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Hungary: Tokaj/Tokay & Budapest

Featuring a 2006 tour (below) of Tokaj/Tokay country and Budapest including Disznókő, Royal Tokaji, Szepsy, Dereszla, Degenfeld, Hétszőlő, Pajzos-Megyer, Oremus, Béres, and Tokay Renaissance members; plus restaurants & hotels in Budapest, Tokay and Eger.

More recent pieces about Hungary are linked directly below here (to be updated), such as:
Zeitgeisty wines (Feb 2021 - sparkling wine).

Tour of Tokaj and Budapest October 2006

Shadow of the vampire
from www.nosferatumovie.com

Beware of vampires and satanic fungus when entering the musty shadowy cellars of Tokaj country. Nosferatu fans will love the time-weary tomb-like entrance, a compact graveyard-stone structure with creaking gate that leads mysteriously downwards to kilometres of tunnels lined with precious old barrels; maybe the odd hidden coffin even. The walls wear a dense coat of cough-inducing mould (which feeds on evaporating alcohol): at Chateau Pajzos-Megyer for instance, aptly buried underneath the Castle, its fluffy all-shades-of-grey texture is particularly amazing. These dank tunnels were started in 1535, completed sometime in the 1700s and ooze gothic horror stories...

You'll find reviews of the following wineries and a few restaurants below the text: Disznókő, Royal Tokaji, Szepsy, Dereszla, Degenfeld, Hétszőlő, Pajzos-Megyer, Oremus, Béres plus other members of the Tokay Renaissance group. First, a hopefully interesting preamble on the region's history, climate, vineyards, people and current winemaking trends. And equally useful perhaps, a lightening guide to pronouncing those multi-accented wine and place names. The Hungarian language can appear totally impenetrable to English-speakers (or of any other language I'd imagine); I often found no familiar clues whatsoever in words on signs, buildings or labels. So here goes with a few tips on the most common sounds (as far as I understood it at least, any Hungarians out there feel free to correct me):

Ő = a bit like a German Ö but longer, i.e. ooeh
Ö = similar but shorter
Ó = oh, quite short and closed
Same principle for Ú and Ű
Sz = s (ess)
S = sh
Aszú - emphasis on the a (= ar) then the u

The Tokaj region lies 200 km northeast of Budapest, bordering Slovakia and almost Ukraine, and forms a 50x30 km leg-of-lamb shape. It snuggles cosily against the Zemplén hills across the north and Tokaj hill, overlooking the town itself, at its southernmost point. Its eastern boundary is marked by the Rivers Bodrog and Tisza, and to the south the proverbial great Hungarian plain (the rest of the country is mostly as flat as a pancake). Those northern mountains protect against very cold winds yet the region is open from the west and south bringing drying breezes. Combine this with proximity to two rivers and lakes, south and east, and you get a windy continental climate with autumn mists; perfect for botrytis- or noble rot affected, desiccated grapes and hence the gorgeous sweet wines the area is famous for. Having said that, there's an increasing trend to make more dry whites: more on this later.

Back to climate - the most important factor at play here along with geography - László Mészáros, estate manager at Disznókő, emphasised: "the difference between Sauternes and here is our continental climate (with spring coming late, very hot dry summers and quite warm yet damp in autumn) and the wind... These conditions are essential for producing Aszú (read on for explanation)... and also help limit grey rot (an unwelcome 'bad' fungus)." Rainfall is actually relatively low with on average 550 mm (22 inches) per annum, but crucially it can rain quite a bit in autumn, which promotes the onset of botrytis followed by those berry-shrivelling winds.

Tokaj's blanket of vineyards, based on the original 1737 delimited area (although vines were first planted in the 13th Century), covers 5500 hectares (ha) or 13500 acres farmed by about 8000 growers supplying 400 wine producers. There's still one 70 ha state-owned winery, nearly 30% of vineyards are in the hands of foreign investors and the bulk is mostly split among independent growers, many of whom don't really earn a real living. After Communism - free elections were held in 1990 - the government offered incentives and loans for Hungarians to buy back their land. Heading back in the time machine, records date the first formal vineyard classification as 1772. "In 2 or 3 years we'll move towards an official cru system on the label focusing on the best areas," Mészáros commented, "while some are being abandoned."

Delving further into history books / fiction, after the Ottomans invaded the country it ended up divided along the Danube between the King of Hungary, Transylvania and the Turks occupying the rest. In common with other sweet wine producing areas (e.g. Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau, Germany), legend has it that noble rot grapes were accidentally discovered in 1620 thanks to that hostile Ottoman garrison delaying the harvest. Print the myth I say. Hungary was severely penalised after the First World War, with the death of the Empire, and lost a lot of territory. During the period 1945-89, the state co-ops deserted hillside vineyards opting for an easier more productive life by planting on flat land to up the quantity of wine for thirsty Soviet markets. In 2002 the region was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site by the way.

