Before the twentieth century, the making of varietal wines was a rarity. This was partly because mixed planting would have made it difficult, and at the same time the natural conditions which varied from row to row would produce different qualities for the same cellar-owner; by mixing and processing these together it was possible to achieve consistent quality year on year.
And let us not forget one equally important factor: fashion did not call for varietal wines. Thus it was the consequence of a perfectly natural process that one real Hungarian wine speciality, BIKAVÉR BULL’S BLOOD, came into being, the fantasy name of which combined the red of the wine and the image of untamed natural strength symbolised by the bull.
While this wine had come into being when grapes were harvested and processed together, through the reconstruction (1880-1910) of vineyards after the phylloxera blight, with the coming of varietal planting, it was made by the blending of grapes that had been separately picked and processed. With changes and developments in the techniques of viticulturists and winemakers the varieties that went into Bull’s Blood also changed. Before the twentieth century kadarka and its variants constituted the basis of red wines in both Szekszárd and Eger, the two homes of Bull’s Blood. Under the influence of vineyard reconstruction there appeared in Eger kékfrankos, Médoc noir, kékoportó, and sometimes cabernet alongside kadarka. In Szekszárd the making of Bull’s Blood continued to be based on kadarka, supplemented by kékfrankos and merlot. Communist heavy industry, however, disqualified both kadarka and Médoc noir from ‘economic’ cultivation, replacing them with kékfrankos, zweigelt, and cabernet.
Changes have taken place, however, not only in the fundamental materials and approaches to winemaking, but also in nomenclature. For years – goodness knows why -only in Eger could wine be bottled under the name of Bull’s Blood, whereas the first literary reference to it comes in János Garay’s poem “Szekszárdi bordal” (Szekszárd wine-song) of 1846. Not long afterwards we find, also in connection with the name of Bull’s Blood: ‘So strong red wine is named, for example, that of Eger’. Which name takes precedence, however, has little significance in modern terms, and it suffices that the right of the excellent blended red wine of both regions to be known as Bull’s Blood is recognised. In recent years the winemakers of both regions have done a great deal to restore the standing of Bull’s Blood, which had become undeservedly diminished in the socialist period. They have laid down as a standard that it must consist of at least three wines, and in Szekszárd they endeavour to give kadarka the greatest possible emphasis. In the world of distinct, fashionable-sounding cuvées, however, it is not easy to re-establish so run-down a brand-name, which was seldom identified with quality in the communist period, but which now has a great future.
The specialities of Tokaj constitute a whole family of wines. Every type of wine has taken shape in connection with the production of aszú in the course of changes in agriculture, demand, taste, and other historical causes and traditions.
For the sake of dispelling misconceptions, we must first establish that aszú is not a grape but a type of wine. It is mainly made using berries of furmint and hárslevelű, and to a lesser extent sárgamuskotály (yellow muscatel), that have undergone ‘noble rot’. In the unique microclimate of Tokaj-Hegyalja, in most years roughly a third of the berries not only shrivel, thereby concentrating their sugar content, but are also affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, which results in the development of distinctive flavours. These aszú berries are carefully separated out at harvest-time, crushed or ‘opened up’ as the saying is; must or wine from unrotted berries is poured over them, they are soaked, pressed, then fermented and matured.
That is how aszú is basically made, but several variants of it have developed over time. According to tradition, the number of puttony (small wooden tubs of approximately 20-25 kg each) of aszú grapes that are put into a ‘gönc’ barrel of 136 litres determines the rating of the aszú wine that is made from such grapes. Ratings of 3, 4, 5 and 6puttonyos are distinguished, and above that number we speak of aszúeszencia, or ‘essence of aszú’. When, however, selected aszú berries are collected in a vat and allowed to press themselves by their own weight, and that is kept as a varietal, then we have natúr’eszencia, or ‘natural essence’. It is indicative of its concentration that its sugar content is higher than that of honey, and as a result it cannot be fermented. Naturally, in addition to this its wealth and complexity of flavour make it of the utmost value to the consumer.
Aszú berries, however, offer the possibility of making more than aszú. In inferior years, when they are scarce so that selecting them would be expensive, or the aszú process is less that perfect, they are processed with the other grapes and szamorodni is the result The name itself gives an indication of the technology involved. This wine was originally made for the Polish market, where it received the name, which in Polish means ‘as it was made’.
The concentration and enhanced intrinsic value of aszú berries is also shown by the fact that even after soaking in must or and being pressed they still retain a significant content, which can be put to further use. After the pressed aszú berries have been trodden or ‘pressed’ in sacks, they are turned out, must is again poured onto them and they are fermented a second time. This produces a wine which, while substantially inferior, is still of value and is known, because of the one-time technology involved, as fordítás or ‘turning’. And that some sort otf new wine be extracted from even7 stage of the preparation of aszú is shown by máslás ‘copying’ or ‘second wine’. The fully fermented, cleared wine, like any other, is separated from its lees. These aszú lees, however, are so conentrated that even after mixing them with wine and fermenting again they add significantly to ‘ordinary’ wine. improving it’s quality.
Pages could be filled with an account of the wealth of flavour and the pleasing characteristics of aszú and aszú-like wines, and so in these fewT lines we cannot ever attempt to do so. The microclimate of the lopes, the proportion of the varieties of grapes used, the peculiarities of processing, the length and method of maturation, the variation in vintages, the life of the wine – all contribute various things, but fundamentally we get from them all a miracle, with a ‘life’ that varies bottle by bottle. It is unique, and its range of tastes defies imitation. We have much and many kinds of them to taste, but to sense their dignity just once is enough to make us nod in agreement with the view expressed by Elizabeth I, Tsarina of Russia that ‘Non est vinum, nisi tokainum”. There is no wine like Tokaj wine.
Authors: Zoltán Benyák, Tibor Dékány. Book: Hungarian wines and wineregions.