The Re-Emergence of Hungarian Wines

Hungary has a wealth of native and international grape varieties and plenty of land suited to vineyards, with a wide range of climates, soils, and altitudes. Hungary's winemaking tradition dates back to pre-Roman times.

Hungary's wine consumption has increased significantly since the country gained independence from Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueling an improvement in wine quality. International investment in vineyards and wineries has also made a huge contribution.

Hungarian wine regions

Hungary produces the equivalent of about 68 million cases of wine a year, most of which is white. Although the country is northerly, its climate is relatively warm because the country is landlocked and nearly surrounded by mountains. Hungary has 22 official wine regions, but their names are not yet particularly important outside Hungary.

The one Hungarian wine region that does have international fame is Tokaj-Hegyalja, which takes its name from the town of Tokaj and owes its reputation to its world-class dessert wine, Tokaji Azsu. The word Aszu refers to botrytised grapes. The wine comes from Furmint and Harslevelu grapes, both native white varieties, and sometimes Muscat grapes. This region also makes dry table wines, such as the varietal Tokaji Furmint.

Tokaji Azsu wines are labeled as three, four, five, or six Puttonyos, according to their sweetness, with six Puttonyos wines being the sweetest. (Puttonyos are baskets used to harvest the botrytised grapes, as well as a measure of sweetness.) All Tokaji Azsu wines sell in 500 ml bottles, and they range in price from about $35 to $150 per bottle, depending on their sweetness level.

Beyond the famous Tokaj-Hegyalja region, Hungary has numerous other wine regions that produce a range of dry and semi-dry wines, both white and red, Most of these wines are named for their grape variety and are quite inexpensive. Kadarka is Hungary’s best-known native red grape variety.

Hungarian wine production

Tokaji Azsu wines vary not only according to their sweetness, but also according to their style. Some wines have fresher, more vibrant fruity character, for example; some have aromas and flavors that suggest dried fruits; some have the smoky character and tannin of new oak barrels; and some have complex non-fruity notes such as tea leaves or chocolate. This range of styles is due mainly to different winemaking techniques among producers.

Tokaji Azsu has a complicated production method that involves using a certain amount of botrytised grapes (which are compressed into a paste of sorts) as well as healthy, non-moldy grapes; the more moldy grapes that are used, the sweeter the wine.

Some of the issues that Hungarian winemakers differ on — besides the normal issues of grape blend — include:

  • What the botrytised grapes soak in to create the liquid that then ferments into the final wine: partially-fermented wine or simply juice (in either case, from non-moldy grapes)

  • Whether the wine should mature in new or old oak barrels

  • Whether the wine should be exposed to oxygen during aging (by leaving airspace in the barrels)

Hungary is now a member of the European Union, and its categories of wine therefore resemble those of EU countries. Wines at the highest level are classified as Minosegi Bor, followed by Tájbor (country wine) and Asztali Bor (table wine).

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