After phylloxera (the louse that annihilated Europe's vineyards in the late 19th Century), only three grape varieties were replanted. Nowadays, Furmint (F) makes up at least 60% of the surface area, which might be of Italian or Balkan origin according to recent research. Usually favoured for the warmest sites from mid-slope upwards, where it performs very well if conditions are perfect giving good botrytis and acidity. I think it also makes the most exciting dry wines. Hárslevelű (H), an aromatic grape occupying around 30% of plantings, yields less botrytis yet is invaluable when the vintage is especially wet. Sárga Muskotály (M) - yellow Muscat or petits grains - also has a long history and, although still quite rare, is now overtaking Zéta (Z). The latter is a cross of Furmint and the Austrian variety Bouvier; it ripens earlier even on the lower slopes and is effortlessly susceptible to noble rot. The fifth grape is worth mentioning just for its catchy name: Kövérszőlő (K) (sorry again for the childish "isn't it a funny language" comments). Finally, Kabar - a Bouvier x Hárslevelű cross - is a newly introduced experimental variety.

In terms of grape growing, the best vineyards are planted on east or south facing slopes at approx 150 to 300 metres altitude (500-1000 feet); vines are often terraced, high-trained and neatly hedged to maximise leaf and bunch exposure. Fruit yields are generally low, not surprisingly: the average for the last 5-10 years at Disznókő, for example, was 13 hectolitres (hl = 100 l) per ha (less than one US ton per acre), up to 20 in years where more dry wines are made. The ratio here is usually one third each dry, late harvest and Aszú; grapes for dry wines are often sourced from specific parcels (where botrytis doesn't spread so readily), but other plots can yield both.

To recap, for successful Aszú wines you need not only total botrytis invasion but also wind-shrivelled grapes. Quality-demanding estates will make 3 to 4 selective passes through the vines picking berry by berry; the fifth time the remaining bunches are cut. For dry wines, they harvest healthy whole bunches, also done manually. To make Szamorodni (which means 'just the way it was grown' in Polish) the overripe bunches are partly botrytised and not dried out, which are briefly macerated then pressed and the juice fermented in the usual way leaving 60-80 grams per litre sugar. These wines are increasingly labelled as Late Harvest for obvious reasons. To give you an idea of the labour-intensiveness of this process: an average picker can collect 6-8 kg (about 15 lb) of Aszú grapes per day, so 2 or 3 pickers are needed just to fill one 20 kg crate! Thus an estate the size of Disznókő or Royal Tokaji would require about 100 people.

Aszú winemaking is quite unique and a little complicated. In the old days, 25 kg or one puttonyos (the name of the traditional container) of Aszú paste was added to one Gönci, a 136 litre (30 gallon) barrel. Now 3 to 6 tonne batches are fermented in the equivalent tank size. Before vinification, the Aszú berries are stored for a few days in steel tubs to allow the free run juice, pure Eszencia nectar, to barely trickle off. We tasted a teaspoonful of this extraordinary super-sweet elixir fresh from the tap: it's very intense honey and lemon flavours derive from 500 to 900 (in exceptional years such as 2000) grams per litre sugar, yet up to or sometimes exceeding 20 grams per litre acidity (at least double, say a pretty acidic Champagne).

A few hundred units of Eszencia, and not every vintage, are bottled 'neat' after a long slow fermentation usually reaching no more than about 4% alcohol. However, its very existence is central to the winemaking process in other ways. Firstly, this measured draining-off dries out the berries which facilitates better maceration. A tiny proportion (1-2% of the volume) can also be added to Aszú wine "after the first fermentation has completely stopped, in new barrels in our new cellar," as they explained at Oremus, "which increases sugar and acidity, decreases alcohol a little providing better stability for subsequent ageing in our old cellar."

An appropriate quantity of mashed Aszú is added to the base wine, either into the fermenting must or to finished wine depending on vintage conditions and whether you want gentler or stronger extraction (this is quite important to house style and is touched on in more detail in the winery sections). How much Aszú relates to the puttonyos grade of the final wine, i.e. residual sugar left in bottle after fermentation, ageing and stabilisation:
3 Puttonyos = minimum 60 grams per litre, 4 = 90, 5 = 120, 6 = 150 and at least 180 for 'more than 6' confusingly called Aszú-Eszencia. A wine can be declassified to a lower puttonyos if the winemaker sees fit for quality or stylistic reasons. I know it's a bit anoraky including all the chemical analysis stuff in my tasting notes, but residual sugar (RS), acidity (TA) and alcohol together are particularly important for the structure and balance of high quality sweet wines: relate the figures to comments.

As I mentioned, some very good dry white wines are being made in Tokaj especially from Furmint: read the sections below and opposite for more on what and why winemakers think about this. It's obviously a logical trend given that most wine consumers around the world rarely buy or drink expensive sweet wines, and should bring in welcome cash flow for growers and producers. One question springs to mind though: should a dry wine be labelled as Tokay, which is the region of origin after all, to avoid confusion over what style it is? You couldn't imagine the French deciding to sell dry Sauternes!

