Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hungarian Renaissance Tasting – October 23, 2007

On Tuesday it was off for lunch and a formal tasting of some Hungarian wine. Hungary is best known for its’ Aszu wines: sweet dessert wines that can range in sugar content from 60 grams per liter all the way to 180 grams per liter; after that it’s Esszencia which can range from 180-800 grams … that’s a lot of sweetness – some Esszencia can be as thick as syrup but the aromas and flavours that come out are outstandingly beautiful. These wines come from a region called Tokaj; you may have even seen Tokaji on a label of those cute 500ml bottles – the “i” just signifies “from the region of” – so Tokaj is the region and ‘i’ is just the indicator. These wines are all made from local grapes, Furmint making up 60% of the grown varieties in the area, with Harslevelu making up another 30 … that leaves only 10% for grapes such as Sarga Muskotaly, Zeta, Koverszolo and others. Very few plantings of more well-known vinefera grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah are planted – and if they are it’s for private home-winemaking use only. Don’t try to tackle those local grapes names on your own, had they not put them up on the overhead at the front of the room I wouldn’t have ever understood them as grape varieties or even as real words, let alone known how to spell them. It was like they were speaking a foreign language (which they were).

Hungary is all about white wines, or it seems that way, I’m sure somebody somewhere in the country is making red, we just didn’t see or taste any on this day. The two main types are dry and really sweet, with some in the middle (like late harvest). Dry comes in the form of Furmint with its mainly apple and peach aromas and tastes; then depending on its exposure to oak it will take on other aromas and flavours. With less oak the fruitiness dominates on the nose and palate with crisp acidity; with oak it can develop a round smoothness with cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg in varying degrees depending on its length of stay in barrel … some producers even pride themselves on using Hungarian oak (which is becoming more popular worldwide).

The second main type of wine, and the one you’ll see most often, are the Tokaji Aszu wines which are sweet dessert style wines that start out with a dry base wine and then small barrels (called puttonyos) of botrytis affected grapes are added to the wine to cause a secondary fermentation … the more puttonyos the sweeter the wine. Aszu wines start at 3 and go up to 6. These wines are extraordinary, with smells ranging from dried apple, peach, apricot and tangerine to toffee, caramel, brown sugar, and vanilla, depending on the amount of sweetness in the wine. The tastes are similar to the smells you get and are creamy and thick in the mouth, they can even develop pepper and woodsy undertones from the barrels they are aged in.

There was also a delicious late harvest Harslevelu wine on display this afternoon, made without the use of oak. The smells were fresh tropical fruits and floral notes with apples, peaches and tropical pineapple in the mouth with a creamy texture and light finish. This was my favourite because it straddled the two extremes (dry vs. sweet).

Speaking of extremes these wines have two very different life cycles. The dries aren’t meant to drink when they are young and fresh, while the sweeties have a lifespan longer than some humans – they’ll age beautifully for decades. Think of them as the poor-man’s Sauterne (meaning, they are much more easily affordable and last just as long).

Hungary is making some excellent sweeties (always has) and with an influx of cash, modernization and know-how into the country, there truly is a renaissance and revitalization in their wines and this area. So look for them on the shelves in Vintages at the LCBO and take one for a test tonguing – you’re sure to enjoy it. As for the dry wines, look for a good value white and take it for a spin, it’s always worth a new experience in the world of wine.

No comments: