24 June 2013

The Tokaj Paradox

We took the train from Budapest to Tokaj, where vintner Angelika Arvay picked us up and drove us to her family's home and vineyards in nearby Ratka.

Tokaj (pronounced toe-koy) is known for its sweet wines, which were a favorite among European monarchs for centuries. Tokaji Aszu is made through a painstaking, multi-step process. Some grapes are picked in August or September to make a dry base wine. Others are left on the vines to ripen further and-- if all goes well-- to be infected with botrytis cinerea, a fungus that shrivels the grapes and concentrates their flavors. This "noble rot" is responsible for most of the finest dessert wines in the world, including France's Sauternes and Germany's surprisingly pronounceable and breathtakingly expensive Trockenbeerenauslese.

Quality declined during the communist era, but as Hungary transitioned to Democracy in the early 90s, local vintners and international investors restored the vineyards and centuries-old winemaking techniques to once again produce world-class wines. We've enjoyed these wines several times over the years, so when we realized we'd be two hours away by train, we jumped at the chance to visit Tokaji.

We must have tasted (and spit) fifteen wines at Angelika's table. We started with dry table wines--all white--made with Tokaj's major grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat. We'd never tasted varietal Furmint or Harslevelu wines before, and we were really pleased with their unusual aromatics. Harslevelu reminded us of fresh basil; Furmint is bright and citrusy with a spicy anise core. We progressed to the late harvest wines, and eventually to Tokaji Aszu. Aszu is aged for at least three years; the '09 we tasted had not been labeled yet, but that only heightened its appeal: we picked one up just like this-- inscribed by Angelika in gold sharpie.

After we'd tasted the full line-up, Angelika gave us each a puor of Tokaji Aszu Eszencia. This is the free run juice that is released from the shriveled grapes under their own weight in a basket. It's pure nectar-- never mixed with any other wine-- and so thick and sweet that only the surface ferments. Some critics object to calling it wine because it rarely exceeds 4% alcohol. Sometimes it's closer to 2%. It looks like good maple syrup, but it smells like honey and orange blossoms. The Eszencia is so concentrated and intense that the finish lingers for several minutes. When a bug landed in Steve's glass, he drank the last few drops (and the eszencia-soaked bug) anyway. 

Angelika also taught us a bit about local geography and her vineyards in particular.The vineyard called God's Hill turns up all sorts of fossils in the soil. Like this fish...

Angelika also told us about her work with Junibor, the Association of Young Winemakers. After we finished tasting, Janos Arvay, Angelika's father, took us all out in his SUV to climb the hillside and get a better look at his family's vines..

After the tasting and tour, Angelika drove us to our inn in the village of Tokaj. At about $40 a night, our room at the quirky Vasko Panzio Borpince was surprisingly spacious and clean. We hatched a plan: we'd relax for an hour, head to the village post office at 5PM, and then walk up the hill to our 6PM tasting appointment at Erzsebet Pince.

Two days before, we'd discovered that it's easy to buy postcards in Hungary, but it's hard to buy postage stamps. We asked at news stands, souvenir shops, and in our hotel lobby, and nobody sells stamps. Finally, in the gift shop at the Great Synagogue, an expatriate cashier from somewhere else told us with a roll of the eyes that in Hungary, you can only buy postage stamps at the post office, and only if it's open. We got to the Tokaj post office an hour before closing time... and it was closed. We crossed the street to a tourist information kiosk to ask when the post office might be open again.

"8:00 tomorrow," the clerk told us. Then he frowned. "Or maybe 9 or 10."

We filed our postcards away for future mailing, and set out into the picture-perfect little village. We walked past wine shops and cafes, and every few minutes, as if on cue, carefree locals would ride past (helmetless and spandex-free) on old-fashioned bikes with baskets full of flowers or groceries. It was hard to reconcile the idyllic with the not-so-idyllic: small groups of loud, shirtless, mostly bald drunks wandering around with open, liter-sized bottles of beer.

We walked up the hill to Erzsebet Pince, a beautiful, modern home atop a three hundred year old wine cellar. Our tasting and tour was conducted entirely in the cellar, and after several days of 90+ degree heat, we were thrilled to be in the cool, damp environment. We were joined by another couple who didn't speak English, but the winemaker did a remarkable job of keeping the conversation going with quick translations and heavy pours. When we toured the cellar, we were struck by the thick (and surprisingly pretty) layer of mold on the walls and on the ceiling. It's a symbiotic relationship; the mold feeds off the alcohol that evaporates from the wine, and in turn, it keeps the humidity level in the cellar precisely right.

We bought a couple of bottles of Tokaji, loaded them into Steve's backpack, and headed back down the hill for dinner.

The bicyclists had vanished and the shirtless drunks had multiplied. They were everywhere, and they were louder than before. There were a few who weren't screeching, but only because they'd already passed out. The cafes that looked quaint at 5PM looked post-apocalyptic at 9PM. We decided to save our appetites for breakfast, confident that they'd all be unconscious by the time our alarm went off.

We made our way through the drunks in the hotel courtyard, and just as we got back to our room, the skies opened and it absolutely poured. Hail pelted the roof, and we felt a little smug about how miserable the drunks would be out in the courtyard, without so much as small puffs of hair to slow the hail before it hit their skulls.

They weren't miserable, though. They simply turned up the music to compensate. We truly hated them for a moment, but then they put on Metallica's Black Album, and it was good. So good.

Somehow, eventually, we fell asleep. When we woke up in the morning, Tokaj was peaceful and pretty. We headed down through the abandoned courtyard and into the breakfast room, where the innkeeper presented us with a basket of rolls, a slab of salami, and these:

We cut them into slivers, sprinkled them with salt, and ate them with gusto. Then, feeling wildly optimistic, we walked up the street to the post office. To our surprise, it was open early! It took three postal employees about ten minutes to estimate the correct postage for international postcards. If by some chance you receive a Hungarian postcard from us, treasure it forever: it's a miracle it reached you.

When we tried to arrange a taxi to the Tokaj train station for the long trip to Prague, our innkeeper (who didn't speak a word of English, but with whom Steve was able to communicate in German) loaded us into his car and drove us himself. We took one last look look at Tokaj through the tiny Skoda's windows, and saw no evidence of the head-banging gremlins that emerge after dark. When we boarded the train to Prague (via Budapest) we still didn't know what to make of Tokaj.

Epilogue: from our hotel room in Prague a few days later, Steve resolved the Tokaji paradox with a Google search. We'd arrived in Tokaj at the start of Hegyalja Fesztival, a five day music festival that features performers with names like Hippikiller, Insane, and Junkies.

Now it all makes sense.

No comments: