Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Hungary Beyond Tokaji

By Amanda Schuster

Hungarian wine. It's always sweet, right?

Yes, most of the wines we know from Hungary are the Tokaji (pronounced "toke eye") dessert wines. But these days there's so much more good juice to be had from there. Stuff you'd be happy to sip with a steak dinner. And sure, things you'd want to drink after too.

Hungarian wine has an exciting, juicy history. It has ancient origins, dating back to at least the 5th century, when the Romans occupied the land then known as Pannonia. Since the Romans had already done the work setting up the vineyards, the violent tribes that moved in later had more time for conquering and pillaging. Wine ended up being an integral part of that too - the Huns, the Magyars, and other tribes who migrated into the country had a "Blood Treaty" ritual, dripping blood into wine and drinking it to seal pacts like the manly men they were. Sadly, the Mongols ruined all the fun in the 13th century, and their invasion laid waste to much of the cultivated land.

King Bela IV finally brought peace to Hungary, and made it a priority to rebuild the vineyards. He invited people from other countries to bring in vines, creating what would become a new, diverse wine culture. The towns Sopron and Eger became known for their high quality wines which were exported throughout Europe by the end of his rule in 1270, and Hungarian kings continued to emphasize wine production through various edicts. By the time of the 15th century rule of King Matthias Corvinus, Hungary had developed into a flourishing source of wines, and this is when Tokaji is first mentioned in written history.

Wine production again suffered for a time when Hungary was under Turkish rule into the 17th century, with strict Muslim law forbidding alcohol consumption. Only a few small districts were able to continue, but always looking over their collective shoulders. In the 1630s, the serendipitous discovery of the condition known as Botrytis cinerea, or "noble rot" happened, as legend tells it, when a vineyard was temporarily abandoned during the harvest for fear of Turkish invaders. When the vintner returned, he discovered the condition on the grapes, but pressed the wine anyway, with delicious results. By the end of the 17th century (and the end of Ottoman rule), the wine became such an international success that Hungarian Prince Rakoczi was compelled to classify the vineyard sites. Also under this "vine law", rules were established for vine training, irrigation techniques, and cultivation practices.

The Phylloxera crisis was another devastating blow to Hungary, as it was in much of the world. Many of the traditional grapes died, and once replanting efforts went into effect, many of these were forsaken for more trendy and easier to grow grapes such as Bordeaux varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc), Blaufrankisch (here called Kékfrankos) and Zweigelt for reds. White wines were mostly limited to the Tokaji varietals - Muscat, Furmint, and Hárslevelű. But these poor Hungarian vineyards couldn't seem to catch a break! Many were destroyed during the World Wars, and during the age of Communism, wine production became hasty and industrial at best. It wasn't until the late 1980s that producers once again turned to higher quality and working with traditional Hungarian varietals.

By far, the most famous wine from Hungary today is still Tokaji, which is its own region within Tokaji-Hegyalja in the northeast of the country. Tokaji Aszu, produced from the botrytised trifecta of white grapes mentioned above, is a prized sweet wine with intense richness and aromatics. These wines are labeled in degrees of sweetness and concentration measured in "puttonyos" from four to six. Some of the highest puttonyos Tokaji wines have been known to last decades. Essencia is the highest quality Tokaji, and the most expensive, produced from the precious viscous juice from dried grapes. It can only be produced in very small quantities.

Egri Bikavér is the red wine known as "Bull's Blood". It's is produced all over Hungary, though the best are considered to be from Eger, in the northeast. This is a blend of Hungarian traditional and European international grapes Kadarko, Kékfrankos, Blauburger, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zweigelt, Merlot, and sometimes Syrah and Pinot Noir. The name supposedly comes from the Turks, who considered the locals in Eger so repugnant that they must have the blood of bulls. The name obviously stuck proudly, with a robust wine beloved by generations.

Other traditional grapes found in Hungary are for whites Olasrizling (Welschriesling), Leankya, and the hybrids Irsay Olver, Zefir and Zenit, among many others. Besides the grapes found in Egri Bikavér mentioned above, the most widely planted red grape is Kékoporto (Portugeiser). Growing conditions are also perfect for high quality, balanced, yet affordable Pinot Noir.

There are now twenty-two official wine regions within Hungary, all of which are scattered around the country save for the land farthest east. Wines are produced in every style from dry whites and reds, rosés, sparkling, and sweet. Winemakers produce traditional styles alongside those who have embraced modern techniques, with organic and sustainable practices.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.

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