Like fine wine, a good anecdote should improve with age. The telling and retelling hones the narrative arc – helping the teller hit the punchlines. No non-fortified wine ages as well as Tokaji Aszú. At Berry Brothers in London and in the Tokaj region’s labyrinthine cellars under its most storied properties, wines labelled in German dating from the Austro-Hungarian period are only now hitting their peak of complexity – their once exuberant gold colour replaced by an evocative brownish-rust.
The following stories and tasting notes from my 2015 summer trip to Tokaj are only now ready for a public retelling, just as the current vintages I brought home with me 20 months ago are now approaching their drinking window. For many Western tourists, Hungary seems a place frozen in time, epitomised by the concrete jungle of Soviet era apartment complexes, rusting factories and aging infrastructure. But Hungary is actually a country on the move. New boutique hotels are springing up both in Budapest and in the wine country; Hungarian viticulture is becoming progressively more high-end and sophisticated as lower yields and new machinery are combined seamlessly with a return to traditional techniques that were lost during the Soviet period. Even politically, Hungary is a place where new and old cross-pollinate.
Given the geo-political earthquakes of 2016, Hungary now appears ahead of the curve, rather than behind it. The Magyar political discourse emphasises cultural ‘authenticity’ and continuity. This, combined with the Alt-Right populism of both the government and the Hungarian populace on issues of migration, Putin, and traditional values, might well represent the shape of the global future, not that of the past. Seen in this light, Hungary is, in fact, an early adopter and innovator; its political discourse sheds much light on where Western Europe and North America may be headed.
Hungary is, therefore, not only a beautiful and much misunderstood country; it is an important, distinctive and perhaps representative one. Its high-end dessert wines are not the forgotten step-sisters to Sauternes; they are a testament to centuries of high culture and unique winemaking traditions like Szamorodni and Eszencia. A wine tasting trip to Tokaj is not for the faint of heart or ill-prepared, it is for adventure-seekers willing to both challenge their taste buds and face the complexities of travelling in a post-Soviet, non-English speaking, and only partially-globalised environment.
My visit in 2015 was my first to the country in nearly ten years. And it was far more bewildering and revelatory than any I had undertaken previously. I landed on 19 August 2015 in torrential rain. My assistant had helped me select the correct train to Tokaj and had booked a hotel for me there. She had not, however, weighed in on how to get from the airport to the train station – nor had I thought to ask. No one at the airport could explain how to get the shuttle to the main train station (Keleti).
After hours of waiting, I finally secured a taxi to Keleti for the train to Tokaj. This was merely weeks before Syrian migrants camping out in the station caused it to be briefly shuttered. All the ticket machines were broken or malfunctioning; finally, at the ticket window where English was partially understood, I asked for the most expensive ticket with a seat reservation; the woman indicated that I didn’t need a seat reservation because “the system was down” so she couldn’t issue one. She instructed me that seats were first come, first served, so I could take any seat I could find.
Once on the train, I find a seat facing forwards – a big deal for me as I suffer from fairly acute motion sickness. Ten minutes into the journey, a woman appears and gesticulates that I must leave the seat. She waves a ticket and a seat reservation in my face. As far as I can tell, it does not have my seat number on it. I try to explain that I was told that the seat reservations were invalid and that her ticket doesn’t correspond to where I am sitting anyway. She speaks no English (nor French or German). Soon the whole carriage is explaining and later yelling in Magyar, clearly indicating that I must leave the seat. I try, to no avail, to explain that I tried to purchase a seat reservation, but that I was told it was first come, first served on seats and that she doesn’t have a seat reservation for my seat anyway.
This episode is a bit shocking for me as it is devoid of the deference and graciousness to the foreigner/visitor that one would intrinsically find in the part of the non-Western world with which I am most familiar – the Arab World. Quite the opposite. I felt that I was singled out as a non-Hungarian to be evicted from my seat. As we careen back and forth, I wander the rickety train with increasing dizziness, until I find the first-class carriage and the conductor. I purchase an upgrade for the princely sum of 100 forints or less than 50 cents USD. Welcome to Hungary. Possibly the only place left in the EU where a multilingual and well-travelled foreigner can be met with complete incomprehension and hostility in public thoroughfares, and yet have the most dignified red carpet rolled out for him in places of high culture like vineyards or private museums.
Surprisingly, my supposedly direct train to Tokaj never reaches its destination. North of Miskolc, I am offloaded from the train onto a bus. The bus eventually drops me at the Tokaj train station about three hours later than I had expected. The station is closed and deserted, save for the other passengers who get off the bus. I ask how to get a taxi. No one will help me. Some people are picked up in cars by their loved ones. I motion to them and ask for “Centrum kérem.” Yet, no one will direct me into town. I finally spot an elderly couple that are simply walking away from the station carrying their luggage on their heads. I follow them and very shortly see signs for Centrum.
While continuing in the direction of the Centrum, I see a sign for the Hotel Tokajvár and think this is where my assistant has reserved. (This turns out to be incorrect; she has booked me in at the Hotel Tokaj further down the road.) At the Tokajvár, the young receptionist says she has a free room, but that I don’t have a reservation - explaining to me that I must continue straight ahead for 500 metres to reach my hotel. Reaching the Hotel Tokaj, I discover it has a 1970s interior and smells like it has not been cleaned since then. My room has a view of the river and horrible techno music can be heard from a nearby disco. As the wifi doesn’t work - I need to confirm my tasting appointments - I give up and go back to the Tokajvár only to learn that the available room was for one night only. I need three nights. Exhausted, I decide to stay anyway. Next, I ask where I should go out for dinner as I am starving. It is 22:30 and she says nowhere will still have the kitchen open.
Will I have to go to bed hungry in Hungary as the reward for my trek to Tokaj? To find out, stay tuned to the next instalment of this four-part series. Part II focuses on the Szamorodni wine style.