Tokaj is the source of Aszú, Hungary’s famous dessert wine. Over the last few years, I have slowly begun to appreciate dessert wines. For me, they have to have good acid levels to balance the residual sugar and ensure the wines aren’t syrupy or cloying.
My guess is that I have tasted Aszú at some point in my life—during my wine captain or Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses (I have an advanced WSET certification). But the first time I actually remember tasting it was during my first trip to Budapest.
My recent trip to Tokaj was the first of two stops on a brief holiday to learn more about Hungarian wines. There’s nothing like going to the source to understand the wines better. In the wine world, we talk about “sense of place.” I was going to Tokaj to see, feel, smell, listen to, and taste the area—literally and figuratively drink in the place.
I stayed at Paulay Borház és Vendégház—a wine cellar and guesthouse. The guesthouse was in a central location, clean, cozy, and quiet. Co-owner Linda was a fantastic and English-speaking host: picking me up and dropping me off at the train station; providing a welcome drink; offering helpful tips for more cellars, restaurants, and other attractions; and leading an informative and generous tasting.
Early in the tasting, her husband—her partner in the operation and wine maker—called from the vineyard for the pre-arranged pick up. It took me less than one second to reply “Yes!” when asked if I wanted to accompany her. We lumbered up the hillside (hard to call it a mountain) in a dusty, old but reliable pickup truck. At one point, she shifted the extra gear to kick in what I imagine was four wheel drive.
There’s something special about immersing oneself in vineyards. It’s the core of the wine—the core of the place. I tried to absorb all the sensations possible because I knew the visit wouldn’t last long. But Linda and her husband didn’t disappoint. Linda provided a tour of the vineyard, talking about the grapes, the challenges they face, the ideal expansion, and more. They even had pre-phylloxera vines!
Upon returning to the guesthouse, we resumed the tasting, sharing the bar with other visitors who cycled in and out. It didn’t take long before I started to develop a sense of Tokaj. To me, there’s a noticeable quality to the wine—a bright and focused minerality that is probably attributed to the volcanic rock throughout the region. Even when there were wines with higher levels of residual sugar, the acid levels kept the wines vibrant, refreshing, and alive.
The tasting lasted late into the evening. Afterwards, the only thing left to do was eat dinner. Walking about the small town of 4,000, I found a walk up restaurant window only open Friday and Saturday nights and dined on a hearty burger. My first day was ending but my love affair with Tokaj was just beginning.