Standing at the bottom of the vineyard slopes, looking toward Mount Tokaj, it was hard to imagine that these vines were once sneered at and ripped up, the land left fallow for decades.
Tokaj's vineyards—prized for their south-facing slopes and volcanic subsoil, and the beautiful white grapes they produce—were first mentioned in writing in the 15th century. In 1732, Tokaj became the world's first delineated wine appellation, loved mostly for its sweet white wines. The Zemplén mountains, which are of volcanic origin, protect the vineyards from cold northern winds; the lava deposits from eruptions millions of years ago have filled the soil with rhyolite and tuff, as well as some loess. Contrasting the coolness of the mountain shade, the plains to the south allow heat to enter the vineyards, providing the ideal conditions for the development of botrytis, a.k.a. "noble rot."
We were outside amid the vineyards of Hétszóló, a historic estate that has existed since 1502, making it one of Hungary's oldest. It was a chilly, wet October day, and all over Tokaj, winemakers were anxiously waiting for the clouds and mist to pass, so that the botrytized grapes could finish drying up and be harvested. It is because of botrytis that the wines of Tokaj were so beloved by monarchs, artists, and writers. "The wine of kings, and the king of wines," is what Louis XIV said about the aszú wines of Tokaj. Only white grapes grow in Tokaj, and the best of them are reserved for aszú, an elegant, sweet wine, made in small quantities from shriveled and botrytized white grapes.
Botrytis is a mold that afflicts fully ripened grapes late in the harvest season. As the weeks go on, the moldy grapes shrivel and become dark brown and dried out. To make aszú, these moldy and shriveled grapes are hand-selected, then fermented on the skins for several days. (White wine is usually made by separating grapes from their skins right away, but leaving the juice in contact with the skins provides tannic structure and flavor.) After fermentation, the aszú wine is aged in Hungarian oak for at least two years. The result is a rich, sweet wine that also has excellent acidity. Not just for dessert, these kinds of wines go well with foie gras or mangalitsa pork, both of which Hungary produces.
Winemaker Makai Gergely explained that during Hugary's communist period, the Soviet desire to produce wine in bulk necessitated machine harvesting, rather than picking the grape clusters by hand. It is impossible to use a machine to harvest very steep slopes, so at Hétszóló, where the best vines are also in the steepest areas, they were simply ripped up. Just about all vineyard land was taken under control of the state when the Soviets took over following World War II, with the exception of small parcels of land that families were allowed to keep in their name and vinify on their own.
At nearby estate Disznókó, equally historic and first-class as Hétszóló, winemaker László Mészáros gestured toward the estate's prized vineyards, atop the hills, where poor soil encourages the vines to work for hydration, resulting in lower-production vines with good-quality fruit. "Under communism," Mészáros tells us, "the majority of Disznókó's vineyards were transformed to mass production by cutting the rows and moving the vines to high cordon." For a serious winemaker like Mészáros, who is in his 40s and has steely blue eyes, it should be cringeworthy to consider how the Soviets treated the top vineyards of Tokaj, which had been cultivated with pride for centuries: They irrigated them, they trained the wines to overwork and produce more—aiming for bulk rather than quality. According to Mészáros, these grapes were transported to a central winery at the state-owned farm, where they were vinified together with grapes from other sites in enormous tanks.
After the end of communism, an influx of international funding allowed Tokaj and Hungary's other regions to replant vineyards, restore estate wineries, and hire personnel to rejuvenate the industry. In Tokaj, the main crop is furmint, a grape that's naturally high in acidity and very floral; growers also plant hárslevelú and a few other varieties. Well-made dry furmint can be beautiful and reminiscent of Loire Valley chenin blanc. But the sweet wines of Tokaj, including aszú and a special product called eszencia, made from barely fermented runoff juice from botrytized and shrivelled grapes, are the region's prize.
At the Disnókó estate, we did two elaborate vertical tastings of these wines. With the aszú, we went from 1993 to 2011, the current vintage, and even tasted barrel samples from 2012 and 2013. The point of a vertical tasting is to compare one product over the years; it is an amazing way to get to know how a grape, or a style of wine, responds to vintage variations. The 2003 aszú wine, for example, was one of the most interesting; a hot growing season was counterbalanced by late ripening and perfect botrytis, resulting in a salty nose with a rich, black tea finish that lingered for quite a few moments after sipping the wine. We all liked the 1993 wine, as well, but Mészáros told us that it had been rejected by a tasting committee consisting of a communist-era generation of winemakers.
For days, we'd been tasting the wines of Tokaj, and I felt like there was one elephant in the room: the Soviet past, and how hard today's winemakers were working to overcome it and prove Tokaj's name, despite 45 years of lost wine.
But just how bad could those wines really be? There was only one way to know.
I asked Mészáros if I could taste a communist wine. He did not raise an eyebrow at my request, and immediately began texting his assistant.
Within minutes, Mészáros' assistant came with the wine, an aszú. It had no label, and unlike the other wines we had tasted, and it was much darker—brown, rather than burnt sienna or golden—and there was sediment at the bottom, unlike the clean, filtered wines we had been drinking.
Mészáros seemed disinterested, almost scientifically curious, as he opened the bottle. "This was from a barrel labelled 1988, which essentially was forgotten." I pictured the winemakers, fleeing the premises as the winds of political change came through the Disznókó winery, simply omitting one barrel in their haste.
One fellow journalist wrinkled his nose. "I'm not going to ruin my palate with that, after such a wonderful tasting."
But I was driven by curiosity. The dark brown liquid smelled distinctly ferrous, and Mészáros explained that the state-run wineries used iron equipment to ferment their wine, as opposed to the more neutral stainless steel. The entire wine was redolent of iron, like licking a knife. But underneath that, the juice itself was decent. It simply lacked the complexity, the beautiful acidity and natural aromas, of the other wines we had tasted.
"There was no concern for the quality of the grapes," explained Mészáros. "Every vintage from the 80s tasted the same. It wasn't good, it wasn't bad—just the same."
This wine was a living relic of the mechanical mediocrity that the Soviet state aimed for. As it washed down all the beautiful vintages that Mészáros made with care, I lamented how it had set back an entire culture of handcrafted winemaking. The wine was an insult to the quality of the fruit and the soil.
When people talk about a wine's vintage, they are usually considering the weather during that particular growing season: How much sunshine was there? Did it rain enough? But opening up a bottle can reveal more than just climatic variation. When you remove the cork from a bottle and hold it to your nose, what you're smelling isn't just grapes. It's politics, social history, the winds of change. Next time you're getting tipsy on a great bottle, think about what was going on at the moment those grapes were being grown, in that region, and you might just find the entire world in your glass.