Whilst vineyards have been present in Hungary since at least its control under the Roman empire, Hungarian wine is not something that the UK is particularly used to (with the exception of Tokaji). This is for a number of reasons interlinking with Hungary's difficult history. Between the 17th and 20th century, Hungary had perhaps the 3rd greatest wine culture in Europe, following France and Germany, a lot of its prestige coming from an area in the North-East called Tokaji Hegyalja, where the first system for wine ranking in the world was created (before Bordeaux & Burgundy). Louis XIV famously remarked upon the sweet wines of Tokaji as "vinum regum, rex vinorum." - The wine of kings, the king of wines, and royal drinkers have included Frederick the Great, Gustav III, Peter the Great, Napoleon III, and Catherine the Great, who established a Garrison in the town of Tokaj to make sure that the wine was regularly delivered to her court.
In the late 19th and 20th century, Hungarian wine culture took repeated blows, with Phylloxera devastating vineyards across the country, followed by two world wars being fought through the region, and finally the destruction of wine culture, heritage and quality under communism. For 40 years prior to 1989, wine-making was controlled by the state, and wines not consumed in Hungary were moved in bulk to the Soviet Union or East Germany, equipment and skill stagnated or plummeted due to inexperienced farmers and bureaucracy.
When communism fell, the new republic looked to strengthen regulations and seek foreign investment to help modernise and rebuild the industry, the most famous example being the founding of The Royal Tokaji Company by wine aficionados including Hugh Johnson and Lord Jacob Rothschild who sought to resurrect Tokaji to its former glory and have done so with admirable success.
The large country provides an array of growing conditions, though generally has a continental climate with cold winters and warm summers, meaning that alongside Tokaji, it can grow stunning crisp white wines and is also suited to bold reds.
Wines tasted on the evening of the 22nd:
Dry Furmint, Sauska, Tokaji-Hegyalja, Hungary, 2016 – The predominant grape in Tokaji Aszu because of its high acidity and floral yet citrusy flavours, here it is a bright, expressive of its fruit and very young, having only been fermented in stainless steel for a short time and then bottled.
Tokaji Deak Furmint, Marjoros, Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary, 2016 – A richer, more nuanced expression of this curious grape that has been aged in new oak, giving the rich citrus palate notes of vanilla, apricot and almond, with a hint of smoke, will age for years although is perfectly suited to drinking now
Kardaka, Sauska, Villany, South-West Hungary, 2014 – A gentle, succulent wine with a clear red colour, a beautiful perfume of raspberry, paprika and tobacco, and a silky-textured, medium-bodied palate. Rounded and delicate, but not lacking in concentration, this is a great expression of a local grape variety
Kekfrankos, Sauska, Villany, South-West Hungary, 2013 - One of the main grapes in 'Bull's blood', a Hungarian wine of famous tradition. According to legend, the name originates from the invasion of Suleiman the Magnificent around 1552. To motivate and support the small group of soldiers during the Siege of Eger castle they were served delicious food and a lot of red wine. Among the Turkish soldiers it was rumoured that bull's blood was mixed into the red wine, as otherwise the strength and firm resistance of the town and castle of Eger could not be explained. When the enemy gave up, this was borne into national mythology.
This particular example uses French oak and presents a bright, immediate aroma of ripe berry fruit, white pepper and rosehip that leads to a medium-bodied, vibrant palate. The oak influence is super subtle, complementing the natural spice and smoke notes of the grape variety.
Cabernet Franc - Sauska, Villany, South-West Hungary, 2013 - A spectacular example of pure Cabernet Franc, ripened to (but not beyond) perfection in southern Hungary. Complex, nuanced aromas of raspberry, cassis, fresh leaves and cedar lead to a beautifully balanced palate that is full yet graceful.
Tokaji 6 Puttonyos - Sauska, Villany, South-West Hungary, 2003 - Tokaji holds a reputation that has captivated wine drinkers for centuries. Due to its unique production method and growing conditions (involving mists in the area that allow for noble rot to develop) it presents flavours of citrus peel, honey, marmalade, apricot amongst other nuances. The naturally acidic grapes Furmint & Harslevelu that constitute a majority of its blend, allow it to balance out the sweetness and prevent the wine from being cloying.