Not Just for Sweet Tooths

Paul Blow

I was dining out recently with someone who drinks mostly from his own massive collection of great Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Rhône. He grabbed the wine list and ordered a bottle of something I’d never heard of—inexpensive, too—saying, “I come here all the time, and I always buy this wine. I just can’t get enough of it.”

The bottle was Királyudvar Tokaji sec 2005, a dry white wine from Hungary (it retails for about $30). The texture was fluid and thick, yet the wine was lithe and graceful, smelling strongly of lemon peel, grass, and rock dust. It was simply gorgeous, comparable in style and texture to a good white Burgundy, but with a flavor entirely its own. The restaurant’s sommelier was a big fan too, but said that with its rather intimidating name and unusual provenance, the wine doesn’t exactly fly off the list.

Not many are familiar with dry Tokaji. If people know anything about Hungarian wine, they’ve heard of Tokaji Aszú, a sweet wine that can be very rich and expensive, made from botrytized grapes. Tokaji Aszú fell off the map after the phylloxera plague in the late 19th century decimated the vineyards, and then the wars and rise of communism in the 20th all but killed the industry. Just now getting back on its feet, there’s a sense of optimism and discovery. And one of the discoveries is that the Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes, two of the cornerstones of sweet wine production, can be made into a very fine dry wine on their own. This wasn’t done with any serious attention until the 1990s, so what we’re seeing is truly cutting edge.

There are now a handful of dry Tokajis on the market, most often referred to as dry Furmint. The Royal Tokaji Wine Company, in which wine writer Hugh Johnson has a stake, makes a lovely dry Furmint. A little less complex and intense than the Királyudvar, it’s a delicious wine, well worth seeking out. Another one to look for is from the winery called Oremus, which is owned by Vega Sicilia, the great wine house from Spain. They all run between $18 and $30.

After tasting the Királyudvar at the restaurant, I asked my friend if he liked it enough to consider placing dry Hungarian white wine next to all the grand cru white Burgundy and Chablis in his collection. “I already have,” he said, explaining that he’d found several vintages and they were en route to his cellar. “I have a feeling this wine’s going to be even better in about six years,” he added, downing the last of his glass.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.