Also based in Mád (a town rather than a Manchester nightclub), István Szepsy "has plans." Certainly on the maverick side, he's also one of the most quality-obsessed producers in Tokaj; his wines' high prices speak for themselves. Anyway, those plans. He's been looking at "lots of different stones from our vineyards" with a view to "producing wines according to different soil types, to make different cuvées or a new big blend" (if it doesn't work implied). To get the Furmint variety perfectly ripe, his focus is "vine balance... we green harvest in relation to each plant. Furmint gives fabulous structure and minerality but it has to be ripe. I want to spend more time in the vineyards."

Szepsy was the director of a co-operative until 1991; the following year he and his mother put 3.5 of their 5 ha (12 acres) into Royal Tokaji (see opposite). From this point onwards, he continually purchased plot after plot to eventually build his own estate up to 54 ha (134 acres), which is "a lot compared to the size of the team and winery... We were very small when we decided to leave the Royal and in 97 we turned down a joint-venture. From 1999, the time was right for the Szepsy brand; I couldn't do this as part of a big company or joint-venture." Back then the price of vineyards was quite low and the same everywhere, now it's much more varied. "It's still cheaper to buy bare land and plant, say, on the hilltops; but that's difficult as you have to decrease planting density, install new fencing etc. Then wait 30 years for good wine!" In addition, if you plant too high up you could risk getting no botrytis, as there's more wind and less fog.

Thus in future Szepsy will set out to make just single vineyard wines, both dry and sweet, then decide whether to bottle them as such or blend them. He's been making dry whites since 2000: "I think I'll have several from different sites, maybe even 50-50 (dry/sweet) in bottle. I'm not a fan of the 'reductive' style (excluding oxygen as much as poss in winemaking and storage to make squeaky clean wines), and the microclimate here doesn't favour it. But I changed my mind, because there's a lot of waste making sweet wines (in 2001 and 04 he sold everything in bulk!), people want dry wines and it can actually help get a bit of a following." Consequently, Szepsy told us his wines are now listed in 40 restaurants in London with consumers new to Tokay drinking the dry ones. "But I don't want people to just collect and not drink sweet wines... Brands are very important although in 10 years time 'terroir' names will be more so."

2005 Furmint Nyulászó (13%) - 4 ha (10 acres), barrel fermented. Celery notes, mineral v creamy; crisp and steely mouth-feel with smoky aftertaste. 87+
2005 Furmint Szent Tamás (14%) - aged 7 months in two year old barrels. More complex nose than above, quite rich and creamy palate followed by fresh mineral bite; slightly toastier finish yet very steely and long, lovely extract too. 89+
2003 Furmint Szent Tamás (14.5%) - quite pungent, can't be SO2 (given its age)? Perhaps Furmint's real aromas with development? Light smoky bacon tones v nutty oily fruit and texture; that quite high alcohol gives it weight but also makes it hot on the finish, nevertheless there's that crisp steely bite too. 87?
2003 Tokaji Szamorodni (sweet) (13.5%) - 1 year new Hungarian oak. Voluptuous tropical honey, vibrant pure and concentrated; very light chocolate oak tones, subtle freshness v lovely fruit; drinking nicely now, maybe lacks a bit of bite. 89
2003 Tokaji Cuvée (7.8 grams/litre TA, 180 grams/litre RS) - also contains a little Muscat, barrel fermented. Super exotic nose with lively floral notes and spiced honey; rich and concentrated, delicious fruit texture and weight; again finishes very sweet, needs more freshness (obviously a problem in 2003). 89
2002 Aszú 6 Puttonyos (9.4 TA, 220 RS, 10.5%) - delicate peachy perfumed aromas, tight structured palate showing sweet exotic fruit v fresh bite, rounded texture v mineral intensity; difficult to taste, needs time. 92-94

Degenfeld is ten years old although the family - of aristocratic German-Hungarian origin - obviously goes back much further than that. They also own a smart restaurant (pic.) in the main square in Tokaj and recently restored, posh hotel next to the winery. The estate comes to over 100 ha of vineyards (250 acres) but "we pick the best sites and lease the rest," according to Ilona Vadászi. "So far we don't have much distribution but we're focusing on wine tourism and direct sales," sensibly enough given their impressive property shop-window.

2005 Degenfeld Furmint (15% of yearly production sourced from quite young vineyards) - attractive floral grapey notes with steely mineral style, zesty yeast-lees complexity on the palate. 87+
2003 Furmint Árvay János (15%) - quite botrytised character, off dry and high alcohol; a bit much on its own yet nice with their very spicy goulash (it's served as a soup starter in Hungary, rather than main course stew).
2004 Hárslevelű (35 RS, 13.5%) - appealing oily nose but a little bland on the palate.
1999 Aszú 6 Puttonyos (11 TA) - Furmint base wine with 16 hours fermenting maceration, 30 months in mostly two year-old oak. Voluptuous and exotic honey & toffee notes lead to a super zesty lemon length, opulence v poise and class. 92-94

An amalgamation of seven vineyards with 500 years of human history 'up in them hills', the latter being the operative word. Planted from 100 to 300 metres (up to 1000 feet), we had to adopt a rather slanted stance in the steep spot we'd climbed to, an earthy 30% gradient. Hétszőlő's potted history is: owned by nobs until 1730 when it became part of the Habsburgs, ceded to the Hungarian state in 1918 and again after WW2 turning into the people's winery, replanted in the 50s then abandoned. Finally the vineyards were re-replanted from 1992, following the takeover by French group GMF and Japan's Suntory, and a new winery constructed.

