Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on March 23, 2016 0 Comments Travel back in time five hundred years or so, to the Tudor courts of England, the center of the civilized world and the Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth the First, and you might expect to find the goblets and chargers of the royal courts and aristocracy filled with the sumptuous wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, history tells us that this was not the case. Due to tempestuous relationships between the various Old World wine producing countries, it was not the French wines which were heralded as the finest in the realm, and certainly not the wines of Spain, who were almost permanently at war with northern Europe, but instead it was the wines of Central and Eastern European countries which were raised and adored by those seeking the ultimate in luxury, the zenith of taste and decadence. Above all others, it was the rich, golden wines of Hungary which were celebrated the most–a country which today is sadly and often overlooked by the wine-drinking world, despite producing some of the most fascinating examples of oenology with a sumptuous heritage to rival any of the chateaus of the Loire or Left Bank. Indeed, the crowned heads of Europe were, for a century or two, obsessed with Hungarian wine, and none were more obsessed over than those of the Royal Tokaji region, a beautiful and heavily fortified region in the west of the land-locked country, close to the Austrian border. These wines were treasured as perfect examples of balance in flavor–and what flavors! Then, as they do today, the wines of Tokaji burst with deep, oily notes of dried apricot, candied fruit and exotic perfumes, and the colors still range from pale, honeyed golds to deep ambers, reflecting their history of being sipped in the candlelit and bejeweled drinking halls of palaces and castles across the land. Unlike many sweet wines, Tokaji wine was and is praised for its surprising versatility when it comes to food pairing, enjoyed with sweet and savory dishes, thanks to the complexity of its flavor, and it is regularly drunk in place of dessert or as a digestif. Hungarian Wine Characteristics What is it about the wines of Tokaji which has fascinated those with a taste for life’s finer things for so many generations? The answer comes, as it often does, from a perfect blend of exquisite terroir, low-yielding grapes of superb quality, and a unique method of production which is as time-consuming as it is risky, as odd as it is effective. Tokaji wines are made from grapes which have benefited from what is poetically titled ‘Noble Rot’–essentially, allowing the fruit to wither on the vine and develop the Botrytis fungus, a fast-developing fungus which is allowed to grow on fully-ripened grapes, which then begin to dry in the intense summer sunshine of the valleys of Central Europe. This process of drying allows the grapes to shrink, intensifying the sugars in the fruit, and bringing forth the sweetness and syrupy nature the wine producers require in order to produce the characterful wines they are renowned for. The fungus itself prompts the development of the flavor of the wine, and from this bursts the unusual and often bizarre notes which are still loved in Hungary, neighboring Austria…and by those who know, elsewhere. It wasn’t long before the Noble Rot was in demand from other countries, and the Germans and Austrians experimented with the technique for a while, with mixed success. The only other region which really made the most from this seemingly counter-intuitive method of allowing your prized fruit to spoil was that of Sauternes in France, which, thanks to better trading and marketing techniques, ended up being far more widely popular than the original Hungarian product. Today, Botrytised wines can also be found in California and other New World countries, where they have something of a cult following as a novelty, dessert wine style. Great Changes Now, in the twenty-first century, Hungary is just about beginning to reclaim its reputation as a great wine-producing country once more. In a European market saturated by the big French names, the bold and spicy Spanish wines, and the versatile Italian numbers (not to mention the huge New World brands), customers and wine enthusiasts are becoming a little more discerning and curious when it comes to their wines, and this has seen something of a rise in historic vineyards from Central and Eastern Europe. It is a great shame that Hungary’s wine culture is best known for the sickly ‘Bull’s Blood’ exported from the USSR to Western Europe in the 1970’s, when it was a dinner party favorite, despite being little more than a sweet wine for people who, to be honest, didn’t really know what they were looking for and frankly, didn’t really like wine. The Communist regime sadly had little interest in protecting the oenological heritage and culture of Hungary, and generations-old family vineyards in Tokaji were seized by the state, and turned over to churning out mass produced wine with little to distinguish it from any others in the Soviet Union. As such, within the space of fifty or so years, half a millennium of expertise and passion was repressed to the point of extinction, and few would have been surprised if the product never recovered, due to the efficiency of the USSR’s program, and the fact that knowledge outside of Hungary of their remarkable wines had all but disappeared. The future, however, is bright. The Royal vineyards of Tokaji are in rude health, and the quality of these wines, as well as the beautifully light and floral white wines of the nearby Balaton region, is beginning to speak for itself. As the Hungarians will tell you, these wines, once drunk, are never forgotten, and a new generation of enthusiasts–thanks to Hungary’s increasing luxury tourism sector–are uncovering the treasures of this special, small, and under-appreciated country once again.