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Talking Tokaji

No trip to Hungary would be complete without a visit to the home of Tokaji – one of the world's greatest dessert wines

I have been to Tokaj (the place) to taste the wine (Tokaji) many times before and have had the privilege to taste many historic vintages of this wonderful dessert wine which has the capacity to age for a very long time. It has been fascinating to chart the region's fortunes as it has found its way back from post-communist doldrums.

Vineyard vistas – Tokaj – photo courtesy of Caroline Gilby MW Vineyard vistas – Tokaj – photo courtesy of Caroline Gilby MW

Despite the gloss that one of the world's greatest wines inevitably brings to the region, this is in fact one of the poorest parts of Hungary, particularly in the outer villages. There are only 5,500 hectares under vine (pre-phylloxera it would have been much greater) covering an area roughly similar to that of Burgundy's Côte d'Or. Then within this, the best part is actually tiny.

Tokaji Aszú was a shadow of its former glory under communist Monimpex, though a few memorable wines were made, as I had discovered in 2002 when the state cellar opened some library vintages made in limited quantity.

Istvan Szepsy – the leading light of Tokaj Istvan Szepsy – the leading light of Tokaj

Istvan Szepsy with many years' experience (back to 1963) was the leading light in Tokaji's revival and remains so, though sadly for his admirers, small production and international demand have pushed his prices sky high with the help of an avaricious agent.

With 400 separate parcels from 26 acres centred round the town of Mád, his wines have exceptional charm. His son, who works for Szent Tamás makes fine wines at affordable prices, particularly his dry furmint. Furmint's full spicy almost fiery flavour is the signature white grape of Tokaj, blended with the more honeyed softer hárslevelü. Only since the hot dry 2003 vintage when no Tokaji could successfully be made here, growers began to understand how to ferment dry furmint successfully to keep its character and not to lose its charm.

Furmint grape – courtesy of Caroline Gilby MW The furmint grape now making excellent dry whites alongside the sweet
Picking individually rotted aszu berries to make Tokaji Picking individually rotted aszu berries to make Tokaji

> View wines from Royal Tokaji company

Royal Tokaji was the first privately owned company after the collapse of the old regime in 1990, founded with vision by outside investors, but it is only fairly recently that it fully came to grips with the complexity of the region to make the consistently fine Aszú wine that we list.

Since 2009 Royal Tokaji has been owned by Damon de Laszlo. They are particularly pleased with their 2013 vintage, both excellent and plentiful, though still in its infancy so the 2009 is better for current drinking. As is the case for most of the world's top sweet wines, the great years don't come every year. 2010 and 2014 were pretty disastrous and 2011 and 2012 were too hot and dry to encourage the noble rot which makes Tokaji so long-lived and magical.

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