Director Tibor Kovács explained that they're "trying hard" to follow 'integrated pest management' (IPM, similar to lutte raisonnée) across all 50 ha (124 acres), implementing "some organic and biodynamic ideas... Maybe we'll go fully biodynamic, we've made a start and visited growers in Switzerland." In visual contrast to terraced vineyards next-door, theirs are planted up and down the slopes meaning "erosion is possibly a problem" (don't think I'd want to be working up there during a downpour); but this allows them to use a small tractor and, as the vines are south-facing, they catch the sun well as the Earth does its daily thing...

2005 dry Furmint (7 TA, 13%) - sourced from the Zemplén-Neuzeller 'cru', barrel-fermented in new oak for 6 months. Lightly buttered toast, surprisingly subtle in fact; lean mineral bite and length, very fresh and dry, a bit closed. 1110 Ft 85-87
2005 Hárslevelű (6.5 TA, 65 RS, 12%) - grapey late harvest style, a bit bland although the acid comes back on the finish.
2005 Kövérszőlő (7 TA, 103 RS, 11%) - mushroom and fennel v lightly exotic fruit, oily texture yet livelier and fresher finish than above; different. 87
2001 Hárslevelű Aszú 5 Puttonyos (9 TA, 148 RS, 11%) - quite exotic oily v spicy mushroom, very aromatic; rich palate with light toffee notes, quite elegant and fresh, not so concentrated and intense yet well balanced. 89-91
2000 Aszú 6 Puttonyos (8 TA, 170 RS, 11.5%) - much more voluptuous and tropical, oily oxidised notes but not too much; big and concentrated, lacks real freshness falling a bit heavy. 89

Other members of the Tokay Renaissance group
A few of my favourites picked from a large yet intimate tasting at the glamorously new, marble-glass-metal Béres winery; and later over dinner with the growers at Ős Kaján restaurant in Tolcsva. Listed by style:
1999 Tokaj Classic dry Furmint (13.5%) - very oily and developed yet still perfumed, very dry texture and full bodied finish; curiosity food wine. 87
2005 Patricius dry Furmint - partly fermented and lees-stirred in large new barrels. The oak's pretty discreet actually, adding rounded texture layered with zesty mineral fruit and salty finish. 87-89

2004 Dobogó dry Furmint - quite stylish and well done, mixing toasty roundness and mineral bite. 87
2004 Fuleky 'Pallas'
late harvest Furmint (95 RS, 11%) - unusual wild mushroom aromas lead on to nice juicy exotic fruit, very zesty extract and acidity, good length.87-89
2004 Béres Cuvée (Szamorodni style) - lots of botrytis, equivalent of 6P. Delicious vibrant exotic nose sets the scene for a similar palate, very rich with light toasted chocolate v lemony bite. 92-94
2001 ÁrvayÉdes Élet cuvée (135 RS) - quite exotic and sweet but this has an attractive lemon curd backdrop, the oak's well integrated; nice balance and style. 89-91
 Tokaj ClassicAszú 6 Puttonyos (11%) - rich caramel and orange peel, fat palate but good acidity and balance on the finish. 90-92
2000 PatriciusAszú 6 Puttonyos - more fragrant and complex than other 00s, lovely fruit with lightly toasted backdrop, good concentration yet finer acidity and class. 92
2002 GunderAszú 6 Puttonyos (10 TA, 170 RS) - wow, very rich with dried apricots v lemon juice; big sweet mouthful yet lively length. 92-94
1999 PenditsAszú 6 Puttonyos - exquisite outlandish richness v youthful lemon zing.92-94

This historic estate is found in the most southerly part of the region nestling on the Tokaj hillside itself. It was rated as a 'first growth' in the earliest 1772 classification and, before WW1, end of Empire and Communism, owned over the centuries by various Austro-Hungarian nobs. The French assurance and investment company AXA Millésimes, whose property portfolio includes 
Château Pichon-Longueville in Pauillac, Château Belles Eaux in the Languedoc and Quinta do Noval Port among others, acquired it in 1992.

At the moment there are 100 ha (250 acres) planted on 150 of land using single cordon pruning and trellising. The obelisk/bandstand thing in the picture above is on the top of Boar's Rock hill (named after a vaguely hog-shaped lump of stone), where you get a great overview of their and surrounding vineyards. A new winery designed by a Hungarian architect has been attached quite seamlessly to the old cellar. They also have a decent restaurant called the Yellow House that occupies one of the original buildings located near the entrance off the main road.

