I only have a few more posts about our Europe trip, but they are all pretty special so I don’t want to leave them out. One of the most memorable nights of our trip was the night we took a journey into wine country. Dédi’s village is not far from Hungary’s famous Tokaj region so it wasn’t a long journey, but it was an exciting one.
Before I get too far into our adventure, there is something you must understand about consuming alcohol in Hungary. In the last few years Hungary has adopted a no tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol, meaning that you cannot have any alcohol whatsoever in your system if you are going to be driving. This isn’t a problem and is actually a good law, but it is the sort of law that makes it difficult to go wine tasting, especially in a country where wine tasting involves consuming several large glasses of wine in their entirety. You see, in Hungary when you are wine tasting, you don’t take a sip and spit it out like you might do in Napa Valley. Really, calling it wine tasting is a bit of a misnomer since you don’t simply taste the wine, you imbibe it. The process starts when they give you your first full glass of wine (and I mean FULL). You must consume the entire first glass of wine if you have any hope of testing any others because you have to use the same glass for each sample. There is also no nifty little receptacle in which to dump the extra wine so it is imperative that you dump any excess down your throat. Do you see where I’m going with this? To go wine tasting in Hungary means that you will be consuming copious amounts of wine.
When we were invited to go wine tasting, David volunteered to drive because Mat had never been wine tasting in Hungary and the last time I went I was only able to smell the wine because I was pregnant with Big Guy at the time. Our hosts, however, were having none of that and wanted to ensure that everyone was able to partake. They told us not to worry about anything and that they would pick us up at Dédi’s house in a couple of hours. What they didn’t mention over the phone was that they would be arriving in a tour bus… a big one. You cannot even imagine the commotion a giant tour bus arriving in a tiny rural Hungarian village causes. To say all eyes were on Dédi’s house would be an understatement. The boys immediately dubbed it the “party bus.”
Our hosts for the evening are very good friends of David’s parents and they actually own a touring company, driving tour busses filled with tourists all over Europe. While we knew what they did for a living, we never imagined that they would use one of their tour busses to take us wine tasting. Let me just say that you haven’t experienced the small winding roads of Hungary’s wine region until you’ve done it in a giant tour bus. I had no idea something that large could make such small turns.
Our evening took us to a small wine cellar where the vintner, a sweet man named Török Lajos (Hungarians always put the last name first), hosted a lovey evening at the start of which he told us that he hoped we had come prepared to eat, drink and be merry. We had. Hungarian wine tasting is never done on an empty stomach. Our first glass of wine was served along with Kalács, a Hungarian braided sweet bread (is extremely similar to challah). We were also treated to sweet cherries and meggy (sour cherries – which are not actually sour, but tart).
The Tokaj region of Hungary is quite famous among oenophiles and France’s Louis XV is said to have once called it “the wine of kings and the king of wines.” While it produces many types of wine, the region is most noted for its Aszú which dates back to the mid-17th century, making it one of the oldest types of wine in the world. It is a sweet amber colored wine produced from grapes that have been allowed to nobly rot (basically the grapes turn to raisins while still on the vine and start growing a benign grey fungus). It sounds gross, but I assure you that the resulting wine is delicious. Aszús are rated from 1 point to 6 points, 6 being the highest and most sought after rating (and the sweetest). Anything ranked higher than 6 points falls into the category of Aszú-Eszencia, which is quite rare and something that you don’t usually encounter on a wine tasting excursion. However, we were treated to the experience of tasting Tokaji Aszú-Eszencia (Tokaji Essence of Aszú) on this particular evening.
The Essence of Aszú has been described by some as the most exclusive wine in the world. It is EXTREMELY expensive (like thousands of dollars for one little bottle) and not something that you would just have sitting around to break out at a casual dinner with friends. I’m not quite sure how to best describe it to someone who hasn’t tasted it before. It actually can’t technically be labeled wine because it has such a high concentration of sugar. It is sweeter and more concentrated than honey and it smells like orange blossoms in spring. Honestly, months later I can still remember the exact smell and taste. It is not generally used to drink on its own but rather used in the blending of wines. It has a very low alcohol concentration (3-5%) and it is filled with probiotics. It will also keep for centuries without degrading in quality. Dédi never drinks, but she did sample the Eszencia.
We were also treated to tasting a glass of wine that had not been fully fermented. Treated might not be the best term because partially fermented wine is anything but a treat. It was educational and I’m glad I got to taste it as part of the overall experience, but drinking partially fermented wine is a lot worse than you can even imagine it would be. Thankfully, we weren’t given a full glass of that one.
Another thing that sets Hungarian wine tasting apart is that the vintner often drinks alongside you and gets more generous with his/her pours with each glass. Of course, as the night wore on we also became more generous with our pocket books agreeing to take home several bottles of wine that we would later have to figure out how to get home into our suitcase. The wine tastings are also almost always accompanied by a large family style meal of traditional Hungarian foods and a tour of the wine cellar.
The cellar (or pince) is the best part of the whole experience. It is extremely cold and everything is covered with noble mold, of which the vintners are always quite proud. It is always fun to hear about where the various wines are in the process of their fermentation and to see all of the barrels neatly lined up. Mat was able to sample some wine straight from the barrel using a special wine thief (lopó).
By the end of the night, we were all three sheets to the wind and quite thankful that we had a bus to take all of us home. While Tokaji wine’s high sugar content makes you feel its effects sooner, and despite the fact that I consumed more wine that night than I probably had any other, I nor anyone else in our party had any adverse effects the following day. Many Hungarian’s swear that you will never get a hangover from drinking Aszú and judging by our wine tasting adventure, they may just be right.