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My vinous love affair with Hungary

Written on 26-06-2018 by Dusan Jelic, Novi Sad, Serbia

László Mészáros is in charge of winemaking at Disznókő cellars


Hungary is a beautiful and well-organized Central-Eastern European country. There are 22 wine regions in Hungary, spread over a relatively small area, which implies very versatile terroir. Of course, each wine region is with a different micro-climate producing different tastes and styles of wine!




Our contemporary philosophers did not elaborate a lot about wine. However, Hungarian genius Béla Hamvas wrote his ‘Philosophy of Wine’ in the summer of 1945, in the brief respite between Nazi and Communist tyrannies, during a short holiday spent in Balatonberény. Hamvas writes, practically in one breath, The Philosophy of Wine (A bor filozófiája). He called it a 'prayer book for atheists', and in it he celebrates wine as a symbol of God's presence, a genuine proof offered to those wedded to 'the religion of matter' that being is not a fact but a gift! Written just after the World War Two, the book expresses the first shudder of a people who, harrowed, exhausted and starved, sorely tried by never-ending front lines, concentration camps, and bomb shelters, have just reached the (sun)light. Thanks to wine, Hamvas’s writings expressed not despair over the ruins and destructions, but instead an exuberant ecstasy of life.


Under the Communist rule the Hungarian wine industry was not developing properly, as the only relevant consideration was quantity. The renaissance started in the early 1990s, first with the end of the Cold War era and a demolition of an unnatural division of two parts of Europe and then with massive investments of big multinational corporations in the ‘ruined’ wine industry of the Eastern Europe at the time. Vega Sicilia refurbished cellars at Tokaj’s Oremus estate and improvements started at Grof Degenfeld and Chateau Dereszla estates and others. However, I would like specifically to point out a move by AXA Millésimes, a subsidiary of insurance company AXA, which acquired the Disznókő estate in 1992. These vinous developments were indeed of a great importance!


The most significant Hungarian wine region is Tokaj! Therefore, instead of reminiscences about Budapest, a gorgeous city on the banks of Danube river, I shall mention a cute village called Mád - bursting with history, be it the Baroque synagogue, Protestant or Roman Catholic churches, elegantly rising above a plethora of immaculate red-roofed houses. From there you can observe a meeting point of the Great Plain, a flat stretch of land shared between Hungary and Serbia and the charming undulating slopes of Tokaji hills. Why this village deserves a special mention? The answer is very simple - the Szepsy family! They cultivated vineyards in Tokaj since the late XVI century and are credited with the discovery of Aszú and setting down the formula used to this day. István Szepsy was a key figure in the formation of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company but has been producing his own wines since 1987. He is the leading producer whose benchmark wines have inspired for the current movement of young producers throughout Tokaj. He pays an utmost attention to a radical limitation of yields and hand selection of all of the grapes. Even the great Jancis Robinson once exclaimed: ‘But I do feel the word genius is not too hyperbolic a word to describe the modest Mr. Szepsy’. Oh yes, I couldn’t agree more!


Pretty famous for its sweet Aszú wines, Tokaj is also producing extraordinary dry white wines, especially in the past decade or two. Great Tokaji is one of the truly great sweet white wines, a part of the same peer group as the very best German sweet wines, the top Sauternes, and the best Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) from Alsace, whereby the ‘SGN’ signifies a wine made from ripe grapes, often at least partly concentrated by the Botrytis Cinerea fungus. A Tokaji Aszú is a great brand - a powerful and easily recognizable sweet, honeyed wine, whose flickering acidity in turn surprises then superbly enlivens the taste buds. Ultimately if you try to describe all those opulent flavours, you shall probably start with dried fruit, quince, prunes or heavens knows what. Very sweet for a split of second, yet almost instantaneously the acidity balances everything, leaving the palate with a whistle-clean lingering finish. One of the possible secret of the Aszú wines may be in their low alcohol levels, around 11% (Sauternes, for instance, may go for up to 13% of alcohol).


I visited Disznókő estate a few times, but the most memorable occasion was a relatively recent vertical tasting of Aszú wines, including wines as old as 20 years and as young as 2 years! When I checked my tasting notes, I found that the Disznókő Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos from 2002 vintage got 19.5 out of 20 points or 95/100 points! When describing such wine, a winelover must gently enter the domain of poetry and start waxing lyrical! I sensed there, in that God’s nectar, an abundance of orange peel and it felt like that peel is slowly being submerged inside a vast glass container full of honey. Suddenly I picked the most inviting hints of ripe figs. This wine had a perfect balance and it was definitely a stroke of the master. All that residual sugar simply disappeared after a few seconds when facing the subtle and merciless acidity swiftly removing any sweet traces from your palate. And your slightly bewildered yet fully concentrated soul, or better said your entire being cries loudly for more wine! Screams and begs for more!


An enormously important vinous personality, also with his own personal stakes in Tokaj, Hugh Johnson, the author of one of the seminal wine-related books ‘The World Atlas of Wine’ (1971) and a shareholder of the Mád’s Royal Tokaji, stated once: ‘We often wondered what had happened to this wonderful old region stranded out here behind the Iron Curtain. Fabulous old bottles kept turning up occasionally at auction. On the rare occasions we tasted them, they seemed to get better and better. So we always knew the potential was there…’ The other famous quote of him I also remember very well. He stated that ‘Tokaji Aszú was almost as difficult to sell as it was to make’. That is why the great story of Tokaji, especially covering brilliant Aszú wines should be spread far and wide in today’s world. To place that great wine at its rightful position on the global vinous market!


I remember that somebody recently shouted that Furmint is the King! My humble opinion is that Hárslevelű is the Queen! This variety shares superb acidity with a Furmint, yet, there are charming notes of honey that make this dry white wine bursting with complex and opulent sweet features. So, I love sweet and dry wines of Tokaj and great wines of all colours from other wine regions of Hungary. Add to this the great Hungarian gastronomy and the conclusion is simple - start planning your trip to this great country!