A spice oddity
Communism is good for many things — furry hats, spy novels, military parades and tractor production, to name but a few. But it is not good for wine. When Hungary was under single-party rule, the state took over all wine exports, which meant we didn't see any privately produced Hungarian wine here until the mid-1990s. We were missing out on the really good stuff from one of the most intriguing wine-producing countries in the world. Michael Broadbent, venerable wine scribe for Decanter, described Hungary as 'perhaps the most remote and strange of all the classic wine regions', and it's hard to argue with this. The wine region of Tokaj (pronounced tock-aye) is a series of villages scattered around the granitic Tokaj hill in the far north east of the country, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian border. It's a part of Europe that has been fought over for centuries, as empires have expanded and contracted. In fact, it's reckoned that warlike comings and goings are the reason the country's world-famous sweet wines were made in the first place. Pioneering priest Mate Szepsi Laczko was on the point of authorising the grape harvest when news came of a Turkish invasion. All able-bodied men rushed to defend their country and nobody was left to man the vineyards.
The grapes remained on the vines for months, shrivelling and drying up in the autumn sunshine. But when the soldiers returned from battle, Laczko told them to pick the grapes anyway. The result was an ultra-sweet, ultra-concentrated juice, which they named Essenzia - essence.
Laczko blended the Essenzia with the dry table wine from the previous vintage and the result was the lush, sweet, yet refreshing wine that the Tokaj region is famous for today. Key to the balance in Tokaji wines is the Furmint grape. It's a naturally high-acid variety, providing the zip and freshness that underpin the plush fruit. And as the Hungarian wine industry has started to find its feet, it's a variety we're starting to see more and more of, particularly from pioneering producers like Royal Tokaji.
The company was founded in 1990, when 60 growers came together to form their own business, and they have been instrumental in ushering in new thinking and new wines to the region. The Oddity is a great example. It's dry, which makes it unusual, and a blend of Furmint, Harslevelu and Yellow Muscat. Each one brings something different to the mix: freshness, spiciness and lovely fragrant aromatics respectively. Put them all together and you end up with an elegant, intriguing wine.
What it tastes like
An initial rush of apricots and honey gives way to a fresh palate with a gentle spiciness, backed up by a bracing acidity. Particularly good with Asian-influenced cuisine.
Where to get it
High Street: £13.99; Bluebird Wine Cellar
Restaurants: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Galvin La Chapelle, Merchants Tavern, Orrery
Click here to buy Royal Tokaji's The Oddity online from Uvinum