Looking back at my tasting notes from a large number of seminars, conferences, visits, and other tasting opportunities this summer, I’m slightly surprised to find that the region that seems to have consistently impressed me is Tokaj, in Hungary. The surprise is not because I hold the region in low regard. Rather, it’s that the quality I’ve witnessed has been spread over such a mix of styles and grape varieties.
Tokaj is most famous for its dessert wines, of course, wines of antique provenance that made an impressive return after being all but extinguished during Hungary’s Communist years. In fact, my first exposure to these wines pre-dated that time, and Tokaji Aszu, as these botrytis-laden wines are known, has been on my radar since well before I was ever professionally interested in wine (that’s not bragging…I was just fortunate to have some college friends who visited and smuggled some interesting bottles back; perhaps my older, more trained palate would actually find the wines I had back then lacking).
On top of that fame, Hungary, and Tokaj in particular, have been planting a flag for an indigenous grape, Furmint, as their signature variety. No other grape would ever be considered a serious candidate, and it definitely lives up to the billing. It plays a dominant role in the sweet wines mentioned, first of all.
But only a few of the wines that got my attention the past several months were sweet, and a handful of them were from other varieties like Sarga Muskotaly (Yellow Muscat) and Hárslevelü. All were white wines, and a couple were traditional method bubblies. Given the lack of appreciation for sweet wines in the market, it’s vital for these drier styles to get more attention if the wineries want to stay in business. These dry wines are not newfangled or ahistorical; production of the sweet wines relies on botrytis, so vineyards or vineyard blocks where the fungus doesn’t take hold during a particular vintage (the majority) are and have been primarily used for dry wine production.
With most of these wines, there’s a density to the mouthfeel to the wines, as well as a pronounced acidity. It’s a combination that means even the lighter examples rarely feel firm and muscled on the palate, and means that fuller-bodied examples remain focused and often powerful. This is true, but less so, for the non-Furmint wines; with Muskotaly and Hárslevelü those qualities seem slightly sacrificed in favor of greater aromatics, exotic floral notes in particular.
While many of the producers in Tokaji are rather small, prices generally remain quite reasonable. These aren’t cheap wines; unlike Grüner Veltliner, not far away in Austria, Tokaji very rarely aspires to the by-the-glass pricing. But for the $20-40 retail range, where many of them land, they deliver very well. I’m not convinced these prices will last; wines of this quality and distinction are sure to catch on. Since many of the wines seem age-worthy, I would say pick up some now and don’t worry about drinking them immediately; all but the lightest probably have several years to not only last, but to develop as well.
Some Recommended Dry Tokaji (in Hungarian, Tokaj refers to the place; Tokaji to the wines):
Királyudvar Furmint Pezsgö Henye Vineyard Extra Brut 2012: A dry, toasty bubbly, with notes of pear and gunsmoke. 85% Furmint and 15% Harslevelu, it’s made in the traditional method, with 12 months on the lees and a dosage of Eszencia, undiluted, pure botrytis wine.
Royal Tokaji Sargamuskotaly 2016: On the nose, easy to mistake for a Gewürztraminer, with lychee, guava, and floral notes. On the palate, lighter, and fresher than the ripe nose suggests, with good length.
Erszebet Pince Family Furmint 2015: A very pretty wine, with notes of melon, apple, quince, and apricot. Light-bodied and gentle.
Kvaszinger ‘Hotolos Vineyard’ Furmint 2015: Shows yellow plum, melon, and apricot notes on the nose, with touches of beeswax on the palate. Medium-bodied, firm, and long.
Oremus ‘Mandorlas’ Furmint 2013: Medium-bodied and dense, with notes of yellow plum and flint.
Szepsy ‘Szent Tamas’ Furmint 2013: A minerally wine, with notes of yellow plum, melon, and marzipan. Marvelously textured on the palate, with great persistence.
Other Producers to Seek Out: Demeter Zoltan, Barta, St. Donat.