Hungary is probably the most well known wine country in Eastern Europe for two reasons – Tokaji and Bull’s Blood. Tokaji is a very sweet wine that was prized by the Russian Tsars, made in an oxidized manner similar to Sherry. Bull’s Blood is a red wine with an interesting legend behind it.
When most wine drinkers think of “Eastern Europe”, the wine that comes to mind is Hungary’s Tokaji (pronounced and sometimes spelled tokay). The wine’s famous reputation dates back to the 1500s. Prized by the Tsars of Russia, this wine was so desired that there was a group of Cossacks whole only mission was to ensure this wine reached them.
Now, many of the Tokaji estates are owned partially by Europeans or Australians. The three top wineries are Nyulaszo, Szt Tamas and Betsek. There is one second growth, Birsalmas. Perhaps the best known Tokaji is the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, which is partially owned by the English wine critic Hugh Johnson.
Tokaji is a sweet wine, made in a similar style to Sauternes. Wineries make Tokaji with semi-dry grapes that have had ‘noble rot’ take hold. The grapes in this state are called Aszu. They are put into a wooden putton for a certain number of days, between 6 and 8 usually.
The juice concentrates at the bottom of the putton – usually 50 pounds of grapes will only yield 1/4 of a pint. This goes into a special “Essencia” wine, which is incredibly rich in sugar.
The remaining paste is added to a blend of ‘normal’ grape wine, with air left in the cask to allow oxidation, like Sherry. The sweetness of this final wine depends on how many puttonyos are added to this base wine.
Tokaji is rather sweet and is typically drunk as a dessert wine. It is normally drunk on its own rather than with food, but it could go well with a sweet fruit dish, such as an apricot pastry. It should be drunk at around 57F from a small glass, to concentrate its aromas. Tokaji can age for many years, most around drunk between 5-10 years old.
Hungary is also well known for another wine with a much more colorful history – that is Egri Bikaver, or “Bull’s Blood”.
As the story goes, back in 1552 the Eger fortress was under attack, and the defenders were badly outnumbered. To fortify themselves and give themselves courage, they drank the local red wine in large amounts, and the wine spilled on them while they did so. When the attackers saw the men running towards them with red liquid all down their chests, they thought the locals had been drinking bull’s blood, and they fled in terror.
Bull’s Blood is not a complex, expensive wine – but it is fun to drink. It’s usually a blended wine, made from Kadarka, Kekfrankos, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Kekoporto.