After one of the most dramatic storms I have ever witnessed, with hours of thunder and forked lightning slicing across the vineyard outside my bedroom window in Tokaj, my first visit was to two wineries and their cellars, and not to the vineyards as planned, which were sodden after the overnight downpour. That was to be a dawn visit the following day.
Hungary’s renowned wine region of Tokaj, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Budapest, is famous for Tokaji, a lusciously sweet dessert wine which is aged for a minimum of two years in underground cellars in which mould spores darken the damp walls.
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The ancient cellars in Chateau Dereszla, one of the largest and oldest wineries in Tokaj, are particularly spectacular. What makes this wine so special are the late harvest Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes which are left for an extended period on the vine so that they shrivel and the sugar concentrates. When the conditions are right, and a morning mist rises from the Bodrog River, they become infected by Botrytis cinerea, a beneficial fungus which is better known as noble rot. Called Aszú grapes, they are picked individually and used in the highly prized Tokaji Aszú wine. With a beguiling richness of flavour, Louis XIV described it as “the wine of kings, the king of wines”.
Dating back to the mid-1600s, this unctuous wine has ensured that Tokaj has remained one of the most prosperous regions of Hungary. History of course had its part to play, and two World Wars and communist rule meant progress was interrupted for nearly 100 years.
Stark cement buildings on the outskirts of Budapest are a reminder of the communist era, but as you reach Tokaj, the setting is more pastoral, with small holdings and vineyards spreading out across the gentle hills, punctuated by tiny traditional houses with steep red-tiled roofs. One of the regions is called Mad. You’ve got to love that, don’t you?
While the deliciously sweet Tokaji wines put the region on the map, it’s the dry white wines made from Furmint which are getting increasing wine geek attention. I set off at 6am in an all-terrain quad for an early morning tour of Chateau Dereszla’s vineyards, and István Bai, their hugely renowned winemaker who has been making wine since he was 12, explained about the complexity of the terroir.
With 100 volcanos in the region, which have been dormant for thousands of years, there is a huge variation in the soil, with anthracite and volcanic rhyolite rocks being particularly common. One of the Dereszla vineyards, which translates to ‘The Hell’, is so steep that each terrace has different soil, and the clay ranges in colour from red to black and white. Everywhere is lush and green, a reflection of the move towards organic growing. This all makes for very interesting wine.
Dry Furmint is well worth looking out for – I have one in today’s line-up as well as two sweet Tokajis.
Two wine dates for your diary. The Ely Autumn Big Tasting, in Ely Bar and Grill at CHQ, is running on October 18, with two sessions, 6pm and 8pm; tickets €28, elywinebar.ie. And fans of bio-dynamic, organic, natural and orange wine will find over 120 wines available for tasting with producers from 17 wineries visiting for the Spit Festival at The Chocolate Factory, October 24, 4.30-8.30pm, tickets €30 at eventbrite.ie
Chateau Dereszla, Tokaji Furmint Dry
€15.95, on offer two for €25 until October 8, 11.5pc, from Mitchell & Son IFSC, Glasthule, Avoca Kilmacanogue & Dunboyne, The Vintry, Wilde & Green
With a fresh twist of herbs, white blossom and verbena on the nose, this crisp and refreshing Furmint has flavours of ripe yellow grapefruit, apple, pear, and a touch of lemon sherbet.
Disznókő Tokaji Late Harvest
€17.95 (500ml), 12.5pc, from O’Briens and obrienswine.ie
A fresh style of Tokaji dessert wine that is aged for a few months, this has plenty of peach, wild blossom and citrus on the nose with a silky palate of honey, stone fruit and lemon.
Chateau Dereszla, Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos
€34.95 (500ml), 11.5pc, from Mitchell & Son IFSC, Glasthule, Avoca Kilmacanogue and Dunboyne
A premium Tokaji Aszú, this has been aged for a minimum of two years and has developed luscious flavours of honey, nuts, apricot and candied citrus peel. Stunning with foie gras and blue cheese, and for dessert pair with white chocolate or tarte tatin.
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