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 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 12, October 2003   
HungaryHungary  Contents 
Issue 11, September 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 13, November 2003


Centuries of history based on an extraordinary wine, Tokaji Aszú, have made this country one of the best producers of sweet wines of the world

 Whenever there is a talk about the countries which made the history of wine in the world, in particular those wines which were preferred by noblemen of the many European countries and kept their fame and glory unchanged up to nowadays, Hungary certainly is one of them. The charm and elegance of one of its most renowned wines, Tokaji Aszú, known everywhere in the world written as Tokay Aszu, has been, and still is, an example of absolute greatness to which few persons are indifferent to. No matter it was Tokaji Aszú the wine to make Hungary famous in the world, its production is now just 4% of total, in the country are also produced dry wines, mainly whites, both with local grapes and international ones.

 The first historical witnesses about the cultivation of grape and the production of wine in Hungary are dated back to Roman times, when the territory where it is today located this country, was part of the Roman province of Pannonia which also included part of today's Austria. When Magyar tribes, the people which Hungarians descend from, arrived in these lands at the end of the ninth century, they found many vineyards and local people had a good knowledge about vinification techniques and therefore wine and culture of vine continued to develop. Later, during the kingdom of Bela IV, around the half of 1200's, the production of wine was considered very important. After the invasions of Mongols in 1241, king Bela IV started to rebuild Hungary and he payed particular attention on vineyards and to the production of wine. In order to succeed in that, he particularly favored everyone who had a good knowledge about wine making and that wanted to help in restoring vineyards in every devastated area. Results were very positive and at the end of his kingdom there were huge quantities of wine exported from the cities of Eger and Sopron.


 Nevertheless it will be Tokaj's wine (Tokay) to make Hungary famous in Europe. The first evidence about this wine is dated back to the end of fifteenth century, and it is likely at those times it was produced as dry. It was only in the seventeenth century Tokaji Aszú acquired the fame and prestige it certainly deserved. In 1641 was emanated the first law regulating the production of this wine in the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja and it set norms about the selection of places where vineyards could be planted, norms on how to build terraces, irrigation systems, manuring and cultivation as well as periods in which this practices should be done. Works in the vineyards were to be completed within the 20th of August, whereas the official harvesting date was on the 28th of October. Moreover in 1660 was discovered the so called noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea) and its effects on wine production and therefore special laws were set for the production of Tokaji Aszú.

 The fame and notoriety of Tokaji Aszú began to spread when in France arrived at the court of king Louis XIV, some bottles of this wine presented as a gift by Ferenc Rákóczi, in the hope of obtaining support and help for the independence of Hungary. The wine was so appreciated that soon became famous everywhere in Europe and considered as the best sweet wine. The production of this wine was suddenly interrupted in 1870 because of phylloxera that here, as well as everywhere else, devastated vineyards. It was only in 1881 they started to plant new vines resistant to phylloxera and the production of wine resumed its development.

 In 1947, with the advent of the communist monopoly system, the historical National Association of Hungarian Viticulturists and of Wine Communities, established in 1830 with the goal of experimenting and researching in order to improve the wine industry and to promote its development, was forced to suspend its activity and the production of wine passed under the control of the State. The production and trading of wine, produced in huge quantities and very low quality, was mainly controlled by the monopoly system and most of the wine was generally exported in the former Soviet Union. Hungarian enology experienced a long recession period characterized by scarce technology and low quality, the fame and prestige of its renowned Tokaji Aszú was vanished in a very short time.

 At the end of the communist era and the subsequent establishment of democracy, Hungarian enology resumed its development also thanks to the arrive of foreign investors who bought wineries and resumed wine production while introducing new and modern wine technologies, aware of the huge possibilities the country could offer in the wine production. The interest of new investors was particularly focused on the production of Tokaji Aszú and today, despite the fact production techniques has been slightly changed, this wine is rightly acquiring again that fame and prestige it had in the past centuries.


Hungarian Quality System

 The current Hungarian quality system is regulated by laws emanated in 1990 which replaced the ones set in 1970. Current laws are mainly based on directives emanated by the European Union. The last revision of wine laws in the country was in 1997 and, in certain aspects, the system is similar to French's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. Hungarian laws define wine regions and their boundaries, allowed grape species, cultivation and vinification techniques and procedures, as well as mandatory information to be written on labels.


