Aging…like a good wine

‘Do you mind me asking how old you are? he said. ‘How old do you think?’ I replied. ‘I can’t see how you could be older than 35 or 36’ he said.

Who needs cosmetic surgery if those looking at you have felt the effects of a few good wines. Down in Köveskál this weekend, we stopped IMG_4457 (800x600)by the Pálffy vineyard and partook in a wine tasting. At the table next to us sat four youngish Hungarian lads who were, as they put it, nearly at the top of the mountain while we, on our first sip of an olaszrizling, had just started our climb. They helpfully translated what our host, Pálffy Gyula (who bears more than a little resemblance to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne), was telling us about each wine we tasted and contributed to what was a very enjoyable way to pass a few hours. Apparently he moved back to the area in 1998 to continue the family wine-making and take over his paternal grandfather’s vineyard and has been making steady progress ever since in his efforts to help restore the reputation of the Káli Basin wines, a region which once supplied the House of Árpád kings.

Such was the love of wine present that we learned not just about those from his cellar. We learned that 2006 and 2009 were excellent years for Hungarian reds. That the Patricius 1999 Azsú was one of the best sweet wines ever to be bottled and that a Szekszárd merlot was worth trying. And if ever in Eger again, that the Gróf Buttler Pince is the place to go.

IMG_4452 (800x597)Sitting in this modern cellar late on a Saturday afternoon, sampling ten of the wines on offer, I was surprised to see the walls reflect in the glass tables and wondered briefly if the wine was having an effect. Was I drugged?

But Pálffy doesn’t use any pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals. He is guided by nature and uses traditional craft methods. Currently, the 4.5 hectares are given over to Riesling, Pinot Gris, Traminer, Furmint, Juhfark, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and more recently a variety of Syrah has been added.

IMG_4454 (800x600)My first place vote went to the Köveskáli Törökugrató Rosé 2010 with the Késői Szüretelésű Tramini 2008, a félédes (semi-sweet) white coming in a strong second. This surprised me as I’m not generally a fan of sweet wine. The Furmint and the Siller tied for third (siller is quite popular in Hungary – being a little more than a rosé and a little less than a red. I’ve heard it called a Missouri wine in deference to the Missouri Compromise Line 🙂 ) I can’t say that I’ll ever be an expert. I don’t have the bandwidth to take on a whole new vocabulary. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed tasting these wines, and taking notes about what I liked and what I didn’t like. And, even better, we didn’t have to agree. It’s all a matter of personal taste.

In a fascinating travel article on Balaton wine, Bruce Schoenfeld quotes veteran winemaker, István Kiss:

Before I leave, Kiss opens a bottle of Kiralyfurmint from 1978 that has been in his cellar for at least two decades. It has the seal of the Communist government on it—a faded paper collar, all tones of gray now except for a stripe of sky blue, picturing a shield and a star—and it looks to be in nearly pristine condition. Poured into a glass, the wine is such a bright gold that it practically glows. “Wine is the only product in human life that can bring back the years,” Kiss says, holding his glass to the light. “The 1978 sunlight is in this wine, and the great rains, and the cellar’s coolness. The wine can bring back all these tastes. Smell this wine and go back twenty-eight years.”

Alongside bringing back the years sits wine’s contribution to making memories. I’d never heard of the Tramini grape before last weekend but now each time I see it, I’ll revisit in my mind’s eye that late afternoon/early evening spent at the Pálffy pince. Laden down with bottles, we made our exit, happy to have had the experience and happier still with the wine-filled chocolate that caught my eye on the way out. Now, there’s a man who can think outside of the box. Wine AND chocolate AND good company? What more could a girl ask for?

If you’re in the vicinity, drop by and say hi.

Pálffy Pince, 8274 Köveskál, Fõ u. 40.
Tel: 06-30-9275-713
E-mail:[email protected]

Hungarian Roadtrip: Budapest to Sárospatak via Tokaj

It’s about 248 km from Budapest to Sárospatak if you take the highways and stay on course, but that’s what trains and bus tours are for. When you have a car (thanks to PM), you can stop and start as often as you like. See a church spire in the distance? An interesting road sign? An oddly named village? Check it out. That’s the beauty of driving. And I love it. We left Budapest by 8am on Saturday morning and met very heavy fog outside the city. It felt as if we were flying through clouds rather than driving on tarmac. We were on our way to see a man about some nutbirds and the man lives in Sárospatak, close enough to the Slovakian border.  Once called ‘the Athens of the River Bodrog’ , it’s in the heart of the Zemplén region of Northern Hungary.

