'Ithink I'd like to be embalmed in Tokaj," moaned Bridget, who was sitting on my right. We'd been in Hungary all of two hours and were dining – and more importantly drinking – in Gundel, Budapest's grandest restaurant. Having ooh'd and ahh'd our way through a crisp, gooseberry-hued white and a plummy, exotic red, as well as some tasty ham and smoky goose, we were on the finale: Tokaj aszu, the sweet dessert wine once christened "king of wines, wine of kings" by Louis XV of France and the most famous thing ever to come out of Hungary.
It was harvest time out in the vineyards, and Budapest was enjoying its regular second season of balmy weather. Hungarians call September and October Old Ladies' Summer because, they say, the sun smiles down like a loving grandma. Young couples were still wearing T-shirts and shades, strolling past the bombastic monuments on Heroes' Square and heading down to the Danube for a boat ride into the haze.
Tokaj-Hegyalja – the region where the sweet wine and many other vintages are made – was our main reason for being here. So, after lunch, we boarded a bus with Attila, our expert guide, to cross the central Carpathian chain. A fat red sun was setting over the hills. The farmlands turned gold and the old Russian tractors were chugging home down the low slopes.
As we plied the 220km to the wine district, close to the Ukrainian border, Attila explained that after the First World War Hungary had lost a lot of land, including the wilderness of Transylvania, to Austria, Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Romania. He said that Hungary had never been at ease with communism. "When we walk we keep to the left," he said, "but we stay on the right." It was serious stuff for a post-prandial lecture, but he clearly loved his country and knew his history. I wanted to know more about the Soviet period. He explained that in the 1970s and 1980s Hungary was the world's leading country in chicken farming. "At a conference only the Hungarian delegates had luxury coaches," he boasted.
I asked Attila to teach us some basic Hungarian, so we wouldn't appear rude to our hosts at the vineyards. He taught us thanks and hello and yes and no. How do you say cheers? I asked. "Easy," came the reply, "it's 'I wish it to your kind health'." And in Hungarian? "Ah, that's kedves egészségedre kivánom."
In Tokaj we spent three days visiting wonderful, welcoming winemakers in ancient cellars. The aszu is a late-harvest wine, the grapes allowed to shrivel into berries. In the olden days, there was no harvest till 26 October by edict – and those who broke the law were publicly flogged.
Attila talked us through a series of wonderful wines at the Disznoko winery. Before we were allowed near the aszus, we tried some traditional dinner wines, including a late harvest furmint that was packed with fruits, and a dry, fresh szamorodni. The aszus were ranked by numbers
on their labels – four, five, or six puttonyos, rising as the wines gain in richness and complexity. We also sampled eszencia, a low-alcohol, ultra-sweet syrup that, as the name suggests, represents the very essence of the Tokaj aszu berries. It felt decadent, but I wouldn't want a whole night on it.
Parts of the building, including a Baroque watchtower, dated from the end of the 18th century, but there was a cutting-edge wine-press house and a very stylish, sensually curved tractor garage designed by prize-winning architect Dezso Ekler. The name Disznoko refers to a rock shaped like a wild boar. We climbed up to this natural monument to take in a sweeping view of the region. Tidy villages were sprinkled over the hillsides, their houses vaguely Tyrolean but their wooden churches built in the Transylvanian style.
The wine region has been protected since 1737, and was the world's first system of appellation control, several decades before port was protected. In 2002, Unesco made the whole of Tokaj a World Heritage site, partly out of admiration for the way the locals have continued to make their regal wine – costly to produce, hard to market and unfashionably sweet – but also in recognition of the organic nature of the region. The wine needs the rivers and the warm, south-facing slopes, and without the wineries the region would change for good.
We indulged in dozens of great wines at half a dozen vineyards, all of them proud, all of them ancient with a modern twist. Our tour ended at the Crown Estates, a former royal holding that was managed for decades by the communist state and is now a rare, 100 per cent Hungarian-owned winery. At the end of a dank corridor we were led into a tiny round cellar that looked perfect for plotting revolutions. Here we were treated to a wine from 1972. It was not only rich and luxurious, but had the long, sturdy legs of a Hungarian gymnast. Attila said it was being drunk "in honour of Lord Chadwick who bought a 1648 bottle of Tokaj in 1979 for £1,300 at Christie's – and then returned the bottle to Tokaj as a gesture of respect for Hungary's patrimony".
"Kedves egészségedre kivánom" was all I could say. I was beginning to understand Attila's wine-laced politics. Like all patriotic Hungarians, he linked the renaissance of Tokaj with the return of democracy in 1990 and, less precisely, with Hungary's return to a Habsburg-style greatness – with or without those mountains stolen by Romania.
How to get there
Chris Moss travelled with Arblaster and Clarke Wine Tours (01730 263111; winetours.co.uk). The next group tour is from 19 to 22 September 2008 and costs £849 per person (based on two sharing). This includes flights from London to Budapest, transfers, three nights' hotel accommodation, most meals and all winery visits and tastings.
Hungarian National Tourist Office (020-7823 1032; gotohungary. co.uk)Reuse content