Production Areas

 Wine production in Hungary is mainly about white wine and, despite the fact most of the wine is produced in regions located in the southern part of the country, the most important productions are from regions located to the north. The wine regions of the country are currently 22 and only eight of them are considered as important, both for historical reasons and for quality. Undoubtedly the most prestigious and famous one of them all is Tokaj-Hegyalja region, where the renowned Tokaji Aszú is produced, located to the north-eastern part of the country, bordering Slovakia. In this region, besides the famous sweet wine, is also produced white dry wine mainly with Furmint, Hárslevelü and Muscat Lunel grapes, the same used for Aszú. Among the most interesting wines produced in this region are to be mentioned late harvests wines and Szamorodni, literally meaning “as it comes”, produced with grapes not sufficiently affected by noble rot and therefore not suited for the production of Aszú. Szamorodni is produced as dry (száraz) or sweet (édes). The other seven wine regions include, to the north of the country, Eger and Mátra Foothills, to the west, near Balaton Lake, Somló and Badacsony, and to the south, Alföld (great plains), Szekszárd and Villány-Siklós. In Hungary are cultivated autochthonous grapes as well as “international” grapes. Among international white berried grapes, the most common ones are Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, whereas for red berried grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir. In the country are also present many species considered autochthonous as well as other grapes common in many countries of Central Europe. Among white berried grapes are cultivated Furmint, Hárslevelü, Kéknyelü, Muscat Lunel (the name used here to refer to muscat blanc à petit grains), Olaszrizling (Welschriesling), Orémus, Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris) and Tramini (Gewürztraminer). Red berried grapes include Kadarka, Kékfrankos (name used here to refer to Blaufränkisch), Kékoporto and Zweigelt.


 The region of Eger is pretty famous thanks to the production of a red dry wine, Egri Bikavér (literally “bull's blood of Eger”) mainly produced with Kékfrankos grape and sometimes Kadarka as well. The name of this wine originates from a legend of the half of 1500's. It seems that during Turk's siege to the fortress of Eger, Magyars, while they were trying to repel the enemy's attack and fighting with particular fierce, they drunk huge quantities of red wine in order to withstand to battle's efforts. The legend goes that when Turks faced Magyar warriors having their beards stained of red, they thought their fierce and skill in the battle was because they drunk bull's blood and, scared by that, they retreated. The region of Eger also produces light red wines, although it is Egri Bikavér the most famous one, not only in this region, but also in all Hungary. In the region of Mátra Foothills, as opposed to Eger, is mainly produced white wine, sometimes of good quality, with Olaszrizling, Muscat Lunel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes.

 In the region of Somló, among the tiniest wine areas of the country, are being produced white wines according to Hungarian traditional techniques, with long aging times in cask and sometimes also oxidized. No matter these wines are pretty “unusual” and certainly different from what modern taste would expect from a modern white wine, in Hungary they are considered as very typical products to be perfectly matched to local foods. In the Badacsony region, in the northern part of the Balaton Lake, are mainly produced white wines with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Szürkebarát and Olaszrizling grapes. The region of Alföld, the largest wine area of the country, are found more than the half of Hungarian vineyards and production is mainly about huge quantities of coarse wines mainly produced with Chardonnay and Merlot grape. The region of Szekszárd, considered as one of the most important of the country, mainly produces red wines, certainly to be considered among the best ones of the country. The main grape of the region is Kadarka, however there also are international grapes. Even the region of Villány-Siklós, the most southern of them all, is an excellent red wine producer, to be considered among the best ones of the country. The production makes use of local grapes, such as Kékfrankos, Kékoporto and Zweigelt, as well as international grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Among the regions producing dry wine, Szekszárd and Villány-Siklós are to be considered as the most advanced ones according to a technological point of view; in these two regions producers often make use of barriques and modern equipments, producing wines that meet the modern taste the most.


Tokaji Aszú (Tokay Aszu)

 The wine which best represents Hungary and of which Hungarians, rightly, are proud of, is certainly Tokaji Aszú, or Tokay Aszu, as it is often written outside Hungary. For many centuries this wine has been considered among the best wines of the world, preferred by the majority of noble courts of Europe. The zar of Russia Peter the Great even had an army detached in the region of Tokay which was in charge to get and escort to the court sufficient quantities of Tokaji Aszú. King of France Louis XIV defined this wine as “vinum regum, rex vinorum”, that is “wine of the kings, king of wines”. For many centuries Tokaji Aszú worthily rivaled with the famed French's Sauternes, the renowned Constantia from South Africa and sweet wines from Germany and Austria, and what it is absolutely certain is that Tokaji Aszú is the best and most extraordinary wine produced in Eastern Europe.

 After the inevitable decline, just like other European countries, because of the fearful phylloxera which destroyed vineyards, as well as devastations caused by the two world wars and, lastly, the era of the communist regime which monopolized the production of wine, it is from about ten years this extraordinary wine is reviving the great glory of the past. Thanks to the investments of foreign companies and to the advent of democracy in the country, viticulture was reorganized and its development is so rapid and convincing that in the forthcoming years it is easy to think about a high quality production of Hungarian wine, as a matter of fact, the Tokaji Aszú currently produced is to be considered as a wine of extraordinary quality.

