Hungarian Wine? Our Sommelier Tells All

Our resident sommelier, Julius P. Johnson IV, answers your questions on wine as part of our monthly series…

Dear Sir: I want to surprise a wine-freak friend of mine with a really crazy bottle from a distant land. Not Chile, Argentina, USA, France, Spain, Australia, South Africa, or Italy– get the picture? But it’s got to taste great.

Good question. OK, gas up the G-V, let’s go trekking to the “birthplace” of wine: Hungary. Which reminds me of a hilarious saying, “if you are hungry – drink”. It is funny because it is true.

Ibn-Rostech, the Arabian writer mentions Hungarian vine growing already in its Xth century chronicle. Vine growing and wine production after the Original Settlement of the Magyars was based upon three things: the Greek-Celtic tradition, the Roman tradition, and the knowledge that the Hungarians brought along from the East.

According to charters and documents there was significant vine production around the 1000th year e.g. in Pannonhalma, in Szekszárd and in Buda (history lesson thanks to archimedia.hu).

Still awake?… good.

For the sweet nectar that comes from the land… I give you Tokaj (if we had audio, you’d be hearing the echo right now). The wines with the highest sugar, alcohol and acid are masterfully produced in Tokaj-Hegyalia. What makes these wines so medicinal? It’s the rotten grapes. Literally. These crazy Hungarians make juice with rotten fruit – brilliant!

Noble rot, more commonly known as Botrytis Cineria (pronounced: “Beau, try this! Sin era”) develops when the grapes are left to hang on the vine well after the ripe picking season. The late autumn weather starts to get warm and moist (not rainy) resulting in fuzz growth on the grape skins. The fuzz, or Noble rot (hey Beau!) drains the water from the grape causing it to shrivel up like a neutered dog sack. I apologize for that visual…

To achieve optimum rottiness (new word) the cellaring process comes into play. The juice is stored in a cellar-system (a.k.a. cave) hollowed into rhyolite-tuff (optimal) with temperatures averaging between 1-2 degrees centigrade over the year. Humidity is maintained by the Cladosporium cellare – another mold thickly covering the walls and blanketing the bottles like a velvet dream…

The world famous Szamorodni and Aszú wines are made by adding these berries with noble rot, and the more aszú-grapes the wine contains the more precious it is.

Buy your wine-freak friend a bottle of one of these wines and he/she will kiss you hard on the mouth.

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