelu and Sarga Muscotaly – the 3 main grapes used to make Tokaji (see below).

Wine regions

Hungary can be split into 3 main regions:

 

The Great Plain

Produces half of Hungary’s total wine output, but is poor quality.

 

Trans-Danubia

Located around Lake Balaton. Produces some interesting wines. Unlike the Great Plain, the area is protected from the weather by hills and grows in volcanic soils which give great body to the wine.

 

Northern Hungary

The most famous region in Hungary because it contains the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja. Although this region produces dry wines (made from 100% Furmint grape), it is the ‘special’ wines that make it famous. These wines come in 50cl bottles (aka “dump bottles”) and are made from botrytised grapes – grapes which, due to rot, have lost much of their water content therefore making them much sweeter. While many now know about this gem, most do not know that it comes in 3 forms:

 

Tokaji Szamorodni

Meaning “Tokaji as it comes”, this wine is made from a mixture of grapes that may, or may not, have been affected by botrytis. Therefore, these wines may be dry or sweet, depending on the proportion of botrytised grapes used. Some of the flavours generated by botrytis will be present even in dry wines.

Tokaji Aszu

The most famous type of Tokaji. For this version, the botrytised grapes are separated from the healthy grapes. The healthy grapes are made into white wine in the normal way, while the botrytised grapes are dried, then crushed into a paste. This paste is sweet due to the effects of botrytis. The paste is then added to the dry wine to reach the desired level of sweetness. The amount of paste added to the wine is measured in “puttonyos”: the higher the number, the sweeter the wine (up to 6 puttonyos). The wine is then aged for between 3 and 6 years. These wines are sticky, luxurious, deep amber-coloured wines, with intense aromas and flavours of apricots, honey, orange marmalade, and are the perfect accompaniment to rich chocolate puddings. Waitrose sells a good entry level Royal Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos for just over £10.

Wine history fact: The term “puttonyos” originates from the shovel-like tool used to add the paste: 3 shovels resulted in a 3 puttonyos wine. However, in our more scientific age, puttonyos now relates to the level of sugar left in the finished wine.

Aszu Essencia

These are Tokaji Aszu wines that have been made in exceptionally good years, from the best vineyards, and exceed 6 puttonyos in sweetness. They have incredibly intense flavours and the ability to age longer than human beings!