Before my notes on Disznókő's wines, I've picked out a few technical points (yawn!) and comments that distinguish their philosophy and methods from other wineries. Our hosts were the estate manager László Mészáros and sales manager Enikő Király. One of the key differences is that Disznókő's sweet wines have 13-14° alcohol, which is actively sought, rather than the traditional 10-11°. So they pick the grapes at higher sugar levels, ferment warmer and longer to end up with a bit less sugar in the wine (although obviously the final amount depends on the P-grade: see opposite) aiming for a fruitier style. The latter also stems from their maturation techniques. In terms of Aszú maceration, "we use fermenting must (and pumping over) if conditions are ideal for gentle extraction yet good structure; and finished wine if quality isn't top. For example, 2004 and 2001 were rainy vintages so no fermenting must and open pigeage (plunging)."

These wines are aged for two years or more in barrel, a quarter of them new "to get harmony not oak flavours", which are topped up as necessary. Long enough to make sure the wines are stable with "quick but short oxidation to retain the fruit." Disznókő use new Hungarian and French barriques (225 litre barrel, 50 gallons) - home grown oak is half the price and the Zemplén forests in particular are a very good source, according to Mészáros. Before the 1990s the heavily oxidised approach practically defined Tokaj style and 'quality'. "This isn't now our philosophy," he told us, "which of course is based on quality in the vineyard. Oxidation was used to hide problems. The worst period was the 80s - even in the 70s the wines had freshness - because grape quality was so bad, unripe and over-cropped, oxidation could cover it up."

Another reason why Disznókő aim for 13-14° alcohol is evaporation. In their damp cellars - apparently tunnelled in 1995 but look much older thanks to the Hammer special effects team spraying the infamous black mould all over the show - where humidity is 85-90% (much more and it'd be raining), the wines lose about 0.5° alcohol per year which is lapped up by the fungus. The winery is slowly building up stock: 1993 was their first vintage, which also happened to be a classic year, as was 1999; these should be "at their best after 10-12 years. The 'new' style doesn't go back further than 1990." So far so good I'd say...

Notes on vintages are by Disznókő.
2005 Tokaji dry Furmint 
(13%) - aromatic, lightly reductive sulphide notes; peachier palate v mineral bite, crisp v fair extract and weight; quite attractive but lacks something although it was rather closed up; with lunch, it was much cleaner and zingier. 1100 Ft at the winery.
1997 dry Szamorodni (the barrels aren't topped up during ageing) - a bit like knackered Fino sherry with loitering acidity. OK with fish in a creamy sauce. 2200 Ft 50cl.
2004 (difficult vintage, average quality: lots of botrytis, good aromatic complexity, balanced but less power) Tokaji Furmint late harvest (7.5 grams/litre TA, 80 grams/litre RS, 13.5%) - evokes that spicy, exotic mushroom, pineapple and honey thing, complex & delicious aromas; good richness and weight of raisin fruit v fresh kiwi and white peach flavours, nice balance and length, attractive style. UK retail price £8.87-89
2002 (fairly classic vintage; aromatic, leaner structure than 03, good acidity) sweet Szamorodni (6.5 TA, 90 RS, 13%) - much less exotic, more closed and mineral; oily oxidised fruit on the palate v honey richness, acidity and alcohol appear more marked than above (but aren't); different style, 'old oak' character? Lacks balance and elegance on the finish. 2700 Ft 50cl. 85
2001 (potentially very good; cool and rainy, lots of botrytis but less shrivelling) Tokaji Aszú 4 Puttonyos (8.5 TA, 110 RS) - quite complex honey melon and spice, more mushroom v exotic fat fruit; citrus peel intensity v creamy raisins, quite developed and oxidised with acidity more in the background, forward and drinking nicely now. 4200 Ft 50cl. 87+
2002 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos (10 TA, 140 RS) - more golden than the 01 yet less open on the nose, less exotic spicier and lemony; despite higher sugar, this is nimbler with fabulous lemon acidity dancing through the sweetness; less obvious botrytis character, super length. 6300 Ft 50cl. 92+
2000 (atypical; very hot and dry, concentrated aromatic and rich, lower acidity) Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos (7 TA, 145 RS) - quite a bit deeper in colour than the 02, much more exotic tropical nose with toffee and apricot notes; rich and impressive with a little wood tannin too, up-front and sexy but lacks balance and bite. 6300 Ft 50cl. 88+
1999 (vintage of the decade; pure structured & focused) Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos (12 TA, 165 RS) - golden brown, very complex cinnamon and mature cheese, exotic yet intricate wild mushroom notes, lemon v raisin; incredible acid structure, sweet raisin fruit v lime juice, power v freshness on its classy length. 9800Ft 50cl. 94-96
1999 Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 'Kapi' (11.5 TA, 160 RS) - sourced from 40 ha: very low yielding higher parcels. Much more closed, very lemony with oily nutmeg aromas; complex rich raisin v immense cut of acidity, oily mushroom texture v intense freshness; less obvious than above with tremendous finish. 15000 Ft 50cl. 97
1993 (first great vintage after political change; classic, complex with fresh acidity) Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos (10.5 TA, 155 RS, 12%) - much browner, maturing toffee and pecan v lime notes, raisin & vanilla v piercing green fruit edges, very complex; lovely rich dried apricot fruit v fine acidity, roast pecans v citrus juice; in the end less sweet and less firm acidity than 99, delicious style and length. 94
2005 (great quality, low quantity, reminiscent of 99; cool rainy summer followed by long sunny autumn) Tokaji Eszencia (get this: 25 TA, 800 RS, less than 3%!) - very very treacly texture, plods down the glass; beautiful pure raisin aromas, unbelievably mouth-coating and viscous with intense lemon finish. Wow: impossible, and futile to score this 'wine'.

