From King to King

This is a Special Posting by Jan Beks, from the Netherlands!

Long after my first wine experience I went on my first trip into a cellar all covered with mildew in the far Eastern part of Hungary. It was my first ever wine tasting, sometime in 1997. Close to the Romanian border and not far from the Transylvanian area where vampires used to haunt humans like you and me. There it was where I would be taken for several wine tastings over a period of two years. I thought I had found my love but instead the only love I found was love for the region’s famous wines.

By the way it was around the same era Teresa (Stacy’s sister) was at arm’s length without me noticing it. Such a small world.

Each time a cellar visit started with some “ordinary” wines from the region or nearby. 

The region being famous for its white wines, a Furmint was usually the first one to be tasted. Already much better than the red ones from the center and western part of Hungary. I am referring to the Bikavér (Bull’s Blood) wine which is improving, but in the old days stood for cheap and nasty tasting. A Furmint is a dry wine and since I didn’t like dry white wines back then for me the tasting really started with an édes (sweet) served. The first one was called Szamorodni, already nice fruity and some kind of sweet.

The Szamorodni was followed by an Aszú, standing for real sweet. Starting off with the három (three) puttonyos, which sometimes was better tasting than a Szamorodni, but not necessarily.

For the Aszú wines the grapes are left on the vines longer hence they are botrytised when harvested. Through an original process the wine gets its sweetness based on the proportion of botrytised grape baskets, or puttonyos in the blend of seven baskets. Although there is a négy (four) puttonyos version, most of the time the next in rank to be tasted was an öt (five) puttonyos. Obviously to be much better, being richer and rounder of taste and most of all sweeter. This all due to the higher proportion of the botrytised berries added and the fermentation process that follows.

When you were at the right place to be lucky and got to taste an hat (six) puttonyos Tokaji – the sweetest. By some people this is not rated as the best but to me it is. Not just because I am a sweet-wine person, but also because of its richness of taste. As my take on it: the almost overwhelming combination of sweetness, fruit, mold and age. Tasting it for the first time was for me as close as I could get to heaven. “The king of wines, the wine of kings” as the Hungarians like to tell us.

At one event in the heart of this king of wines region, the city of Tokaj itself, I experienced the so called medicine under the wines. In its basics it’s not a real wine, but at least the most pure Tokaji “wine” you can ever purchase, the Eszencia (essence). After about 7 years of fermentation it contains up to 4 cups sugar per quart and the alcohol content just has gotten to a mere 3% by volume. To me it for sure is no longer a wine …… it is heaven. Maybe too sweet for the most of you, but why should that matter when complexity of flavors around the sweetness is overwhelming too?

One day I decided to have myself driven by my Hungarian friend István Földházi to a tiny winery in the middle of nowhere somewhere North East of Sárospatak, a city 10 miles east of Tokaj. The city where I used to to have my residence for one or two weeks. I had bought two 1.2 gallon jerrycans and got them filled with a five puttonyos home-casked Tokaji wine. This was far cheaper than the half liter bottles you are able to buy in local shops even when they are situated around the city of Tokaj.

Not that this winery was of a less reputation, but having my Hungarian friend accompanying me along with the fact that it wasn’t bottled (yet) made a huge difference in the price I had to pay. Days later with some sweat on my hands, I crossed the Hungarian-Austrian border and was very pleased that the wine made it across this border undetected. Back in the Netherlands I bottled the wine myself using about half a dozen emptied ;>) and saved Tokaji wine bottles (with its typical shape) from former trips, closing them with vacuum caps and pump. The first batch I had to drink “fast” since I didn’t want to leave the other batch too long a period unbottled.

Most wine snobs will raise their nose reading this, but even after a year the wine still tasted “great”. Of course the preservation was mostly caused by its high content of sugar. And as it is said the wine ripens over the years.

To me the Tokaji Aszú Öt Puttonyos is not a dessert wine, it is my King of wines. During those late 90s it became part of my life as did chocolate and listening to music grooved into vinyl already decades before. Since then this is still the best threesome combination to me.