Rod Smith MW

The golden hello – how I fell for Hungarian wine

Rod Smith MW’s lovely story about his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and a special Tokaji Aszú, as one of the “50 golden things”

Hazy memories of Sopron 

In 2004 I was invited to give a presentation at the Hungarian Wine Marketing Conference in Sopron, about the UK wine market. There was no financial fee. This was just as well because the news I was going to deliver was not great for an emerging country trying to break into a market whose channels of sale were becoming increasingly constrained by supermarkets, and discounting. However, the payback was far better than money, because one of my hosts, Péter, was going to take me to Tokaj for the weekend afterwards. Somewhere I had always wanted to visit.

First to Sopron, a delightful border town which extrudes, like a jigsaw-piece, into Austria, and must have contributed to a significant increase in the length of the iron curtain. Legacies abound, the Hapsburg name (Ödenburg) and, bizarrely, a thriving out-of-proportion dentistry industry which suggests that getting your teeth fixed in Vienna would be both costly and difficult to accomplish, and is to this day I think. I purchased a pair of hand-made shoes there which lasted – with numerous new soles – until last year, and were much treasured.

Here I first met the unparalleled Hungarian hospitality, along with Kekfrankos and Palinka. My memories are understandably hazy. I do remember having a simultaneous translator for my presentation, and she was so good, that the audience laughed at the jokes, the very moment I delivered them. Having not really got beyond ‘egészségére’ in knowing any Hungarian (even now) this seems like a major achievement to me.

Tokaj sunrise
Sunrise in Tokaj (photo by Rod Smith MW)

Misty Tokaj

After a whistle-stop tour of Budapest, during which I vowed to return – a promise I have kept to myself at least a dozen times now, and have no intention of stopping, Péter drove me onwards to Tokaj. This was before the new road, and took some time, but somehow this only added to the mystique. It was Autumn time and the magical mists were forming.

I experienced the wonder of this beguiling place, and seemingly before many others. Péter worked for the ministry of Agriculture and we stayed at a government owned property. I visited the cellars, ran my hand along the black-but-friendly furry walls, and experienced the feeling of bygone days and of Hobbiton. I saw a demi-john of Aszú, fermenting so slowly that a bubble emerged with all the lethargy of a politician doing their tax return, about once every several hours. And most of all I tasted what had made this region so famous, so much of a holy grail of the world of wine. In every way, liquid gold. I was transfixed. I still am.

Tokaj moud cellar
Mould in a Tokaj cellar (photo by Rod Smith MW)

Fifty Golden Things

A couple of years later it was my parents fiftieth – golden – wedding anniversary. With a degree of cunning I hope I have inherited from him, my dad had chosen the 3rd April for their wedding day, which made the date 3-4-56. A number literally anyone could remember!
Between us, my brother and I, and my parents’ relatives and friends, came up with the idea of giving my parents ‘Fifty Golden Things’ by way of an anniversary gift. From suitably named and packaged chocolates (‘Terry’s All Gold’), yellow roses (a favourite of my mum), to silk scarves and ties, the collection of golden things took shape.

Of course I had something special in mind. I emailed Péter. Please, I asked, is there any way you could get hold of a bottle of Tokaji from 1956 and sell it to me? I knew he had – as-it-were – the keys to the cellar. Péter asked me to leave it with him. And it came to pass. I cannot remember how much it cost (a fraction of what it was worth, I am sure).

We had booked a restaurant and they thought it was just me and them. Meanwhile my brother had arrived earlier, along with a mass collection of friends and relatives. And of course the fifty golden things (a couple of which ended up being balloons – there is a limit to even the richest vein of imagination!)

When I gave the bottle to my parents, wrapped in its (golden, obviously) paper, I actually think there was a tear in her eye, although there had already been some of those. They promised to open it when it was just the three or four of us. I had deliberately not chilled the bottle to help facilitate it not getting opened in a huddle of people and cake.

We drank this nectar, as old as their marriage and still just as alive, with some cheese, a few weeks later, and reminisced on what had been a great day. A day made greater and more golden, for the elixir of Tokaji having been a part, for Péter’s help, and for Hungary having woven its way into my heart on my first visit. I shall never forget that wine, and what it represented.

My parents are long gone now, but this remains one of my fondest – and naturally, most golden – memories of them.

(The original post can be found on Riviera Wine Academy).

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