Bacchus smiled at us in Tokaj
We were halfway through our tasting at a small winery called Hímesudvar when we heard the music outside in the garden. We decided to take our tasting glasses and move outside, following the music. Three young musicians were drinking wine, playing guitar and singing.
With a bottle of Kövérszõlõ and some local cheese and meats we sat back to enjoy the early spring sun and the music. Everything was just perfect. We could imagine Bacchus (of whom there is of course a statue in Tokaj) smiling at us.
Tasting wine in another country can be a challenge if you do it the DIY way. There are many cultivars that we have never even heard of, not to mention how difficult it is to pronounce it!
Typical cultivars in the Tokaj region are Furmint, Hárslevelü, Sága Muskotály, Zéta, Kabar and Kövérszõlõ The styles of these wine differ greatly from winemaker to winemaker. This makes it difficult to know where to start.
We did quite a bit of research on the region and its wines before we embarked on this journey of wine discovery. But, you only have so much time and money. Choices, choices!
Bacchus must have had a hand in ensuring our paths cross with the right people – we were fortunate enough to make contact with wine writer Gergely Ripka, from whom we bought his excellent Tokaj Wine Guide.
At most of the wineries, especially the small ones, you have to make an appointment, because the owner cum winemaker is often also the person presenting the tasting, in between all the work on the farm.
As we were travelling by public transport, without the luxury and freedom of a rented car, it was difficult to plan ahead and make appointments. Our plan of action, therefore, was to leave the decision-making until we arrived in Tokaj and see how things pan out.
Step in Gergely. When we met him in Budapest a day or two before our trip to Tokaj, he decided on the spur of the moment to arrange a visit for us to one of Tokaj’s most famous winemakers, Zoltan Demeter, in spite of Zoltan’s busy schedule. Alas, on our way there the train broke down and we missed this appointment.
This did not dampen Gergely’s enthusiasm to ensure we have a good wine experience and he quickly arranged another tasting for us with Judit Bott, who together with her husband, Jósef, also makes excellent wines. Judit’s bubbly personality and the chance to taste wines out of the barrel made this a very memorable experience. We were stunned by the fact that all their wines were single vineyard wines in an ongoing experiment on different soil types.
Judit arranged a tasting for us at the French winemaker Stéphanie Berecz of Kikelet, known for her good Hárslevelüs. Her cellar is in Tarçal, a small town approximately 7 km from Tokaj – perfect cycling distance for two unfit travellers like us, and we could rent bicycles at a cheap price at the tourism office.
Stéphanie took us down into her 300-year old cellar under the tasting room and we tasted the new vintages out of the barrel. She even asked our opinions on some of the wines, maybe just to test our wine knowledge. We failed the test with the 2015 Furmint completely, as we thought it was a Hárslevelü. Oops!
It was also thanks to Gergely’s recommendation that we visited the Hímesudvar winery, right in town and a few minutes’ walk from where we stayed. How lucky can you be!
Continuing our lucky streak, our host at Paulayi Borhaz, Péter Hudák, himself a good winemaker whose wines we could taste by just going to his cellar beneath the house, arranged a taxi for us to go the very small town Mád 18 km away and suggested we go to a restaurant there where one could taste good wines.
We visited Mád on a Sunday and the one-horse town was dead quiet. Everything was closed except the restaurant, and again it was only by pure luck that we saw an open door at the Barta sign and heard people inside.
Here we bumped into a group of Hungarian wine tasters who we’ve met before at two other wine tastings. By now it felt like we were friends and they invited us to gate crash their tasting. We left the jovial group with an email address and an invite to come visit them the next time we are in Hungary.
Tokaj is famous for its centuries-old natural sweet wine tradition, with the wine called Aszú. It’s made of the cultivar Furmint and measured in puttonyos, which refers to the basket used to harvest the grapes in. The grapes of one basket (25 kg) added to the base wine in the barrels will give you a 1 puttonyos wine. Two will give you a 2 puttonyos wine and so it goes up until 6 puttonyos. The more baskets you add, the sweeter the wine. The sweetest of it all is the Essentia where the grapes are left for the juice to run off naturally.
The Aszús we tasted were divine, but pricey, as in hundreds and even thousands of rand per bottle. They involve a lot of labour such as hand selecting and sorting of the grapes. Also, botrytis mould (noble rot) is necessary to make this wine, and the climate is not favourable for botrytis every year, which adds to the scarcity and price. Furthermore, to qualify to be called Aszú, a wine must have aged at least one year in a barrel and one year in a bottle – this also adds to the cost.
For the past decade winemakers have also been experimenting with dry single variety Furmint wines. They all taste different because of different soils and winemaking techniques. What they have in common, is high levels of minerality and a good balanced acidity.
Hárslevelü with its floral tones is also used as a single variety wine but is sometimes blended with Furmint. Blending these two gives the impression that the acidity is lower than the single varietal Furmint but this is not the case, as explained by Stéphanie. It is just the Hárslevelü’s characteristic that makes this wine a little more accessible to those who prefer an off-dry wine.
While there are single varietal wines made from Sága Muskotály, Zéta, Kabar and Kövérszõlõ they are mainly used to blend into the Aszú base wine.
We probably did not taste 5% of what Tokaj has to offer, but we are happy: we were able to explore the unknown and we tasted some amazing wines, and best of all: we met some amazing people.
Words and photography by Carien Fourie Kruger and Helenus Kruger.
© Helenus Kruger Photography