The Wine of Kings and the King of Wines

Now that I’ve been back from my Central Europe trip for a week, I think it’s about time I pulled myself together and arranged my thoughts on the screen. From an emotional standpoint, the trip was indescribable. I so rarely get to see my Hungarian relatives, and although we had to rush around quite a bit to see everyone, it was well worth it. As I keep telling people, I forget that I’m rather fortunate to actually LIKE my relatives – and I don’t think it’s only because I see them so infrequently! Bottom line, it was wonderful to reconnect with everyone and see how well they’re doing.
If I tried to describe everything that happened on the trip I could go on forever, so I think I will stick to the wine aspects. I’ll devote one post to Hungary and the other to Austria, starting with the motherland.
Hungary is of course best known for its acclaimed dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu, which inspired the above exclamation from King Louis XIV. As that indicates, Aszu has been made for a few hundred years, and Tokaj and its hillsides was the first legally delineated wine appellation in the world – even older than Port. I just happen to be very fortunate that my dad is from Tokaj – in northeastern Hungary – and that he was attending his 50th high school reunion! Seven grapes can be used to make Tokaji wines, although Aszu is made primarily of Furmint and Harslevelu. Aszu is made from grapes affected by botrytis, or noble rot. The microclimate in which Tokaj is situated is ideal for this beneficial rot, which concentrates the sugars in the shriveled grapes. Moist morning fog, which allows the rot to develop on the gently sloping hillsides, followed by generally dry days, which prevent the rot from ruining the grape, contribute to the creation of this golden wine. Perhaps more than any other wine (except for its kin Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany), Aszu vintages are very much subject to the whims of climate. If conditions aren’t right for enough botrytized grapes, then Aszu may not be made at all in a particular year, or only be available in limited amounts.
Fortunately, the grapes grown for Aszu are also used for other wines. Furmint can be made into a dry wine, with different styles depending on whether it is aged in stainless steel or oak – I of course prefer the former. Interestingly, the botrytized grapes can be made into a variety of wines, from dry to sweet. A combination of botrytized and normal, ripe grapes are used to make a wine called Szamarodni, as well as late harvest wines. The former can be fermented dry or sweet, based on the percentage of botrytized grapes in the mix. Apparently, the dry version is reminiscent of a dry sherry. As for Aszu, its sweetness is measured by the number of puttony, which of course means little to most people outside Hungary. At one point, a puttony was actually a basket in which the grapes were harvested, and the number of puttony added to a set amount of base wine (the botrytized grapes are made into an Aszu paste, and then fermented with a base wine) determined the wine’s sweetness. Today, while these baskets are no longer used, the puttony number on a wine (ranging from 3 to 6) is still based on how many botrytized grapes are added to a set amount of base wine. If Aszu is properly made, even the 6 puttonyos is beautifully balanced and not at all cloying.
While Aszu is the king of wines, there is one more – very rare – concoction that can emerge from Tokaji wineries, and it is the uniqueness of the wine, rather than the desire to actually drink it, that makes it so sought after. Tokaji Esszencia is the result of the botrytized grapes being crushed under their own weight, which produces a very small amount of very sweet liquid. Due to the high sugar levels, Esszencia takes years to ferment and still ultimately only has about 1% alcohol. Due to the time and effort involved in making Esszencia, a 375ml bottle costs around $600! At the wineries we visited, we were told that typically only collectors and Russians (I’m assuming mafia guys) buy Esszencia.
And finally, I will describe the wineries we toured! For better or for worse, we just visited two large, foreign-owned wineries, so I didn’t get to witness a locally-owned, smaller operation. It is likely that the latter category is mainly for domestic consumption, and especially for that reason it would have been great to try these wines and compare them to those produced by the behemoths. Another time, I guess! The first winery we visited was Disznoko, right outside of Tokaj in Mezozombor. Its best vineyards are situated on hillsides, although they own about 150 hectares total. Disznoko came into French hands in the early 1990s, during the transition from a command to a market economy, and before that it was locally-owned, although very few Tokaji wineries produced quality wines during the communist era, when winemaking, like other industries, was state-controlled. Many of my family members were able to attend the tour and tasting – my parents, cousin, two aunts, and an uncle – which made it extra special. The grounds were beautiful, and we tried several wines, including a dry Furmint, late harvest, and a 5 and a 6 puttonyos Aszu.
Oremus winery, owned by Spanish giant Vega Sicilia, was the focus of our second day of wine tasting. Here, we weren’t taken around the grounds, but we did get to wander through a small part of the 4km of caves for which Oremus is famous. Here we witnessed the “noble mold” that blankets the wines made from noble rot grapes. Apparently the mold only grows in caves where these wines are stored, as the mold feeds off of the wine itself. The mold also imparts flavors – positive ones! – to the wines. The New York Times detailed the mold in its own coverage of Tokaj and Oremus. We tasted the wines in the caves, and our guide provided us with fur vests to keep us warm, as the caves maintain a constant cool temperature year-round. In addition to the wines we tasted at Disznoko, we were also able to sample Esszencia, which added $10 to our tasting! While nice, I certainly wouldn’t pay $600 for it.
One tidbit about Oremus – which was revealed to us at Disznoko – is the interesting story of grapes and copyrights. Of the 7 grapes that can be used in Tokaji wines, one of them is known as Zeta. However, this name was given to it only recently – it was previously called Oremus. When Vega Sicilia bought the winery, they decided to name it Oremus and copyrighted the name, meaning the varietal could no longer have the same name. To me, this came across as shockingly imperialistic, and I wasn’t surprised that the Oremus tour guide didn’t disclose that story. I tried to imagine what would happen if an American winery opened up shop in Burgundy and tried to copyright Pinot Noir – there would be an uproar!
That sums up our Tokaji experience – not such a short summary, after all, but this is why I can’t delve into the other aspects of my trip. The Austria post is coming soon!


One Response

  1. The “Tokaj Experience” was great. Thank you for your detailed description of the wineries. “Aszu” is my very favorite and it is amazing how much work, care and knowledge goes into producing it. Cheers!

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