Mist in the valley from www.royal-tokaji.com

Royal Tokaji Wine Company
Almost a household name, the RTWC was founded in 1989-90 and actually isn't a member of the Tokay Renaissance group (ironically or fittingly perhaps, see my tasting notes further on). It's mostly British owned with Hugh Johnson, whose eerily lifelike bronze bust stands on guard in the garden, one of the main shareholders. Originally 62 growers each invested 1 ha (2½ acres) plus matching funds. Their first wines were released in 1994 including single vineyard cuvées and 'Nature' Eszencia; from 2002 the company joined the fashion for making late harvest wines. They have four "first growth sites" some of which allegedly feature in the Prince of Transylvania's ahead-of-his-time 1700 classification: Szent Tamás, Nyulászó, Betsek and Mézes Mály. About a quarter of their sales are in Hungary; the rest exported to e.g. the UK, USA, Canada, Norway and Sweden, totalling 22,000 cases of 6 x 50cl.

The vineyards that supply Royal Tokaji cover 108 ha (270 acres) including "twenty different terroirs," according to boss István Turóczi, mostly from tenants in and around the town of Mád who have "first refusal." We were told the winemaker checks every basket himself (!) and does reject grapes as he feels fit. The growers are paid accordingly on a first or second class grading. The day we were there, a wizened old lady stood patiently, creased Tesco bag in hand (I hear they're big in Hungary), next to her proud crates of raisined grapes waiting for the verdict. She was honoured to show us the fruits of her painstaking labour. By the way, they still practise foot-treading here to crush those sticky berries.

The base wine used at RT usually measures 13-14.5% alcohol, "sometimes up to 17 if sugar levels are very high... We do a longer maceration than most people, 7 to 10 days in tank and 3 to 5 days in the press." Single vineyard wines are fermented separately in oak with natural yeasts. In general the wines are aged for 3 years in wood - mostly in 200-300 litre barrels (45-67 gallons) and partly in 500-1000L casks or small Gönci - and topped up fortnightly. Once again, to discover the mile of tunnelled cellars, part of it as old as time, you have to know the password to access their ornate sandstone tomb in the garden. Then forever downstairs and more of that wonderful mould, which apparently also acts as efficient insulation "limiting temperature variation to 2° or so." Over to their wines:

2005 Tokaji dry Furmint (7 TA, 2.5 RS, 13%) - nice light white peach style leading to crisp mineral & yeast-lees notes, creamy v very fresh; attractive although, at £8 UK retail, not very good value. 85+
2005 Áts Cuvée (late harvest) (9 TA, 116 RS, 10%) - fairly closed nose, attractive grapey style on the palate showing very little botrytis I'd guess (there's "usually some" in this wine); more Muscaty and mineral showing nice balance of sugar, aromatic fruit and acid; a touch of SO2 on the finish? £8 85+
2000 Blue Label Aszú 5 Puttonyos (10.5 TA, 180 RS, 12%) - light toffee and raisin v citrus, not so exotic; nice richness of pecan nut fruit v reasonable freshness too, drinking well now, lacks real class and length. £15-£25, Majestic Wine Warehouses.87+
1999 Szent Tamás Aszú 6 Puttonyos (12.5 TA, 219 RS, 10%) - more complex and exotic than above, spice and mushroom; super rich raisin and toffee with lovely lemon backdrop, fresh acidity v concentration and extracted fruit; seems to lack the sheer panache of Disznókő's, but it's still looking young. £40-£50 90+
1996 Nyulászó Aszú 6 Puttonyos (11 TA, 164 RS, 10.5%) - much browner and much more oxidised, caramel notes; oily texture with richness v lemon, feels bigger although less sugar than above, very caramelised raisin fruit yet fair cut too; ready now? £35-£45 87-89
1995 Aszú Essencia (11 TA, 200 RS, 9%) - quite deep Amontillado colour, caramelised pecan nuts, more exotic and tropical than the 96 although still 'cooked'; rich toffee v fresh acidity, kind of old sherry with lemon juice, complex and textured. 88-90
1999 Essencia (18 TA, 552 RS, less than 3%) - less viscous than Disznókő's (not surprisingly comparing the RS) but still very very thick, intense cooked syrupy raisins v lemon acidity; extraordinary stuff, although fairly disgusting on its own after one (expensive) sip! £300 a bottle.

