10 Best Sweet Hungarian Wines
The sweet wines of Hungary are synonymous with the famous vineyard Tokaji-Hegyalija or, in short, Tokay.
The vineyard has been famous for at least 400 years for its ‘nectar’, appreciated and compared by many connoisseurs with the wines of Sauternes, Constantia, and with the Trockenbeerenauslese style.
It was the unique climate that helped the making of the first dessert wine in history obtained from grapes ‘touched’ by noble rot (botrytis cinerea), which definitively changed the history of European wine.
History of the Tokaji Region
Named by King Louis XIV ‘the wine of kings, the king of wines’ and even mentioned in the official anthem of Hungary, the wine of this region has an older tradition than champagne, the first sources being mentioned around 1630.
However, viticulture in the region was most likely introduced by the Italians in the town of Olaszliszka (‘olasz’ meaning ‘Italian’) in the 13th century. But around 1630, Szepsy Lackó Máté, the chaplain of the famous Rakoczi family, created the famous Tokaji Aszú, obtained from white grapes late-harvested with noble mold. The recipe was to be revolutionary, because the same system was ‘borrowed’ a hundred years later in Sauternes and two hundred years later in the Rhine region.
In other words, Tokaji is defined by a terroir unique in the world, famous for the conditions that favor noble rot, and the late harvest of raisin grapes, highly concentrated in sugar, acid, and aroma. That is why, by royal decree, the region became the first delimited wine region in the world în 1737, just before the Bordeaux, Burgundy and Porto vineyards.
Over time, this type of wine became the preferred choice of many personalities, whom today we could certainly define as influencers in their line of work. And from the very long list that indirectly endorsed Tokaji, we could list Stephen the Great, Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary Franz Josef.
In the art world, the wine from this unique region inspired composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Johann Strauss, and Franz Liszt. While in the world of writers, Tokaji is mentioned as Mephisto’s favorite sweet choice in Goethe’s Faust, while Bram Stocker mentions him in almost all of his novels.
Terroir and Grape Varieties
Tokaji is located in northeastern Hungary, between the Bodrog and Tisza rivers, near the Zemplén Mountains, at an altitude of almost 450 meters above sea level.
The soil is predominantly volcanic, with high concentrations of iron and limestone, along with gravel and clay. Here the winters are cold with strong winds, the springs are cold and dry, summers are long and warm, while autumns are mild but rainy. This macroclimate favors the development in the region of the noble rot essential for the farming of the grapes.
Today, only three varieties of grapes are grown in Tokaji, although the law allows for six varieties. The predominant variety in the assemblage (60-70%) is Furmint, which accumulates spectacular amounts of sugar, acids, and aromatic compounds and also has a thin skin which can support for a longer period the presence of botrytis and helps with the dehydration of grapes and the concentration of sugar and flavors.
But what makes this variety indispensable is that after a few weeks, the grapes begin to develop a secondary layer of skin which protects against botrytis.
The 20-25 percentage is provided by Hárslevelű (linden tree leaf) which is a variety that is late-ripening and high in sugar and aromatic compounds, but with a lower disposition for rot than in the case of Furmint. Hárslevelű is traditionally grown throughout the Tokay region and the two varieties are usually present in mixed plantations where they are usually harvested, pressed, and fermented together.
The third variety is Sárgamuskotály, which completes the wine in a proportion of 5-10%. Almost impossible to pronounce, even for a diehard fan without the advantage of being born in Hungary, this assortment is nothing but the local synonym for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
Styles of Tokay Wines
What really defines the wine in this region is the Aszú grapes, obtained from the three varieties that are late-harvested (in certain harvest years, even in January), with very high concentrations of sugar.
The process is unique in the world and begins with the harvest of the grapes unaffected by botrytis which is the basis for future dessert wines. And from these grapes, a must will be created or a fresh dry wine, which will further be used in the final production process.
