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
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.