We traveled deep into the heart of Hungary, arguably the most exotic country in Europe with its single most impenetrable language, not only to bask in natural beauty and rich, seemingly endless history. We traveled to taste arguable the world’s most legendary dessert wine, a golden amber nectar of the gods known by its place of origin, Tokaji
Pronounced by Hungarians something like Toke-ah-YEE, Tokaji late-harvest wines are not to be confused with any wine trying (in vain) to ride in on its coattails, most often under the spelling Tokay. No, this is a wine region 120 miles northeast of the capital of Budapest on the Danube, a region that like twenty-plus others across the country produces perfectly fine non-sweet wines, both white and red.
But if you make a pilgrimage to Tokaji in person as we did, or even track down a bottle in your favorite wine shop, you are almost certainly looking for the sweet wine that has for centuries made the place a household name among drinkers who embrace that concept. Sauternes from France is certainly magnificent, but Tokaj from Hungary is the bottle to buy and, if you’re us, the place to go.
Hungary is no old hand at wine tourism, so it may be that you have to rent a car and, we recommend, even hire a native guide. Fluency in Hungarian isn’t going to happen during your visit, since no one even knows for sure where these people or their language came from. Some wandering tribe from the east, the scholars guess, perhaps a group that split up on the road, some heading north to Finland and the others (known as the Magyars) turning south into what became Hungary. We can’t understand anything they’re saying, but we’re certainly glad they came here to say it.
The first mention of sweet wines from here, known as aszu to distinguish from their non-sweet siblings, goes as far back as 1576. For more than a century, with two world wars and forty devastating years of communism, the wine that even French King Louis XV long ago shared with Madame Pompadour suffered mightily. But ever since democracy arrived in 1989, a combination of Hungarian pride and foreign investment has driven the industry and especially the region forward. There are now about 15,000 acres of vineyard in Tokaji owned by about fifty leading producers.
Three main grapes are grown in the Tokaji region: furmint (which makes a delightfully crisp white wine if left to its own devices), harslevelu and sarga muskotaly. Yet they aren’t left to the own devices. They are left, encouraged even, to shrivel and dry up with the wine world’s famous botrytis fungus, a.k.a. the “noble rot,” just as in Sauternes and a few other blessed places on earth. When they do, the honey-like dessert wines known around the world as Tokaji make all Hungarians proud indeed.