On our way, we decided to visit Tokaj, one of Hungary’s more famous wine regions. I’ve been to Villany and was impressed. I was perhaps expecting a little too much from Tokaj and was a little disappointed to see that like its wine, it’s just a little too sweet for my liking. It’s not as if they’ve haven’t had time to practice. There are records of vineyards in Hungary going as far back as the 5th century. The sweet, white dessert wine from Tokaj is probably the country’s most famous export,  christened by Louis XIV of France as ‘Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum’ – Wine of Kings, King of Wines. I’m no expert… and as long as I have difficulty getting my head around drinking a wine made from grapes that have been infected by a fungus Botrytis cinera (Noble Rot), I probably never will be.  Mind you, were I ever trapped in the region and unable to escape, I’d live quite happily with its Furmint – a rather nice dry white with a distinct apple flavour. The jury is still out as to whether this grape came from southern Italy or Hungary. Bearing in mind that in the summer the place is most likely overflowing with tourists, on this particular Saturday morning in November it hadn’t yet woken up. Most of the cellars were closed but we still managed to get a taste or three in before actually making a purchase. The town itself is the centre of a much broader wine-growing region and on the road to Sárospatak, we passed many vineyards. To take full advantage, you need to bring a teetotal driver as Hungary is notoriously strict with its zero-tolerance drink driving policy.

Driving the country roads, we passed many Trabants and it really felt as if we had indeed driven back in time. The pace was visibly slower. It might well have been the late 1950s, when the first Trabant came off the line. The fog had burned off by now and the autumnal leaves  were majestic in the sunshine. Scores of fishermen lined the riverbanks and lakeside edges. Flasks of coffee and bottles of hazipalinka littered the picnic tables as they waited patiently to catch their supper. It reminded me a lot of Alaska. The quiet. The beauty. The solitude. KG is getting much better at navigating and we trundled along without anydifficulties at all. There are still river crossings in Hungary where you have to drive onto a large raft and be literally pulled across. What a way to go. The more I see of this slower way of life, the more I dream of upping stakes and moving to that cottage by the sea. There is something quite godlike about it all.

We made it to Sárospatak with plenty of daylight left to make a quick trip out to the National Cemetery in Karos. It’s supposedly the richest cemetery associated with the first Hungarian settlers in the Carpathian Basin. I am struggling to find any information on this in English, so if anyone reading has a comment, please share it. From what I could see and understand, it appears to be a major archeological dig – there are lots of staked signs which I think mark the sites where relics were found. There is a large circle of totem poles, or what look very much like totem poles, but again, I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Back into town then for a last look at Rákóczi Castle and a glimpse of time gone by. The older part of the town is rather lovely; the newer part, rather new. Famous for its Calvinist college, the town has turned out many famous students.  In fact, the education system at the college was organised by János Amos Comenius, a Moravian humanist, late in the seventeeth century. Comenius is probably more famous for writing the world’s first illustrated textbook for children, Orbis Pictus (World in Pictures).  The organic archictect Imre Makovecz has also left his mark on the city (and a little bit of me wishes he hadn’t…I’m not quite sure I get this ‘organic architecture’ in urban areas). The cultural centre on Eotvos utca is a little too much for my liking as is the Hild Udvar shopping centre. But each to her own, I say.

The Hotel Bodrog, reputedly a **** hotel, was fine. Although unlike any **** I’ve ever stayed in (Hungary is quite liberal with her stars), it did the business: it provided a clean bed, a good breakfast, and a steam room/sauna/jacuzzi/pool complex… with the added realism of peeling wallpaper, chipped formica, and cracked walls. We ate in a lovely Italian cellar restaurant, The Collegium, which is well worth a visit, if you’re ever in that part of the world.  Despite being fortified by Furmint, any inclination to paint the town red was dulled by the fact that the town was closing at 10.30pm. mmmm I wonder just how much of the quiet life I could actually take.