With such a long history, it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy, but there is no doubt that Tokaji producers had discovered the beneficial properties of noble rot by 1650. This gave them a hundred-year head start on the Germans, and nearly 200 on the vignerons of Sauternes. The Tokaj district was delimited by royal decree in 1737, and the world's first vineyard classification system introduced in 1772. Unfortunately, Communist dogma and the realpolitik of the Cold War era were not conducive to fine wine production. Individual vineyard identities and the quest for perfection were subsumed in the mediocrity of state farm collectives, and the inevitable reorientation towards a Russian market thirsty for large quantities of the cheapest wines possible.
When the Iron Curtain was drawn back, fine Tokaji was more a legend than a reality, a romance fuelled by the recollections of a few wise old connoisseurs. But the allure was undeniable, and it quickly attracted both romantics and hard-headed money men to this rustic corner of northeastern Hungary. The Vega Sicilia team were aware of the dangers this gold rush presented, and realised that "if you're going to do it, do it right". Guided by this philosophy, they have spared no expense in securing the most highly-rated vineyards, plus several kilometres of ideal underground cellars. These cellars are particularly important to the quality of Tokaji, because they create perfect conditions for long cask ageing: a constant temperature of 10°C, 95% humidity, and an ambient colony of moulds and bacteria that protect the wines from spoilage. The estate they bought was rechristened Oremus, and a team of the most experienced local and imported winemakers was put in place with the sole aim of producing the very best Tokaji imaginable.
Six years on, the Oremus wines are bang on target. The young Tokaji's are a direct product of the Vega Sicilia investment, but they have also released some fine older vintages. Inside knowledge enabled the team to purchase the pick of the state cellars stocks, and these were looked after with loving care, before bottling under the Oremus label. Thanks to Oremus, and a few other dedicated producers, the lofty Tokaji reputation is being quickly re-established as a reality rather than a myth in the world of fine wine.
Best known for lusciously sweet dessert wines but also home to distinctive dry whites and reds, Hungary is an exciting country at the crossroads of tradition and innovation. Mostly flat with a continental climate, Hungary is almost perfectly bisected by the Danube River (known here as the Duna), and contains central Europe’s largest lake, Balaton. Soil types vary throughout the country but some of the best vines, particularly in Tokaj, are planted on mineral-rich, volcanic soil.
Tokaj, Hungary’s most famous wine region, is home to the venerated botrytized sweet wine, Tokaji, produced from a blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű. Dry and semi-dry wines are also made in Tokaj, using the same varieties. Other native white varieties include the relatively aromatic and floral, Irsai Olivér, Cserszegi Fűszeres and Királyleányka, as well as the distinctively smoky and savory, Juhfark. Common red varieties include velvety, Pinot Noir-like Kadarka and juicy, easy-drinking Kékfrankos (known elsewhere as Blaufränkisch).
Apart from the classics, we find many regional gems of different styles.
Late harvest wines are probably the easiest to understand. Grapes are picked so late that the sugars build up and residual sugar remains after the fermentation process. Ice wine, a style founded in Germany and there referred to as eiswein, is an extreme late harvest wine, produced from grapes frozen on the vine, and pressed while still frozen, resulting in a higher concentration of sugar. It is becoming a specialty of Canada as well, where it takes on the English name of ice wine.
Vin Santo, literally “holy wine,” is a Tuscan sweet wine made from drying the local white grapes Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia in the winery and not pressing until somewhere between November and March.