When the Aszú grapes are harvested and fermented, crushed or not, together with the must/fresh dry wine for between one to five days. And the proportion is one kilogram of raisins per liter of must/fresh dry wine.
Subsequently, the long-awaited moment of fermentation begins in conditions of low temperature and high humidity. Obviously, the fermentation process is long, and the high-quality wines will have around 10.5% ABV, but with a high sugar concentration.
According to tradition, the unit of measure for sugar concentration is unique and very original. It is expressed in puttonyos, which is a traditional basket used during the harvest that has a capacity of 20 kg. Subsequently, the grapes are added to wooden barrels of 136 liters of must.
A Tokay Aszú of 3 puttonyos will have a sugar concentration of at least 60 g/l, while a wine of 6 puttonyos will have a concentration of at least 150 g/l. Prior to its release, the wine must be aged for at least 2 years in the barrel and one year in the bottle, contributing to the memorable taste of authentic Tokaji Aszú.
The pride of the region consists of the famous Tokaji Eszencia, also called nectar which is practically composed only of grapes with botrytis and a sugar concentration that sometimes exceeds the imagination.
The wines reach a very low alcoholic strength (4-6% ABV), which legally cannot be defined as wine, but with a sugar level between 300-600 g/l. And in certain vintages, Tokaji Eszencia can even exceed the record of 900 g/l.
Due to the very high sugar concentration, the legend says that the must needs a period of almost 5 years to ferment and has an aging potential of at least 200 years.
In the Tokaji region, there are other styles of winemaking using botrytis, but not as elaborate as Aszú, such as Szamorodni that can be made dry or sweet. Also, the production of sparkling wines is starting to become very popular, and the first ice wine began production in 1999.
Best Tokaji Wines
Tokaji Aszú wines are memorable precisely because of the climate, soil, elaborate production style, aromatic complexity, and the fantastic balance between sugar and acidity.
That is why it is recommended to be served at a temperature of 5-8°C. Also, their aromatic spectrum can be ennobled in the company of foie gras, blue cheeses such as Blue Stilton or Roquefort, candied fruit, Asian cuisine, and even Hungarian dishes, including spicy paprika dishes such as Szegedi szalámi or Gyulai kolbász.
After the fall of communism in 1989 and the transformation of Hungary into a free country, the Tokaji vineyard began to be reborn through the interest shown by local producers and international investors with traditions in winemaking.
A list of top wines is almost impossible to make given the extraordinary quality of the wines, and especially since bottles of Tokaji Eszencia from 1870 are still on the market. However, we will list in an extremely subjective way, some of the best-known wines of the most representative wineries, using the symbolic number six inspired by the legendary 6 puttonyos sweet wines.
Royal Tokaji is a project involving almost 100 foreign shareholders, led by the famous writer and wine critic Hugh Johnson. The winery was established in 1990, immediately after the fall of communism in Hungary, and focuses on the exclusive production of Tokaji Aszú and Tokaji Eszencia wines.
Royal Tokaji, Aszú Eszencia, 1993
1993 was a landmark year in the entire Tokaji-Hegyalija region, immortalized in many wine labels that symbolize the brief transition between communist anonymity and the return to former glory. A moment that was ‘bottled’ by the Royal Tokaji winery through an Aszú Eszencia with over 300 g/l of residual sugar and appreciated with 97 points by the famous Wine Spectator magazine.
A bottle of wine that you rarely meet in life, it has a deep yellow color with amber notes and a very rich nose of linden tree flowers and candied apricot, acacia tree flowers, and coconut.
The taste is memorable, rich, with a creamy texture and delicious aromas of mango, maple syrup, quince jam, and orange marmalade. The finish is long, almost endless, with lingering aromas of caramel, butter, and vanilla. A wine that can replace any dessert and that can be easily consumed for the next 50 years.
