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Sweet, but still wine

03 August 2012

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READERS may be unaware that Hungary has just been accepted as an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council, and they may ask what has this to do with a wine column. Well, there may be no connection at all, but the weekend before the announcement was made, I was in Budapest to play cricket, as a no. 11 batsman. More important, this was an excuse for me to spend a further couple of days visiting the vineyards of Tokay.

It is sad that sweet wines no longer enjoy their former popularity; for there is no place in the world where nature conspires so well to create the ideal conditions for their creation. Here, the fierce summer sun shrivels the grapes to concentrate their sugar content, but autumn mists, rising from the rivers Bodrog and Tisza, create Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that absorbs any residual water within them. For the finest wines, the rotten grapes are individually picked.

The sweetness level of the finest wines is classified by the number of puttonyos on the label, with six as the maximum. Above this come the eszencia wines, which are made from the free-run juice of nothing but the rotten grapes. I call them wines, but they have had to receive special exemption to be so called, as their sugar content is so high that the fermentation yeasts give up when faced with the task before them. At a wonderful tasting at the Disznoko winery, we sampled an eszencia with just 1.5° alcohol.

These wines are not cheap; so, for those with more limited means, Majestic is offering the Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 2007 at £19.99 for a 50cl. bottle. Waitrose Online offers the same wine in a quarter-litre bottle for £11.39, the Disznoko 5 Puttonyos 2001 for £25.64 (this is a personal recommendation), and the single vineyard Betsek 6 Puttonyos 2005 for £52.25.

There are cheaper alternatives. Among these are the "late harvest" wines, where whole bunches rather than individual grapes are picked. A good example is the Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2009 (Majestic, £9.99 50cl.). Dry wines are also made, and I find those produced from the Furmint grape to be particularly attractive. Berry Bros. & Rudd have a Mezes Maly 2009 at £18.95, and Majestic has a 2010 from Royal Tokaji at £9.99 - £8.49 if you buy two.

Hungary is not, however, just Tokay: slenderer purses are catered for. The Co-op has a Seven Towers Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from the Neszmély region in the north of the country (£5.25); Laithwaites has an eminently drinkable range under the Campanula brand, which includes a Pinot Grigio 2011 (£6.99), a Limited Edition Merlot Kékfrankos 2009 (£7.29), and a Pinot Noir 2010 (£7.79). Waitrose has a Chapel Hill Pinot Noir 2009, which, it suggests, should be drunk slightly chilled - would that we had the summer to accompany such wines.

Of all the former Iron Curtain countries, Hungary has emerged as the most successful in the field of wine. Fortunately, it was not so successful on the cricket field. We won both matches, without my being called on to perform my specialist role.

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