Château Dereszla

Established in the early 90s, Ch. Dereszla was bought by the d'Aulan family (previous owners of Piper Heidsieck, they have properties in St-Emilion, Argentina etc.) in 2000, who since have "really increased investment across the board," according to managing director László Kalocsay. "We've almost finished the new winery but the new vintage is arriving!" They've retained the cute old Vinotéka next-door, and underneath you'll find over one km of cellars built on three levels. The company has 60 ha (148 acres) of vineyard land, 27 of which currently producing so they also buy in grapes from growers in "good sites managed by us."

The warmest - or least cold perhaps - part of the cellar is devoted to flor-aged, oxidative type wines (like Fino sherry) such as their dry Szamorodni (see below). "We're reviving the style and have done research with e.g. different cellar yeasts from the Jura (Alpine France) and Spain (Jerez)." They bought about 1000 barrels in 2000, 50-50 Hungarian-French, which were in the process of being renewed but only with Hungarian oak. These are used three times in rotation: firstly dry wines are fermented in the brand new barrels; after racking and cleaning, they're filled with Aszú wines of 5 or 6 Puttonyos quality for one year or so; finally these are replaced by 2 or 3 P or late harvest for around two years. After five years, apparently there's a good market selling them to whisky distillers.

2005 Château Dereszla T10 (Kabar; 8 TA, 4.6 RS, 13%) - barrel fermented in new oak with 2 months lees-stirring. Aromatic and grapey, mineral tones v slight toast, nice steely floral finish. 85-87
2004 Fordítás (8 TA, 8.7 RS, 15%) - exotic botrytis notes mixed with creamy vanilla; unusual style, quite high on the alcohol front yet countered by a touch of sweetness and fresh acidity. 87
2003 Furmint late harvest (7.5 TA, 104 RS, 11.5%) - nice oily subtle botrytis aromas, tropical fruit v lemon cut; lively and fresh, you hardly notice the pretty high sugar. 89
2000 Aszú 5 Puttonyos (9 TA, 153 RS, 12.5%) - spicy mushroom and apricot, rich and chunky fruit showing light toffee notes then lovely lemony length; good balance for 00, classy. 92-94
2003 Muskotály Reserve (10.4 TA, 260 RS, 9%) - doesn't fit any rules, made in stainless steel vats only. Fragrant apricots with pineapple botrytis notes, very sweet and mouth-filling yet has lovely acidity and length. 94-96
2003 Szamorodni Experience (6 TA, 3.4 RS, 13%) - flor aged. Nice pungent Fino nose, nutty almond fruit with oily texture yet very fresh and crisp (especially after the above wine!); attractive and different, I'm reliably informed it's similar to a Jura Savagnin! 87-89

2000 Aszú Eszencia - very perfumed aromas, super exotic fruit richness; huge chocolate-textured mouthful yet with underlining freshness too, wow. 90-92

Château Pajzos - Château Megyer
These two different properties are owned by Jean-Louis Laborde of Château Clinet in Pomerol and both run by the same team. Ch. Pajzos amounts to 64 ha (160 acres) and Ch. Megyer 80 ha (200 acres), which fan out ceremoniously on the way into the town of Sárospatak. Here you'll find their centuries-old cellars, where, hidden below the castle, you can go down steps 12 metres (40 feet) underground into endless tunnels draped in a lush, all-shades-of-grey, mould fur coat. We sampled the following wines in a candle-lit, dungeon-like 'tasting room', which was quite fun although our clothes ended up very damp!

2005 Megyer dry Furmint (6.5 TA, 12.5%) - very fresh and gummy, racy crisp mouth-feel with nice mineral extract, long and dry. 85-87
2005 Megyer late harvest Furmint (6 TA, 50 RS, 12.5%) - light botrytis character, quite sexy and exotic then leaner elegant finish. 87
1999 Pajzos late harvest Muscat (14 TA, 162 RS, 10.5%) - lovely developed character showing raisin and pecan nut richness yet still perfumed and grapey; ferocious acidity on the palate lends fresh, youthful even, balance and persistence. 90-92
2003 Pajzos Furmint Eiswein (7.5 TA, 198 RS, 11%) - very rare in Tokaj, this was picked in January from a 2 ha frozen plot: they used to have a Canadian winemaker who introduced the idea. Sumptuous and concentrated, quite fresh although perhaps lacks real bite and length; needs more acidity to hold it together, not really true Eiswein yet it's nice nevertheless. 88
1999 Megyer Aszú 5 Puttonyos (11.5 TA, 148 RS, 11%) - they used Muscat must for the maceration. Quite toffee-ish nose  leads on to a rich colourful roast nut cocktail, lovely lemon freshness adds zingy intensity to that mature fruit. 92-94
1999 Pajzos Aszú 6 Puttonyos (8.5 TA, 199 RS, 11%) - more chocolatey with rich tropical fig and raisin fruit, delicious freshness despite lower acidity than above, toffee and lemon finish. 94
1993 Pajzos Aszú 5 Puttonyos (10 TA, 145 RS, 11%) - spicy and exotic with caramel notes, toffee apple fruit; rich and sweet v mineral & orange zest bite, very long. 94
1993 Pajzos Eszencia (13.5 TA, 452 RS, 4%) - very toffee and raisin with tealeaf notes, super rich and maturing fruit; difficult to believe.