 The wine is produced in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region and “Aszú” is the term used in Hungary to refer to “dried grapes affected by noble rot”, whereas “Tokaji” simply means something, in this case wines, from Tokaj. Tokaji Aszú has been defined in the course of centuries as the “Sauternes of Eastern Europe”, however this definition is certainly inadequate, because it was in this very region where a wine produced with grapes affected by noble rot was produced for the first time in the history of enology. As it frequently happens, the most sensational discoveries of humans are the result of lucky conditions or mistakes and Tokaji Aszú was no exception to this rule. The tradition of sweet wine production is widely documented by witnesses which are dated back to the middle age. Around the half of the seventeenth century a priest, Máté Szepsi Laczkó, began experimenting with Furmint grape, an autochthonous Hungarian grape. At one point the priest decided to experiment the drying of grapes on the vine and, unfortunately, or luckily, at the moment of harvesting, one of the many incursions of Turks in the territory took place. Hungarians were forced to take arms and to forget about their daily activities, including harvesting. When they returned back, at the end of autumn, the grapes were dried and mouldy. Szepsi Laczkó did not lose confidence and decided to harvest those mouldy grapes anyway and with the little must he could make from them produced some wine, soon after he was surprised by the extraordinary taste and the rich aromas of that wine. The priest then decided to add this nectar to a regular dry wine he produced the year before and therefore he gave origin to a myth still alive nowadays. Tokaji Aszú was born.

 The main grape used for the production of this wine is Furmint to which is usually added Hárslevelü and Muscat Lunel, and since about ten years, the Orémus grape is added as well, a crossing between Furmint and Bouvier. The essential condition for the production of Tokaji Aszú is the presence of noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea) in the grapes, and the development is ensured by the favorable climatic and environmental conditions of the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, in particular near the city of Tokaj.

 The production of the wine is amazing and laborious at the same time. The process begins with harvesting, berry by berry, the grapes affected by noble rot and they are promptly sent to the winery in order to be pressed and reduced in a paste. The rest of the grapes not affected by noble rot are harvested and used to make a dry wine that will be used as a base wine. At this point begins the creation of the real and proper Tokaji Aszú and the final product is determined by the quantity of “Aszú paste” added to the base wine which is measured in puttonyos. The puttony is the traditional basket used for harvesting Aszú grapes and contains about 25 kilograms of grapes (about 55 lbs.), equivalent to about 20 liters of Aszú paste (5.2 gallons). The number of puttonyos added to the base wine determines the sweetness of the final wine. The preparation is usually made in gönci, traditional casks having a capacity of 136 liters (about 35.9 gallons), where base wine and Aszú paste are blended together. The number written in Tokaji Aszú's label indicates the number of puttonyos added to the gönci. A Tokaji Aszú 4 puttonyos is therefore produced with about 100 liters of Aszú paste (26.4 gallons) and about 36 liters of base wine (9.5 gallons). The highest number of puttonyos for the production of this wine is 6 which is capable of producing an extremely sweet wine, however, thanks to the natural acidity of Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes, the balance is always excellent and not sickly at all.

TypeResidual Sugar
3 puttonyos6 - 9%
4 puttonyos9 - 12%
5 puttonyos12 - 15%
6 puttonyos15 - 18%
Tokaji Aszú EszenciaMore than 18%
Tokaji Eszencia40 - 70%
Sweetness levels of Tokaji wines

 Currently Tokaji Aszú is produced in steel tanks instead of wood casks and the number of puttonyos is determined according to the quantity of residual sugar, as shown in table . The period of time in which Aszú paste remains in contact with wine depends by the quantity added and its concentration: usually this time goes from eight hours to three days. At the end of this process the wine is separated from Aszú paste and fermentation begins in historical caves dug underground, very moist, cold and with sides perennially covered by mould. In these conditions fermentation can last months and even years thanks to the low temperature and to the high quantities of sugar present in the wine. Tokaji Aszú must age, according to law, for at least two years in oak casks and for at least one year in bottle before being commercialized. Tokaji Aszú is traditionally sold in typical Hungarian bottles made of transparent glass and with a capacity of 500 ml (16.9 fl.oz.). According to the choices made by producers, during the aging in casks, the ullage can be high and therefore leaving the cask level low while favoring the formation of a bacterial and yeast layer which develops on the wine's surface. This layer, comparable to the so called “flor” essential in Spanish Jerez, contribute to the preservation of wine while giving it an evident complex character.

 Tokaji wines are magnificently completed by two other types, considered as real rarities, great sensorial experiences: Tokaji Eszencia and Tokaji Aszú Eszencia, often written as Essencia or Essence. Between the two, Tokaji Eszencia is the most looked for and complex one, as well as the most expensive of them all. In particularly favorable years, Aszú grapes are left in tanks and the must is uniquely the result of the weight of the grapes themselves and having an incredible quantity of sugar of more than 45%. This pure essence of grapes is so rich in sugar that even yeasts have some difficulties during fermentation; the process is extremely slow and sometimes the wine does not ferment at all. The fermentation is so slow that these wines usually have alcohol by volume from 2 to 5%. Tokaji Eszencia is an explosion of aromas and flavors, with persistences reaching incredible levels. Tokaji Aszú Eszencia is produced by adding a Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos to Tokaji Eszencia. The result is an extraordinary wine, rare and produced only in the best years. According to law Tokaji Aszú Eszencia must be aged for at least five years of which at least three in cask.


 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 12, October 2003   
HungaryHungary  Contents 
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