Obscured by the post-World War II Cold War Iron Curtain was one of the oldest wine regions in Europe, that of Tokaj-Hegyalja in northeastern Hungary, where an appellation of wine known as Tokaji is produced.
During communist rule, Tokaji – pronounced “toke-eye-ee” – wines declined in quality and exports to the west ceased.
However, in the early 1990s after the collapse of communism, Hungary opened up for sale some of the state-owned vineyards in Tokaj to a limited number of foreign investors in order to bring in resources to rejuvenate Tokaji wines. One of the companies that invested was Spain’s iconic wine producer, Vega Sicilia, which bought the Oremus estate in 1993.
Vega Sicilia’s export manager Puri Mancebo-Lobete recently visited Cayman and led a tasting that included two very different Tokaji wines – one dry, made from the Furmint grape, and one sweet, made from a blend of local grapes dominated by Furmint.
It is uncertain when wine production started in the Tokaj region – some believe it could have started as early as Celtic times B.C. – but it certainly was producing wines on a significant basis by the late 16th century.
“Tokaj has the longest wine history in Europe,” said Mancebo-Lobete.
In fact, Tokaji wine was the world’s first to fall under appellation control, decades before Port wine and more than a century before Bordeaux.
In addition, Mancebo-Lobete said that it’s generally recognized that the first wines produced using the botrytis cinerea – or noble rot – method were in Tokaj.
The story goes, according to Mancebo-Lobete, that close to harvest time one year, the Hungarian farmers had to leave their vineyards to go off and do battle with the Turks. When they returned a couple of months later, they found the grapes covered with botrytis, a gray, mold-like fungus.
“They decided to make wine anyway and found out how good it was,” she said.
The modern botrytis method involves purposely leaving the grapes on the vine late into the growing season so they develop botrytis on the skins. The fungus draws water from the grapes, shriveling them up and leaving sweeter, more concentrated juice inside. The juice is then gently squeezed from the grapes and fermented using yeast.
Because of the high sugar content and the low, late-Autumn temperatures, fermentation is a slow process taking about two and a half months at the Oremus winery, said Mancebo-Lobete, adding that by comparison, the Vega Sicilia red wines in Spain generally take about two weeks to ferment.
Hungary’s famous sweet wine is called Tokaji Aszú (Aszú means “desiccated” or “dried” in Hungarian). Aszú is classified by how much residual sugar is in the vinified wine, with different levels – called puttonyos – used. Production ranges from 3 puttonyos Aszú, which contain 60 grams of residual sugar per liter, to 6 Puttonyos Aszú that contain 150 grams of residual sugar per liter. Above that is Aszú Eszencia, which has 180 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Because Tokaj is at the extreme northern latitude where it’s possible to grow wine grapes, the wine produced by the grapes grown in this cooler region are highly acidic, a characteristic that provides balance to the nectar-like sweetness of Aszú, and gives the wine ageability to allow it to evolve over time.
Oremus Tokaji Aszú is fermented in Hungarian oak and then aged a further six months in oak with the lees, resulting in a rich wine with a buttery finish.
When young, the wine has intense citrus and honey flavors and as it ages it acquires more nutty flavors, Mancebo-Lobete said.
Although Tokaj is most known for its sweet wines, it also produces dry wines like the Oremus Mandolás, which displays strong citrus flavors, mineral tones and refreshing acidity.
No matter whether the wine is sweet or dry, Mancebo-Lobete said Hungarian wine drinkers will glow when talking about Tokaji wines.
“The Hungarians are super proud of Tokaji,” she said.