Hungary is a good place to visit when you are hungry. Three hearty meals a day accompanied by glass after glass of tokay, one of the world's finest sweet wines, is enough to send anyone racing for a gym membership - if not an insulin injection.
Tokay (pronounced toh-kai) is the English spelling of tokaji, which means wine from the Tokaj region. The Tokaj vineyards are planted on the low foothills where the great Hungarian plains meet the Carpathian Mountains. The wine that really put Tokaj on the map is tokay aszu, widely regarded as one of the world's most magnificent sweet wines alongside France's sauternes and the late-harvest wines of Germany. The only difference in the fortunes of these exalted wines is Hungary's industry lost its lustre during the cold-war years, churning out state-factory- driven production that little resembled the noble wine France's King Louis XIV once purportedly pronounced, 'vinum regnum, rex vinorum' - the wine of kings and the king of wines.
Luckily, when Hungary became a democratic republic in 1989, foreign investment flooded into Tokaj to revitalise this world treasure. Investors such as Lord Jacob Rothschild, prominent British wine authority Hugh Johnson and financial powerhouse AXA brought formidable investment to Tokaj, which the wineries' striking architecture, state-of-the-art facilities and breathtaking wines bear witness to. Like other great sweet wines of the world, tokay aszu is produced from grapes so shrivelled upon harvest they could easily be confused with raisins. And, like the other great sweet wines of the world, legend surrounds the original discovery of this tangerine-scented elixir. As the story goes, in the mid-1600s the Tokaj locals were called to combat the Turks on one of their many invasions. Forced to abandon their harvest activity, they returned some time later to find the grapes shrivelled and rotting. In desperation, a priest requested the grapes be harvested anyway. Upon pressing, a sweet juice miraculously oozed from the raisins, which the priest blended with the previous year's dry wine and thus tokay aszu was born.
In fact, aszu existed much earlier than legend supposed, appearing on royal and papal inventory lists of the 1500s. Through the centuries, tokay aszu was a favourite of many writers and composers, including Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert, Haydn and Goethe. In more recent times, Austrian emperor Franz Josef sent cases of tokay aszu to Britain's Queen Victoria for her birthday - 12 bottles for each year of her age, which by her 81st birthday in 1900 was a whopping 972 bottles.
Six grape varieties are approved to produce tokay.
The furmint variety constitutes 60 per cent of the region's plantings and produces an impressive range of wine styles, from crisp, dry whites to the world's sweetest wine. Other more tongue-twisting varieties include harslevelu, sargamuskotaly, koverszolo, zeta and kabar.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and over the centuries various countries have adopted the tokay name, with even France pinching it to refer to a wine made in Alsace. Italy ascribed the
name 'tocai' to a grape variety grown in its cool northeastern region. Australia's Victoria region dubbed their concentrated, deeply coloured sweet wine Rutherglen tokay and just over the border from Tokaj, Slovakians laid such a firm claim to the name that in 2004 the two countries agreed 5 square kilometres of Slovakian vineyard might also label their wines Tokay as long as production conforms to Hungary's high standards.
There are about 30 leading producers of tokay aszu and under these historic wineries lie miles of dank wine cellars once used to evade the marauding Turks. Top names include Royal Tokaji, Disznok?, Pajzos, Oremus, Szepsy, Beres, Demeter and Patricius. If you haven't yet tried tokay, you are missing one of the world's special experiences: a glass of liquid gold redolent of apricots, tangerines and dried orange peel with a fresh acidity that belies its luxurious sweetness.
A 60ml serving is sufficient and, if kept in the fridge, the opened bottle will last a few months - slightly longer than your commitment to the gym.