Hungarian Tokaji a dry delight

With wine, as with most of life, it pays to listen to people with experience.

George Bardis, who runs the wine department at Martignetti’s Soldiers Field Road store and tastes thousands of wines each year, recently returned from Hungary where he sampled scores. He recommends a wine not usually seen in the United States — a dry Hungarian Tokaji, which he had purchased for the store.

Tokaji, in the northeastern part of Hungary, has been known for centuries for its legendary sweet wines. During the 18th century, this sweet wine was fashionable and in great demand among French and Russian royalty.

But I had never heard of a dry wine from the region. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that they exist, since every sweet-wine-producing area also makes dry wines.

One of Spain’s leading wineries, Vega Sicilia, was one of those that invested in the area in the 1990s. In 1993, it purchased an estate in the heart of the Tokaji region and renamed it Oremus. Its winemakers replanted the vineyards and renovated the winery to rectify the damage done during the Soviet era, in which corners were cut and quantity was prized over quality. They produce Tokaji Aszu, the name given to the sweet wines, but, according to their website, about 60 percent of their annual production is dry Tokaji, which they call Mandolas. Winemakers use chiefly the furmint grape for both the sweet and dry versions of Tokaji. When the furmint grapes fail to achieve sufficient ripeness — the sugar levels are too low — winemakers use them for the dry wines.

Oremus’s 2003 Tokaji Mandolas, an intense white wine, is clean and fresh. Its honey-like ripeness without the sweetness, atop a base of minerality, makes it an especially good match for take-out Chinese or Thai food.

Oremus, Tokaji (dry) Mandolas, 2003 (about $13). Distributed by M.S. Walker , 800-238-0607.

October 13, 2005