Hungarian Vine Part 3: Tokaj 1

In vino veritas

- in wine there is truth

We descend the long stairwell into the cellar below, the heavy wooden door behind us firmly shut in order to keep the hot surface air at bay.  The damp, musty air filled with smells of ancient brick and aged wood, the dirt beneath our feet dampening the sound of each footstep.  Dimly lit overhead lights illuminate the rows of barrels that line the cellar walls, a collection of arched hallways and gated rooms that make up an intricate labyrinth one could easily get lost in.  This is Tokaj-Oremus, one of the oldest remaining cellars in Hungary (dating back to the 1600s) and the very first producer of the world-renowned Aszú wine.  

The region of Tokaj is located in northeastern Hungary, and is one of the oldest wine-growing areas of the entire world.  Because of this, it was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002, recognized for its rich viticulture history and unique terroir characteristics.  While the history of the region and it’s wines are too much to go into here, you can’t talk about Tokaj (much less visit there) without talking about its unique Aszú wine and the botrytised grapes from which they’re made. 

Botrytised grapes are those which have been infested with a unique fungus, Botrytis, which under certain conditions and care can yield a unique tasting sweet wine.  This form of the botrytised grape is referred to as “noble rot”, the result of which is what originally put Hungary on the map with regards to world-class wine.  The 2 main grape varietals that are used to make Aszú are Furmint and Harslevelu, each capable of producing great single-varietal wines on their own, but when blended create the world-class dessert wine Tokaj is famous for: Aszú.  Indeed, King Louis XIV of France is said to have referred to it as “The Wine of Kings, the King of Wines.” 

We began our tour of Oremus overlooking vineyards from the balcony of the production facility, sampling a few of their dry white wines and getting a crash course in the vineyards history and production process.  As John and I would come to find out throughout the trip, an unusually wet summer and rapidly changing temperatures had led to an unprecedented early harvest in Hungary, so we were grateful that the vineyard’s management took the time to give us a tour.  This was my first experience seeing the production-side of wine making…the machinery, testing labs, bottling and storage facilities were impressive.  But at the same time it still had a homemade, farm-like feel to it, partially I’m sure because Oremus is a small-scale operation.  However, this would be true as well during our travels to other producers in Hungary, a consequence of an industry still getting back on its feet and a commitment to marry old-world techniques and traditions with modern technology. 

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From there we headed deep into the underground cellars, and it was here that the history and tradition of Hungarian wine-making really started to become apparent.  I felt like we had descended into the ancient tunnels below King’s Landing in Game of Thrones…brick-lined walls and ceilings covered in dust and mold, hazy lighting barely illuminating the dirt floors, iron gates guarding the entranceways to various cellar rooms and passageways.  Our tour guide took us through every major area of the underground maze, meticulously pointing out different vintages, varietals, and production techniques utilized in the making of their wines. 

Weaving through cellar hallways, tasting rooms and past small storage closets, we finally ended up in a small, dome-shaped tasting room lit by 3 small lanterns.  There was barely enough light to see the small wooden bar and stools, much less read the labels of the few bottles placed atop the bar.  Oremus had definitely saved the best for last, as we were treated to a tasting of the finest of Tokaj Aszú wines: Eszencia.  This wine is so sweet and has so little alcohol (around 5% ABV) that it can barely be labeled “wine”, which is what makes it one of the most expensive, rare and sought after wines in the world.  One sip is all you need, the sugar content is so high (measured in puttonyos) and the taste so full and rich that it instantly satisfies.  Up to this point, I’ve never really been much of a white wine lover, and while I like dessert, it’s usually not combined with my wine (rather alongside).  This however, might just change my mind…

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Click here for Tokaj Part 2

scott tribby