Hungary: A history of sparkling wine production
Surprising as it may sound, Hungary has had a long history of making sparkling wine since the 19th century. As a matter of fact, it used to be the world’s second-largest sparkling wine-producing country, only next to Champagne.
Similar to Champagne, the limestone quarried from the ancient underground wine cellars in Budafok, on the outskirts of Budapest, is said to have been used to build a number of magnificent historical buildings in the capital, including the parliament.
With producers trained in the French homeland, the Hungarian ‘pezsgő (sparkling wines)’ used to be crafted mainly using the Champagne grapes. The country’s leading sparkling producer Törley, established in 1882 in Budafok, carried on this tradition, though is also exploring other varieties, including Riesling and Zöldveltelini (Grüner Veltliner).
The booming sparkles in Tokaj
Tokaj, located north-east corner of the country, is perhaps best known for its lusciously sweet wines, with the botrytis-infused Aszú being its crown jewel.
The region itself is a complex patchwork of volcanic soils with vineyards planted on the steep slopes facing varied aspects. Furmint is the most widely planted grape variety there, spreading more than 3,500ha (out of the nation’s total 3,700ha), responsible for a wide spectrum of expressions and styles.
‘Furmint showed a similar sugar:acid ratio to Chardonnay when picked at the right moment,’ said Caroline Gilby MW, wine writer and consultant specialising in Central and Eastern European wines.
Thanks to Tokaj’s moderate-to-cool climate, the white grape can achieve full ripeness while retaining its hall-mark high acidity. This, combined with its relatively neutral flavour and moderate alcohol levels, lays the foundation for quality sparkling wines.
‘Vencel Garamvári was almost certainly the first to make traditional-method Tokaji sparkling in 2002, with Chateau Vincent. However, it didn’t really take off more widely until the cold, rainy 2010 vintage, which produced very high-acid wines – perfect sparkling raw material,’ according to Gilby.
Although sparkling Furmint is still a relatively new notion in the region with most producers releasing wines from a specific vintage with limited quantities, some have started to build their own reserve for non-vintage blends.
It’s worth noting that Furmint isn’t the only hero in the Tokaji fizz story – a considerable proportion of sparkling wines produced in Tokaj are blends, where the region’s second most-planted Hárslevelű and international variety such as Chardonnay, among others, also play their parts.
Although not many sparkling Furmint from Tokaj are available in the UK yet, it’s apparent that the versatile poster grape of the region can take on the rich, toasty notes from prolonged lees ageing very well while maintaining its penetrating acidity. The traces of honey and quince, on the other hand, are friendly clues to its varietal characters.
Gilby highlighted the Tokaji Pezsgő Brut 2017 from Tokaj Nobilis, praising its ‘delicate bouquet of apple crumble with lemon zest and quince’, ‘elegant and long’ palate and a ‘graceful yet crisp finish’.
Barta Furmint Pezsgö 2016 also stood out in the sparkling Furmint masterclass during the 2022 Furmint February event. The traditional method fizz is rich in yellow fruit and floral charm, with yeasty depth from 36 months of lees ageing. The tell-tale mineral acidity of Furmint dances elegantly on the tip of the tongue.
Another excellent tipple is the Sauska Brut NV – perhaps the only non-vintage sparkling Furmint produced in Tokaj, for now – featuring 70% Furmint, 20% Hárslevelu and a dash of Chardonnay. Toasty notes from 18 months of lees ageing, underlined with a honeyed, buttery palate, formulating a real beauty at an affordable price (£19.50).
These wines, plus the ‘Sparkling Furmint’ from 4 Haz, a value choice made using the Charmat method, are telling examples of what Tokaj is capable of when dressing up its star grape with sparkles. As Caroline Gilby MW puts it, ‘all with the poise and structure of an aristocrat, with a twist of bohemian wildness.’
Based on the masterclass hosted by Hungarian-born wine expert Dr Orsi Szentkiralyi.