With such a long history, it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy, but there is no doubt that Tokaji producers had discovered the beneficial properties of noble rot by 1650. This gave them a hundred-year head start on the Germans, and nearly 200 on the vignerons of Sauternes. The Tokaj district was delimited by royal decree in 1737, and the world's first vineyard classification system introduced in 1772. Unfortunately, Communist dogma and the realpolitik of the Cold War era were not conducive to fine wine production. Individual vineyard identities and the quest for perfection were subsumed in the mediocrity of state farm collectives, and the inevitable reorientation towards a Russian market thirsty for large quantities of the cheapest wines possible.
When the Iron Curtain was drawn back, fine Tokaji was more a legend than a reality, a romance fuelled by the recollections of a few wise old connoisseurs. But the allure was undeniable, and it quickly attracted both romantics and hard-headed money men to this rustic corner of northeastern Hungary. The Vega Sicilia team were aware of the dangers this gold rush presented, and realised that "if you're going to do it, do it right". Guided by this philosophy, they have spared no expense in securing the most highly-rated vineyards, plus several kilometres of ideal underground cellars. These cellars are particularly important to the quality of Tokaji, because they create perfect conditions for long cask ageing: a constant temperature of 10°C, 95% humidity, and an ambient colony of moulds and bacteria that protect the wines from spoilage. The estate they bought was rechristened Oremus, and a team of the most experienced local and imported winemakers was put in place with the sole aim of producing the very best Tokaji imaginable.
Six years on, the Oremus wines are bang on target. The young Tokaji's are a direct product of the Vega Sicilia investment, but they have also released some fine older vintages. Inside knowledge enabled the team to purchase the pick of the state cellars stocks, and these were looked after with loving care, before bottling under the Oremus label. Thanks to Oremus, and a few other dedicated producers, the lofty Tokaji reputation is being quickly re-established as a reality rather than a myth in the world of fine wine. View all Oremus Wines
Wine of Kings and the King of WinesThe most well-known and important wine in Hungary is Tokay-Aszú, truly one of the world's greatest sweet wines. Louis XIV – France's Sun King – once called the wine, "vinum regum, rex vinorum," translated as, "the wine of kings and the king of wine." Unfortunately, the king of wine suffered during Hungary's 50-year communist regime - exports of Tokay-Aszú decreased and the vineyards were nationalized with a focus on lower quality and higher quantity. When the communist government fell in 1989, the vines for making Tokay-Aszú were in a state of disrepair. With the help of investors and the creation of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, the Hungarian vineyards and wine industry were rebuilt.
Notable FactsWhile Tokay-Aszú is the most important and most imported of Hungarian wines, it only represents about 10% of the total wine produced. The rest of Hungary is spotted with over 20 different wine regions, most cultivating both the indigenous varieties of the country and several international varieties that arrived with the post-communism investors. In the whites, the indigenous variety of Furmint plays double duty, making still white wines and remaining the most crucial grape in the Tokay blend. Other indigenous varieties include Hárslevelú, Olaszrizling (Welschriesling) and Irsai Oliver, a newcomer that produces delicious dry whites. The international varieties of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Muscat also play a role. For reds, Merlot is the most popular of the international crowd, while on the indigenous side you have Kadarka and Kékfrankos (the Hungarian name for Austria's Blaufränkisch).
To make Tokay-Aszú is a process:
Two sets of grapes are picked – first, the workers scan the fields, picking the Aszu grapes - those affected by botrytis. These grapes are then gently pressed to make an Aszú paste. Grapes not affected by botrytis are then picked and fermented into a high-acid base wine.
Once both the paste and the still wines are complete, the two are combined. The Aszú paste is added to the base wine in amounts referred to as puttonyos (puh-TOON-yohsz). The higher the puttonyos, the sweeter the wine. Most Tokay-Aszú on the market is between 3 puttonyos and 6 puttonyos.
Beyond 6 puttonyos is Tokay Aszú Essencia. Tokay Aszú Essencia is equal in sweetness to about 7 puttonyos, and is made in only the best years from the best vineyards.