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How Sweet It Is

After decades of Communist rule, Hungary's Tokaj region is reclaiming its legacy of superlative dessert wines

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.

Szepsy
My first stop was the winery run by the elder statesman of Tokaj, 49-year- old István Szepsy, whose operation is based in a sleepy town called, paradoxically, Mád. No building in Mád stands taller than a few stories, and its dirt roads all seem to end at some vineyard. (Most of Tokaj's wineries lie a short distance from Mád.)

Máté Laczkó Szepsy, an ancestor of István's, is credited with the discovery of Tokaji Aszú some 17 generations ago. He found that if Tokaj white grapes were left to molder into blackness late in the season, they turned caramel sweet and produced an in-tensely delicious dessert wine. Máté Laczkó set down the rules for making ambrosia from this ugly fruit in a blend of several different grape varieties; it's a formula used to this day. The only time that it was not rigorously applied, István explained, was during Hungary's Communist years.

Fortunately, the painstaking formula created by István's ancestor is very much back in style. In fact, wineries all over Tokaj are putting Máté Laczkó's principles into practice for making both dry and semisweet wines; they're also using his planting techniques, which include growing once-forgotten grape varieties in tight rows on steep hillsides.

Today, István aims for high-quality limited production, geared to obtaining the most intense flavors from grapes grown on small parcels scattered across a 25-mile valley (57 Táncsics Út, Mád; 011-36-47-348-349).

Best bottle Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos (Tokaji Aszú ranges from one to six puttonyos, with six representing the richest). The apple and peach flavors of this wine are as delicate and profound as a Bach concerto. István's wines are not currently available in the States.

Disznóko
My next stop was the region's first post-Communist foreign venture, Disznóko. Owned by a subsidiary of the French insurance group AXA-Millésimes, Disz-nóko is currently under the direction of the Bordeaux firm Jean-Michel Cazes. The winery's name, which means "pig stone," was inspired by a vaguely boar-shaped boulder that crowns the site. "It'll look more like a pig after our tasting," general director Dominique Arangoits cheerily assured me.

It became readily apparent that the French have invested a great deal of money in Disznóko. They've managed to build a brand-new winery that looks as if it has been in existence for years; mold encrusts the cellar walls, though the computers that track the temperature in each state-of-the-art steel tank offer evidence of a very contemporary sensibility at work. "People around here were a little shocked at first by our modern ideas," Arangoits admitted. The quality of Disznóko's wines has undoubtedly helped to reassure them (Disznóko-Dulo, Mezozombor; 011-36-47-361-371).

Best bottle 1997 Tokaji Dry Furmint, a spicy full-bodied white table wine. Disznóko wines are available nationally.

Tokaj-Oremus
Owned by the Spanish winery Vega Sicilia, Oremus manages to gracefully blend the modern with the traditional. And the pull of the traditional at Oremus is palpable: the winery boasts miles of cellars dating from the 13th to the 18th century, and it is reputedly here that István's ancestor farmed the very slope where Tokaji Aszú was first harvested. I traipsed that grail-like spot with Oremus's young horticulturist, Péter Molnár, as he rattled off the names of the old grape varieties and barrel types that Oremus is currently reviving. We spent much of the afternoon in Oremus's tasting room, dipping first into recent vintages and then into decades-old stock that the winery purchased from the old state outfit. By the time we emerged, it was so late that my eyes barely needed to adjust from the darkness of the cellar to the darkness of the sky (45 Bajcsy-Zs.Út,Tol-csva;011-36-47-384-504).

Best bottle 1993 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, a rich wine with confident and penetrating creamy orange flavors. Oremus wines are available on the East and West coasts and in Chicago.

Royal Tokaji
Next on my itinerary was a British-owned winery, Royal Tokaji, founded in 1989. The winery's complex, in downtown Mád, looked plain from the street, but the entrance to its backyard cellar turned out to be a delightful Gothic folly. Royal Tokaji produces only sweet wines, often from single vineyards, that are quite rich and intense. Although the winery is just 10 years old, it is already considered one of Tokaj's superstars (35 Rákóczi Út, Mád; 011-36-47-348-011).

Best bottle 1993 Tokaji Aszú Szt. Tamás Vineyard 6 Puttonyos, ripe and rich with orange and honey notes. Royal Tokaji wines are available nationally.

Gróf Degenfeld
The Gróf Degenfeld estate was founded in 1994 by a German sewing-machine-needle tycoon who named the winery after his wife's aristocratic German-Hungarian ancestors (the word gróf means "count"). I met Degenfeld's eager young winemaker, Zoltán Demeter, who ushered me through a new press house trimmed in stone, past a lab filled with wine in beakers and, finally, to a Victorian mansion being converted into an upscale hotel.

En route Demeter confessed that like most Tokajians, he not only makes wine for Gróf Degenfeld but also grows his own grapes and barrels their juice. "My '97 is absolutely beautiful," he said as he dropped me off at the train station. Note: Demeter recently left Degenfeld and is currently working with István Szepsy (9 Terézia Kert, Tarcal; 011-36-47-380-173).

Best bottle 1997 Late Harvest Hárs-levelu (a local white grape), a wine with ripe orange flavors and a long, piquant finish. Gróf Degenfeld wines are currently available only in Canada.

Château Pajzos and Château Megyer
These two wineries, both owned by French companies, share a 16th-century cellar (located below a fortress) and a director, Jean-Michel Arcante. Winemaker Tamás László conducted my tour, ducking his head as we walked through the low-ceilinged cellar maze. It's more showplace than storeroom now, he confided--the tourist traffic makes it too warm for aging wine. We settled into a nook for a tasting, and he pulled out a $500 bottle (500 ml) of the headiest, sweetest Tokaji made, Esszencia from Château Pajzos. It was pure runoff from the just-harvested Aszú grapes and left me feeling pleasantly cocooned in amber all the way back to Budapest (26 Szent Erzsébet Tér, Sárospatak; 011-36-47-312-310).

Best bottle 1993 Château Megyer Dry Szamorodni, a sherrylike wine with a savory, almost oaky finish, and 1993 Esszencia, with flavors that just keep coming. Château Pajzos's wines are available nationally.

Eve M. Kahn is a freelance writer who recently spent several years in Hungary.

Published August 1999
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