Wine of Kings and the King of Wines
The most well-known and important wine in Hungary is Tokay-Aszú, truly one of the world's greatest sweet wines. Louis XIV – France's Sun King – once called the wine, "vinum regum, rex vinorum," translated as, "the wine of kings and the king of wine." Unfortunately, the king of wine suffered during Hungary's 50-year communist regime - exports of Tokay-Aszú decreased and the vineyards were nationalized with a focus on lower quality and higher quantity. When the communist government fell in 1989, the vines for making Tokay-Aszú were in a state of disrepair. With the help of investors and the creation of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, the Hungarian vineyards and wine industry were rebuilt.
While Tokay-Aszú is the most important and most imported of Hungarian wines, it only represents about 10% of the total wine produced. The rest of Hungary is spotted with over 20 different wine regions, most cultivating both the indigenous varieties of the country and several international varieties that arrived with the post-communism investors. In the whites, the indigenous variety of Furmint plays double duty, making still white wines and remaining the most crucial grape in the Tokay blend. Other indigenous varieties include Hárslevelú, Olaszrizling (Welschriesling) and Irsai Oliver, a newcomer that produces delicious dry whites. The international varieties of Chardonnay
, Sauvignon Blanc
, and Muscat
also play a role. For reds, Merlot
is the most popular of the international crowd, while on the indigenous side you have Kadarka and Kékfrankos (the Hungarian name for Austria's Blaufränkisch).
Tokay is the English word for Tokaji, which is the name for the wine produced in the Hungarian region of Tokaj. The region produces both dry and sweet wines, but is most famed for the rich sweet wine called Tokay Aszú. Like Sauternes and sweet German wines, Tokay Aszú is made from grapes (mainly Furmint, with some Harslevelu and
occasionally a bit of Muscat) affected by the famed mold, botrytis cinerea. It is of interest to note, however, that Tokay Aszú was made centuries before the Germans or the French discovered the rich, honeyed effect of the noble rot.
To make Tokay-Aszú is a process:
Two sets of grapes are picked – first, the workers scan the fields, picking the Aszu grapes - those affected by botrytis. These grapes are then gently pressed to make an Aszú paste. Grapes not affected by botrytis are then picked and fermented into a high-acid base wine.
Once both the paste and the still wines are complete, the two are combined. The Aszú paste is added to the base wine in amounts referred to as puttonyos (puh-TOON-yohsz). The higher the puttonyos, the sweeter the wine. Most Tokay-Aszú on the market is between 3 puttonyos and 6 puttonyos.
Beyond 6 puttonyos is Tokay Aszú Essencia. Tokay Aszú Essencia is equal in sweetness to about 7 puttonyos, and is made in only the best years from the best vineyards.