What do you know about the wines of Hungary? Well, if you’re like me, the answer would be, ‘Not very much, but ooh, TOKAJI!’
Tokaji (pronounced Tok-eye, which is also the same way you pronounce the region ‘Tokaj’) was one of my favourite discoveries of last year. Like all of its fans, I was wowed by the combination of intense sweetness and an incredible acidity, which makes this luscious wine surprisingly refreshing and so unbelievably moreish.
There are different styles of Tokaji – not just the Aszu style, which most Tokaji fans will be familiar with – but also Eszencia and Late Harvest Tokaji. Azsu has been made in Tokaj for 450 years and it is the most famous style because it’s made in a unique way, involving noble rot grapes (shrivelled and partially decayed wine grapes that have really sweet and concentrated flavours) being added to a dry white base wine during or after the fermentation process. After oak ageing, the resulting flavours are a concentrated medley of honey, apricots and orange peel – a heady mix that keeps Tokaji Aszu drinkers returning, sip after sip.
Tokaji Eszencia is somewhat the stuff of myths and legends to me, as these wines are extremely rare and are seldom available outside the region of production. ‘Eszencia’ means ‘essence’ or ‘nectar’ and it refers to the pure free-run juice of the aszu berries (the shrivelled noble rot grapes). It’s like syrup and is slow-fermented for years (it can be aged for over a hundred years!) and even then it only reaches 5% ABV, but retains its balance of sweetness and acidity, keeping its fresh, concentrated flavour. Crazy!
The other style of Tokaji is Late Harvest, which is a more modern style of Hungarian wine. Instead of macerating the noble rot grapes in a dry base wine, like in the Aszu style, Late Harvest is made with bunches of grapes that have spent an extended time on the vine (so that they are sweeter and have more developed, intense flavours; some of them might have noble rot), which are then crushed, pressed and fermented together. Typically, these wines are matured for less time than Aszu wines, keeping them light, fresh and fruity.
I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a bottle of Late Harvest Tokaj from the Tokaj-Hétszőlő Imperial Estate and I found it to be similar to an off-dry aromatic Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Made with shrivelled grapes that aren’t affected by noble rot (making it a fresher style), it had a gorgeously floral nose of elderflower and blossom and zingy notes of citrus and tropical fruits on the palate. I thought it went fantastically well with curry (especially the curries I like, which are on the sweet side) and could also be a great match with sweet and sour dishes.
The grape varieties used to make Tokaji are Furmint, Harslevelu and Sarga Muskotaly – Furmint being the principal grape. Known as the “wine of kings and king of wines” Furmint is Hungary’s flagship grape variety and its amazing diversity makes it pretty exceptional. Late ripening, Furmint makes concentrated, high acid wines with flavours of apples and pears. As it is very susceptible to noble rot, honey and nut aromas will develop, but it always maintains a fantastic acidity as a sweet wine.
Furmint has been gaining more and more recognition in the UK and a tasting at 67 Pall Mall at the end of January introduced sixty Furmint wines from twenty producers to the industry. Throughout February, there have been events and dinners promoting the grape and its place of origin in the picturesque foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, which sounds like it would be a stunning location for a wine holiday. Strolling around the beautiful vineyards, exploring the centuries-old cellars – yes please! I hear that Wine A’More do amazing tours (I met them at UK Wine Hour – so lovely!) that involve Tokaji tasting, as well as tastings of the drier Furmint wines in an organised gourmet wine dinner. It would be incredible to taste these intriguing Hungarian wines in such gorgeous and rustic surroundings.
For now, tasting at the kitchen table will have to suffice, but I heartily recommend to take your tastebuds on a journey of Hungarian wines, starting with glorious Tokaji.