I braved a cold, wet trip back and forth across town in November to savour the latest nectar from Mezőzombor, north-east Hungary - Well, someone has to do it!
Photo: Disznókő latest line up - the 6-puttonyos Kapi Vineyard aszu 2017 on parade in the Gundel ballroom. Photo: Seven Wang
Over the years reporting for the FT and other publishing outlets in central-eastern Europe I've done not a few stories on wine. OK, let's be honest, I've engineered a few, because, truth be told, much as I enjoy writing about the economy of Serbia, the innovative Romanian IT geek or an exciting company profile (and I really do enjoy all those), a tête-à-tête with a winemaker while sipping a glass or two of their best vintages is is a nice way to end a day. And begin one, for that matter.
It's a nice way to make friends too. There's the tireless Vladimíra Mrázová, who introduced me to the Palava Hills and the vineyards of Moravia, the Hlebec family and others in the Jeruzalem region of north-east Slovenia, and the wonderful Vladislav and Zoya Popov on the gentle slopes of Kavadarci, North Macedonia. (The list of people I could and should mention is really too long, so I'll stop there.)
And of course, there are the Magyar winemakers, not least the many in the famous Tokaj region of north-east Hungary who have welcomed me over the years. Here, I have to include the likes of Attila Domokos, winemaker at Dobogó (the Zwack Winery), the back-to-nature Marta Wille-Baumkauff of the Pendits cellars and the ever-enthusiastic French crusader for Tokaj, Samuel Tinon. (And special shout-out to Katherine C who has so often helped me on visits.)
Still, among the many excellent people who have given me their time for stories in Tokaj, one stands out for his reliability and dedication to duty: no matter how tired he must be at the end of a day's work, if I leave a message asking for comment on the harvest or how the market is developing, László Mészáros, director of Tokaj's Disznókő winery, will invariably phone back and offer his thoughts.
This is no small matter: with 112 hectares under vine, Disznókő (it's pronounced something like Dees-no-kur for those who don't know Hungarian) is one of Tokaj's largest estates. For sure László has his work cut out managing the teams that tend the vines and work the cellars, not to mention keeping his French owners happy with developments and accounts. Yet he has never failed to squeeze in a phone call to this pesky journalist whenever asked.
Of course, with Covid, stories and visits to wineries went quiet (even if I did manage to sneak in one trip to Oremus last year at this time).
The ever dependable: László Mészáros
Whatever, when an email popped into my inbox a month ago inviting me to a tasting to mark the release of Disznókő's top-of-the-range Kapi 6-puttonyos aszu dessert wine, it didn't take me many seconds to respond. The fact that it was in Gundel Ballroom, Hungary's answer to the Ritz, was an extra, but I'd have attended had it been in a cold, ill-lit, dingy cellar: I owe that at least to László.
I don't think any wine lover could seriously fault a single Disznókő product – the team simply wouldn't let anything sub-quality out onto the shelves – but as he explained to the gathering on November 9th, wine from the Kapi plot of the greater Disznókő estate is ""quite unique", even if it doesn't appear so to the naked eye.
“When I first started working at Disznókő in 1995, I was brought to this vineyard by the manager. Kapi [had] freshly planted vine, very well managed, but it was not the most, I'd say romantic part of the Disznókő estate,” László says.
But over time, and after his first harvests, he realised this gentle, south-facing slope was able to produce “perfectly ripe grapes” with the botrytis – the noble rot essential for sweet Tokaj aszu wines – coming later than the rest of the Disznókő estate.
Furthermore, beside the fact that its very sunny and very warm, he found the wine from Kapi keeps its acidity and freshness better than from any other plots.
Photo: The Disznókő Winery, with the Kapi vineyard marked at the top of the photo. This is looking east and a little south, with the road to Sárospatak disappearing in the distance. For those that know the area, the Sárga Borház restaurant is just out of the picture, mid-right. Courtesy photo.
Over time, and with the help of geologists, he reckons he's cracked the secret: the soil on Kapi lies on a base mixture of volcanic rocks, then layers of clay and humus, and finally some limestone in the topsoil, a product of the last Ice Age. It's combination that László believes is unique, not only at Disznókő, but in all the Tokaj region.
And as a result, the botrytised berries from Kapi are given special attention and kept apart to make a single vineyard vintage each year. What's more, in 2017, as László puts it, “all the parameters came together” for the perfect harvest – and we, maybe 75 invited guests – were the privileged first to taste not only the 2017 vintage, but a string of others for comparison.
Now I don't consider myself any connoisseur, but to me, while the 2017 is a gorgeous wine, with had a wonderful, well rounded resonance, I preferred the 2007 vintage, in which the acids felt more lively. László took my (probably ill-informed) comment in good humour, saying the 2007 vintage was the one most like the 2017, which would surely come to match its older cousin with age.
That's the one, here on the left - it's 'just' a 5-puttonyos aszu, not quite as much sugar as the 2017 version.
Photo Imre Kőrizs.
During the evening, I ran into Ms Seven Wang, a Chinese national living in Hungary, who is working to sell Tokaj wines in her home country. Seven offered a far more professional opinion on the wine of the night.
“2017 Kapi was a really fresh and fruity vintage. Quince, pineapple, stigma croci on the nose with fine acidty. In the mouth, it is really elegant, apricot, honey, and a little spiciness at the end,” she said, putting me firmly in my place as a dunce in these things.
(In case you're wondering, I wasn't sure what stigma croci was either. It's a precious Chinese medicine, apparently. Katherine C reckons it's probably saffron.)
Seven went on: “2017 was not too surprising for me,” (presumably having tasted a few vintages along the way previously). But she too opted for a more mature wine as her favourite of the event. “I perfer the 2011 vintage. It was more complex and rich. But maybe with time, 2017 Kapi will change as well.”
Looking at the Disznókő webshop, I see the newly launched vintage is going for a sliver under HUF 40,000 (roughly EUR 100) per 0.5l bottle – with a 7.5% discount (HUF 3,000 per bottle) on a case of six.
Not a wine you'll find on any bottom-shelf for sure, and not one I'd casually pop into my shopping trolley. But if you understand the effort – and risk - that goes into making the best Tokaj 6 puttonyos, and you appreciate the flavours and subtleties of the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings - at least for those very special occasions – I'd say it's a steal.
Photo: The latest Kapi release comes in a bottle like this - Photo Seven Wang
To learn more about Disznókő , here's their website. https://www.disznoko.hu
And – in case you don't believe I like writing them - here's a link to a very exciting entrepreneurial story that's fresh off the press – this one from Hungary's south-west neighbour.