Royal Tokaji, Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos, 2003
Ten years later, the same producer delighted us with a delicious Tokaji Aszú of 6 puttonyos, which indicates that inside the consecrated 0.5 l bottle is a wine with a content of 232 g/l.
The high concentration of sugar is supported by its excellent acidity and a spectrum of flavors hard to forget. In the glass, the wine has a pale amber color and an intense nose of daisies, golden apples, and raisins. The body is full, complex, very well-balanced and with a long aftertaste of candied apricots and pineapple.
Another producer from outside Hungary who has created wine, history, and consumer education in just a few years since its establishment is Oremus Winery. This is the sweet project of the legendary Spanish winery Vega Sicilia and in 2001 was selected the best winery in the world. The company currently owns 115 hectares in the best areas of the vineyard. The name of the winery comes from the homonymous area, where legend has it that the first grapes in history were harvested for the production of Tokaji Aszú in 1630.
Oremus, Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos, 1972
With the purchasing of the winery and the land in 1993, the new owners also took over a part of the wine cellar from the communist period. 1972 was a reference year, and the wine created in that year was an exceptional one. Prior to bottling, the wine was aged for 21 years in small oak barrels. In the glass, the wine reveals itself with an intense amber color and a nose full of aromas of exotic fruits, honeycomb, and white flowers.
The body is very dense, complex, and excellently balanced due to the perfect proportion of sugar and acidity. The finish is very long, with notes of candied apricots, orange jam, and mango.
Oremus, Tokaji Essencia, 1975
Another fabulous year in the long history of Tokaji was 1975, which allowed the creation of a limited collection of Tokaji Eszencia. Professional critics and wine writers refer to this ‘immemorial’ style as a wine with a dark brown color (‘engine oil’) and a density significantly higher than that of maple syrup, complemented by a unique nose of candied fruits, honey, and daisies and an incredible balance between the 412 g/l of sugar and its high acidity. The finish is unforgettable and can express nothing but pure enthusiasm in one’s senses are caressed by aromas of orange peel, caramel, and raisins.
2001 was a glorious year for the Tokaji vineyard. After Oremus was named ‘Winery of the year’, István Szepsy was named ‘best winemaker of the year’. The Hungarian winemaker is also the owner of the winery of the same name, which has a tradition in the region for over 400 years. What is interesting is that although the property of the Szepsy family was almost lost after nationalization of the lands during the communist period, today they have recovered an area of over 20 hectares.
Szepsy, Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos, 1991
Made in a limited series of only 200 bottles, the 6 puttonyos label stands out as a wine with an intense golden color with amber hues and a nose with well-defined aromas of ripe apricots, peaches, and honeycomb. The balance is sustained by a high level of acidity and mineral notes. The aftertaste is very long with unforgettable final notes of caramelized bananas and vanilla, which confirms why the Szespy Winery is nicknamed “The Château d’Yquem of the Tokaji region”.
Szepsy, Tokaji Aszú Ezsencia, 1991
This label confirms that the year 1991 for the Tokaji region was exceptional, a true ‘divine gift’ from nature, which brought winemakers excellent conditions for botrytis but also for large accumulations of sugar, acid, and flavors.
This gave István Szepsy all the prerequisites to get closer to the title ‘best winemaker’ in 2001. The wine delights visually with a specific amber color and an unmistakable nose of sweet spices, lemon peel, and daisies.
The 5 years of maturation in small barrels give it a velvety feminine texture, and the sugar and acidity here are a match made in Heaven. The finish is long, majestic, with spicy and sweet notes, all of which makes you take your time and enjoy it sip by sip.
The glory of Tokaji vineyard wines almost completely disappeared after World War II, and the wine industry in Hungary shared the Eastern European ‘communist tradition’ of quantity over quality.
But the memory of sweet wines was the defining argument for its rebirth after the fall of communism. And the return to a normal political climate attracted a plethora of foreign investors and a huge emulation from local producers to recover their past and awaken the imagination and senses of professional and amateur tasters from all over the world.
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