Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Great Wine from an Unexpected Source

Imagine sipping wine poured straight from the barrel, letting the taste of fresh fruits and sweet spices settle on your tongue. Now imagine those citrusy, crisp flavors came from moldy grapes grown in the moldiest region possible. It's no joke, it's real. Mold in the city of Tokaj, Hungary, is responsible for some of the best wines in the country. Since two large rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog, converge in this area, moisture and dampness take over, making it a breeding ground for fungus. But unlike wine cellars in California, France and Italy, Hungarian wineries embrace the spores. The black mold, Cladosporium cellare, thrives in the wine cellars, and Botrytis cinerea, also called “noble rot,” attacks the grapes in the vineyard. But this is one of the secrets to the famous sweet wines, like Tokaji asz.

The way it works, as I understand it, is when the mold attaches to the grapes, they dry up into solid balls of concentrated sugar. This allows for a very unique flavor to emerge. The reason fungus works in harmony with the grapes is because the vineyards are planted with furmint. Apparently, this is beneficial to fungus.

But if you want to try the full range of wines from the area, it is nearly impossible. These wines, though becoming more and more well known around the world, are a rarity outside of Hungary. So it seems a trip to the Hungarian countryside is a must in order to taste the unique complexities of these wines.

I'm a big fan of wine, trying different bottles from different regions every chance I get. But I had no idea that Hungary had a wine region comparable to Italy's Chianti or France's Bordeaux. So how did I hear about this booming wine capitol? Where else but NY Times Travel section. Evan Rail had the privilege of venturing to Hungary to sample some of their exquisite wines, and I have to say, he inspired me to travel there as well. I have always wanted to visit Budapest, and apparently Tokaj is only two and a half hours away by car. It seems like it would be a nice side trip.

Rail recommends, in his article about the vines of Hungary, that travelers rent a car when they arrive in Budapest, since it will be much easier to get around to the different vineyards. For lodging, there are a number of options, but he suggests Grof Degenfeld Castle Hotel in Tarcal and Torkolat Panzio in Tokaj. Usually special offers are available, but you will have to do some research on the deals and see if they are worth it. From Rail's descriptions of the accommodations as well as the many wines he sampled, I'd say it's definitely worth it. I probably won't be able to schedule a trip this year, and next year might be difficult, too. (I did just start my job three weeks ago, and it's not like the money's rolling in.) But wine is something I truly appreciate in life, and I think it's important to branch out.

Wine making is an art form, even when painting with moldy grapes.

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