In the Tokaj region of northeastern Hungary, the ugliest grapes are the best loved. For it is the shriveled grapes, affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) and left to languish on the vine, that contribute to the creation of one of the world's most famous dessert wines, Tokaji Aszú (pronounced TOH-koy AW-soo).
Tokaji Aszú is not only among the most renowned sweet wines in the world but also among the oldest, dating back to the mid-17th century (and it's a good hundred years older than Sauternes, another acclaimed botrytised wine). Its most glorious years, however, may be yet to come. Recently, wealthy investors, both European and American, have taken an interest in Tokaj, and have set about revitalizing its greatest wineries. They're restoring neglected Baroque mansions and hilltop cellars while building high-tech bottling plants. And they're producing wonderful dessert wines, as well as some very good dry table wines.
There may be no better time than now to tour Tokaj--before too many tourists overrun its rustic local inns and clog its poorly marked roads (Tokaj has been described as "Burgundy without signposts"). And although many of the region's wines are or will soon be available in the States, some will still be fairly hard to find. (For more information, see Index.) With all this in mind, I took the three-hour train ride from Budapest to Tokaj to visit its leading wineries.