Traditionally when one thinks of Hungarian wines, one thinks of tokay, the sweet dessert wine. For those who like sweet wines of character, Hungary still offers unique ones, whether with the ordinary Tokay Szamorodni, the sweeter Tokay Aszu or Tokay Aszu Essencia, incredibly concentrated, flavorful -- and expensive. (A bottle of 20-year-old Essencia, which is far from decrepit, costs about $60.)
But before tokay comes a procession of white and red Hungarian wines that have all the variety and sometimes the quality of those more familiar European varieties. Historically these have been wines of charm and distinction, but they are not well represented on our shelves today, either because of a natural decline in quality on the huge, state-owned farms or because the sole exporting agency, Monimpex, is uninterested in variety and individuality -- two characteristics that are anathema to the controlled economies of Eastern Europe.
Still, there are some good Hungarian table wines on the market, several that deserve attention. The best known is probably Bull's Blood of Eger, an unfortunate and inaccurate handle for a good, medium-bodied red with uncommon smoothness and some aging potential. Bull's Blood is made mostly from the kadarka grape, with equal amounts of kekfrankos (related to gamay) and merlot (called "medoc noir") blended in. A bottle costs about $6 and is a fine companion for any red meat or even with chicken cooked with paprika in typical Hungarian fashion.
Another red widely available here, Nemes Kadar, also made from kadarka, is flabby and slightly sweet. It requires a special appreciation I am not likely ever to develop.
Inexpensive white Hungarian wines abound; tasting one's way through them is not always rewarding. An interesting white is the so-called "blue stem of Badacsonyi" made in the shadow of the old volcano of that name from the keknyelu grape; it's a bit weedy but flavorful and astringently dry, what is sometimes described as a "luncheon wine." It, too, takes some getting used to.
With tokay, like sauternes or the German trockenbeerenr usually precludes drinking too much. Tokay (or Tokaji), named for the town, is made from white furmint and harslevelu grapes that in autumn are attacked by botrytis cinerea, the rot that reduces the water content and concentrates the sugar.
The grapes are hand-picked and piled together for several days, then crushed, with both skins and juice added to a base of ordinary tokay. The wine is slowly fermented and aged in oak for at least three years. The measure of the amount of botrytis grapes in the mix is called the "puttony." The number of puttonys appears on the label of tokay: three puttonyos (about $10 a bottle) means moderately sweet; five puttonyos is quite sweet.
Tokay Aszu Essencia is more concentrated, a tawny elixir with sugar content beyond measuring by puttonyos. Essencia is produced only in good vintages. The wine is fermented over a period of years and aged at least 10 more in oak casks; it is capable of waiting decades to be appreciated. Honeyed and indescribably flavorful, Essencia should be tasted by every wine-lover after investing an inordinate amount in that squat, dusty, seemingly innocuous little bottle.