A vault containting 280,000 bottles of museum wines, some of which date back to 1895, in Tokaj
On Drink

The wine of emperors

Raise a glass of exquisite Tokaji to Robert Döry

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In February 2011, suddenly and without warning, Robert Döry died. Robert was a wonderful man, patient, unassuming and kind. He radiated optimism with an understated yet infectious humour. A stalwart of the Travellers Club, and a fixture of the club’s bar “Josie’s”, with his gold watch chain and his silver tongue, Robert projected the image of an Englishman with every natural fibre of his Savile Row suits. 

What therefore could be more natural but that Robert Döry was Hungarian. Only the umlaut gave him away. Well, the umlaut and his abiding love for and great knowledge of Tokaji sweet wine. Indeed, for a period he was the proud owner of an Hungarian winery and an importer of his wine to the Travellers’ cellars. 

Wine is poured onto a rough paste made from nobly rotted berries

We, Robert’s friends, were his fortunate beneficiaries. For Tokaji is not only the king of wines but the wine of kings. Louis XIV, no ingenu when it came to imbibing, was an early adopter having been sent some by Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania. Francis later, and without obvious reason, ordered Tokaj castle to be destroyed. Though the castle was gone thankfully the wine-making continued. 

The Austrian emperors, who happened also to be kings of Hungary, kept the best for themselves, secreting the Eszencia in their cellars and only serving it to other royalty. Queen Victoria (an Empress too lest it be forgot) qualified for Kaiser Franz Josef’s favour and so received caseloads each birthday. And as she reigned until her eighties, she accumulated quite a cache. 

There are several variations of Tokaji sweet wine including Szamorodni from which the noble rot of the botrytised grapes delivers a much more powerful alcoholic punch than is packed into the more exclusive and enervated Eszencia. Fordítás is a little more potent but best of all is surely the Aszú (meaning dried) Tokaji, sweet yet strong (sometimes in excess of 14 per cent) with the shade of luminous amber. 

Aszú is made by an ancient method yet without artifice. Wine is poured onto a rough paste made from nobly rotted berries, such as the Muskotály variety, and left to soak. Once casked, the lids are left ajar to ensure a slow fermentation process that can take a number of years. Yet the wait is worth it. Taken from small dessert wine glasses (in my view the smaller the better), this Tokaji’s initially sugary suggestion quickly gives ground to a more nuanced acidity that cleanses the palate with each and every swallow. Thus the draw delivers a pleasant and surprising freshness that sets it apart from its more syrupy rivals (did I say Sauternes?). This is a drink that just wants to be drunk ­— which is what its makers intended. 

We all miss Robert, and the passage of time has not dimmed the pain of his passing. We should like nothing more than see him walk into the coffee room and take his old place at the club table, sharing with us his wit and his wisdom – as well as a bottle of Imperial 6 Puttonyos. Born abroad he may have been, but like that other Hungarian Leslie Howard his home was England. And it is here that his friends remember him and raise a glass of sweet Magyar Aszú to his memory.

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