PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

Prolific wine writer Hugh Johnson was updating his wine atlas a couple of decades ago when it reportedly occurred to him that Hungary was underperforming as a wine-producing country. A single state-owned company was responsible for total output and it appeared more interested in quantity than quality.

And this in a country where tokaji (tokay), once the most highly prized and expensive wine in the world, is so important it is mentioned in the national anthem. Additionally, Hungary boasts the oldest wine-classification system in the world, dating back to 1700; it was introduced because of the liquid's tremendous contribution to the national economy.

So, in 1989, Johnson and other investors set up Royal Tokaji Wine, initially in a joint venture with 60 farmers until a privatisation programme began to open up the market. Other investors soon followed, including French giant AXA and the owners of Spain's prestigious Vega Sicilia.

Despite this flurry of activity, tokay remains niche, with only 50,000 cases produced annually. Meanwhile, about 500,000 cases of the world's most popular sweet wine, sauternes, are produced each year. Nevertheless, the whole sweet-wine market is small, despite assertive marketing by New World wineries such as Canada's Inniskillen and De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley, Australia, makers of the award-winning Noble One. Germany, producer of wonderful sweet rieslings right up to the eiswein category, seems to be increasingly embracing dry wine.

While many sweet wines are obvious and cloying, those from the Tokaji region in Hungary have low alcohol (10 per cent or less) complemented by a lovely acidity, which makes them appealing. Of the three main grapes in the blend - furmint, harslevelu and muscat - furmint is dominant. Used to make simple, one-dimensional dry white wine with aromas of pear and apple on its own, its edgy acidity helps create refreshing wines of delightful purity, youthful to middle age, in a sweet blend.

Ben Howkins, co-founder of Royal Tokaji Wine, talks of the joys of having 'acidity in the bottle' instead of achieving a sense of acidity by chilling a - by implication, inferior - wine. (Chilling hides many faults.) Tokay is made from botrytis-infected grapes kneaded into a paste and measured in traditional puttonyos (baskets or hods). The more baskets, the sweeter and richer the wine. Even though the wines are classified according to the grams of sugar per litre - three to six puttonyos is the norm, with six the sweetest - a sense of sweetness is never the dominant characteristic.

In the same way that Belgians and French love to drink (off-dry) white port as an aperitif, so a subtle tokay can be drunk before a meal, and of course during it: it is marvellous with foie gras, which Hungary is the world's second most important producer of, after France. There is no conflict on the palate to follow that with a big bordeaux and meat. And finishing off with another tokay with cheese.