Quite simply, the scourge of Communism is the main reason why Hungarian wines are not adored and treasured in the Western world. When Hungary was freed from Communist control in 1989, the country's indigenous wine culture, which has been traced to Roman times, immediately reasserted itself. Today the most famous wines of Hungary are sweet, but demand is rising for the country's dry table wines.
The Land and the Grapes
Hungary possesses a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. Without hot summers, grapes fail to ripen properly. The best growing regions in Hungary, such as the area around the town of Eger, northeast of Budapest, have well-draining volcanic soils which help concentrate grape flavor.
Hungarian winemakers have experience growing and producing wine from international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but many take pride in working with native varieties such as Harslevelu (white), Kadarka (red) and Kekoporto (red). The most famous Hungarian grape variety by far is Furmint (white), which has the acidity to make solid dry table wines but also the country's most prized sweet wines.
One of Hungary's best known red wines is playfully called Bull's Blood. In the mid-1500s, outnumbered defenders of the town of Eger drank copious amounts of red wine as they fought invading Turks, so that their beards became stained. When the Turks saw this, they fled in fear, thinking their opponents' ferocity came from drinking the blood of bulls!
The Romance of Tokay Aszu
Tokay is the English spelling of Tokaji, a region about one-third the size of Napa Valley located about 120 miles northeast of Budapest. Aszu is the word for shriveled grapes, which may not sound terribly appetizing when it comes to wine. Tokay Aszu is the name of a lusciously sweet wine made largely from Furmint grapes which have shriveled on the vine thanks to Botrytis cinerea, a fungus which dehydrates the grapes and leaves an incredibly concentrated, sugar-laden juice behind.
How was Tokay Aszu discovered?
According to legend, in the mid-1600s a priest named Mate Szepsi Laczko was experimenting with letting grapes raisinate on the vine. Then the Turks suddenly invaded, and everyone fled. When they returned, the grapes were rotten, but they were picked anyway. The sweet juice was added to other wine, and voila!
Thanks to the high sugar content, fermentation of this juice proceeds very slowly, but the wines are worth the wait. Were it not for the Furmint grape's naturally high acidity, drinking Tokay would be like drinking grape syrup, but instead the wine is well balanced and not cloying.
Tokay wines are among the world's most hedonistic, and some sell for stratospherically high prices. In fact, in the late 1600s Czar Peter the Great of Russia began stationing troops in Tokay to make sure that plenty of the precious nectar made it to the royal court.