This landscaped designer stone winery was taken over in 1993, when the Álvarez family of Spain's Vega Sicilia fame became the main shareholder, along with over 100 ha (250 acres) spread over 13 sites. Oremus, which I think means 'let's pray' in Latin, is the name of one 10 ha vineyard. Apart from an extensive replanting programme, resulting in them stopping buying grapes in 2001, they've noticeably spent a load of money on barrels: 500-600 new ones are purchased every year. Hence all their wines are fermented in new oak before being racked into older casks in the ageing cellar. They buy Hungarian wood and their own cooper does the necessary; he must be busy.

Investment and ambition don't end with impressive oak: there are literally hundreds of thousands of bottles, sweet and dry wines - they aim to make two-thirds dry, identified as "the most important change, restaurants now take both styles" - totalling 2½ years stock. "Tourism is becoming more and more important here," we were told, "for small growers it can represent over 50% of sales." I hope so too for their sake. By the way, Berry Bros & Rudd is Oremus' UK agent.

2005 Mandolás dry Furmint (13%) - toasty aromas lead to a juicier palate with lightly creamy texture; relatively low acidity yet still has freshness on the finish. We also tasted the 03, which was too oaky and alcoholic, so nice to see they've moved in the right direction. 85-87
2004 late harvest (9 TA, 102 RS, 13.5%) - quite elegant spicy berry with green v tropical fruit notes, creamy v sharp lemon, light chocolate texture v vibrant rich fruit; nice balance in the end. 89-91
2000 Aszú 5 Puttonyos (8.5 TA, 150 RS, 12%) - rich intriguing nose with chocolate, apricot and mushroom; gorgeous honey and marmalade, fat tropical texture, actually better balanced than other 2000s despite the sweetness. 90-92
1999 Aszú 6 Puttonyos (12 TA, 225 RS, 9.5%) - very perfumed apricot and marmalade, super rich and exotic with light toffee flavours; zesty lemon cut on its lovely length and stylish finish. 94-96
1999 Eszencia (18 TA, 500 RS, 8%) - bizarre, so viscous yet so tart...


As for their charismatic old-European capital, I only had a few hours to walk around a bit on this trip but came away with a 'must go back' feeling. Recommended for anyone going to Hungary, and Bratislava or Vienna even, to spend a few days at least here. Friendly polite people, who seem interested in visitors (particularly Western): on more than one occasion somebody said hello, just because I was there. A couple of highlights: cross the big Széchenyi Chain Bridge over the Danube into Pest, the 'old' town (as if the rest isn't) on Castle Hill. And it's good to see they've maintained the splendid Imperial/Communist glory (after all, there sometimes doesn't appear to be much difference when it comes to grand civic architecture) of vast Hero Square, for example; and faded deco elegance of the Western railway station, all tarnished iron and cute wooden ticket counters. The former first class (or Comrade class perhaps) waiting room has, unfortunately although tastefully, been transformed into what must be one of the prettiest McDonald's in Europe. Also had time to check out a couple of great restaurants:

Café Kör, Sas út: www.cafekor.com - smart laid-back traditional wine bar with a couple of tables outside tight to the pavement. Quality (and quantity of) food and wine list with good choice by the enormous glass: I tried the smoky cassis scented Kékfrankos/Merlot/Cabernet from Szekszárd. Located just around the corner from Szt. István (St. Stephen's) Bazilika, also a must-see in all its gilded splendour.
Kogart, Andrássy út 112: www.kogart.hu - not far from Hero Square nestling among various embassies, this fairly new swanky restaurant is quite expensive for Hungary (although not compared with London or Paris for the same quality) but worth it if you're treating yourself. Mix of Hungarian and international dishes, we were impressed by the wine waiter's know-how, technical (as there was a cork problem) and culinary.

Restaurants and hotels in Tokay and Eger

Toldi Fogado, Tokaj: www.toldifogado.hu - comfortable hotel with hunting lodge feel and spacious rooms, certain of which are reached by staircase only. And avoid the ones in the kind of annex at the back, which overlook a busy road.
Degenfeld restaurant & hotel, Tokaj: www.degenfeldpalota.hu - stylish bistro atmosphere, traditional and international food; their posh refurbished hotel is located at the winery.
The 'Yellow House' at Disznókő, Tokaj: www.disznoko.hu - part of the old manor house at the entrance to their vineyards, outside of the town.
Ős Kaján restaurant, Tolcsva: www.oskajan.hu - Hungarian country cooking with an arty French twist.
Vár Vendéglő Panzió, Sárospatak: www.varvendeglo.hu - cosy rustic restaurant, tasty and copious dishes.
Fehérszarvas Vadásztanya, Eger: www.feherszarvasetterem.hu - not recommended for vegetarians, this is a game-orientated restaurant with lots of stuffed animal heads on the walls. Nice cheesy, 'don't you go changin' elevator musician.


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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.