Let’s be honest: sweet wine has a bad reputation when compared to its drier brothers and sisters. It’s easy for a classy sweet wine to be looked down upon by the amateur sommelier crowd. You’ve probably got a bottle or two lingering at the back of your cupboard—brought by a well meaning, but misinformed friend to a recent dinner party—then promptly discarded.
Well, we’re here to let you in on a little secret. Make your next bottle a Hungarian Tokaji wine if you want a truly full-bodied sweet wine that will leave you reaching for a refill—and leave the self-proclaimed wine snobs at your dinner party impressed with your knowledge of this Eastern European gem.
It’s All About the Grape
The name Tokaji, like Champagne, is protected, and only wine produced from grapes grown in Hungary can be labeled as such. While six varieties of grape are officially approved for use, Furmint—a grape variety grown mostly a small region of Hungary and bordering Slovakia and Austria—is the most popular.
It’s a late-ripening variety, often picked from late October to as late as December. Weather and soil conditions also play a part in the process. The region of Hungary where they are grown sits on a 1,500ft plateau near the Carpathian Mountains and the soil it grows in is volcanic with high concentrations of iron and lime. Finally, the year welcomes cold windy winters, cool dry springs, and summers that are stiflingly hot. All this contributes to the extended ripening season that helps bring out the grape’s rich flavor.
A Helpful Type of Rot
Finally, there’s one last unexpected special ingredient. Furmint grape skins start thick, but as they ripen, the skins become thinner and transparent. This allows sunlight to evaporate the water in the grape, increasing their concentration of sugar. At this late stage, the grapes also become affected by nobel rot—a beneficial gray fungus, known botrytis cinerea, that thrives in moist conditions and intensifies the sweetening process.
So Good It’s Worth Fighting Over
Thanks to the high genetic diversity of Tokaji grape varieties, it has been possible, over the years, to create various clones and color mutations that have subsequently found their way around Europe. Even so, Hungarian’s very much consider it their wine—and they are so proud of Tokaji, that it gets an honorable mention in their national anthem.
Thanks to Tokaji’s protected status—which it gained in 1993—other growers in Italy, France, Austria and Slovenia have been forced to rename their wines. However Slovakia, unhappy that Hungary gets exclusive naming rights over a wine grown in a region that overlaps their border, has been in a bitter dispute over the issue. The EU recently sided with Slovakia and both countries now share the name for wine produced from grapes in this region.
I guess we can drink to that!