Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.
When I go back to New York City these days, I like to return to my favorite places: the ones that make me feel warm, safe and welcome—especially when I land, exhausted at 10 p.m., in the middle of a blizzard.
I routed my way straight from JFK to one of my favorite restaurants, Rouge Tomate, hoping that my dear friend Pascaline Lepeltier hadn't left yet. Pascaline is the rock star wine director there, a petite tour de force with an infectious enthusiasm and passion for great wine.
I was sure she'd share a great new Chenin Blanc with me—she's obsessed with the grape, and she shares a hometown with its native stomping grounds in the Loire Valley in France. But she giggled over, eyes ablaze with a sense of mischief and excitement. A small, somewhat oddly shaped bottle appeared, and out poured the most incredible, fascinating, beautiful and bizarre wine I've had in a long while: 2007 Samuel Tinon Dry Szamorodni, made from the Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes in Tokaj, Hungary.
In the same way that you must not let Pascaline's foreign accent throw you off, do not let the Hungarian accents in the wine's name deter you. You are in for great things. Szamorodni means "as it comes," Pascaline explained to me. It refers to the way the wine is made of grapes picked at all levels of ripeness, whether under-ripe, perfectly ripe or shriveled up and seemingly rotten—just "as it comes."
A brief tangent on the "seemingly rotten" bit: these grapes are affected by the wonderful version of something called botrytis. Botrytis is a type of mold that attacks grapes in two forms: we call the bad, nasty one "grey rot," and the fabulous, mystical one "noble rot." Noble rot shrivels the grapes and concentrates their sugars while imbuing them with incredible spice and honey notes. In the Tokaj region of Hungary, two rivers come together in a warm microclimate, causing lots of humidity... the perfect conditions for botrytis.
My trusty Wine Grapes book says that the region's most common grape, Furmint, "seems to appreciate the humidity," and "the combination of high acid, susceptibility to botrytis bunch rot and high sugar levels in the berries makes Furmint ideal raw material for intensely rich, long-lived Aszú dessert wines." Quite appropriately, Tokaj is world-famous for those sweet wines made entirely from the precious noble rot-affected grapes.
In my own glass, the confluence of mixed up grapes gives the Tinon Dry Szamorodni a crazy complexity, even as it is completely dry. But there's more.
Bobbing in and out of our first course, Pascaline told us about the way the wine is aged in the cellar for six years—and not just any cellar. Remember that humidity of Tokaj? It encourages the growth of yet another crazy mold on the cellar walls: this one's called cladosporium cellare. And the wine is left in barrels kept partially open and exposed to it!
We're not done yet. Pascaline continued, "as happens in Sherry or the Jura region, a thin veil of yeast also grows naturally over the wine." I thought I misunderstood her, she said it with such nonchalance. A third wacky micro-organism? A veil of yeast growing on the wine?? There was no way.
But the taste gave it away: that same uncanny, crisp yellow apple freshness aligned with a vaguely nutty, spicy twang—very much like the taste of a Sherry or Jura wine aged under their mysterious, delicate, naturally occurring veils of yeast. This wine didn't have caramelized or roasted flavors, but crisp and almost clean ones, reminding me of raw almonds or fresh hazelnuts dusted with yellow curry powder... and just the suggestion of a thin gloss of nail polish. (If this description puts you squarely in the "Huh??" camp, you're on the same page I was.)
As the glass warmed up, saffron threads, chamomile tea, wet cement, honey and wildflower notes spilled out. "It's crazy, eh?" Pascaline's eyes lit up as I drained the glass.
I nodded eagerly, nervous that I'd only caught half of what I was supposed to but positive I was in the presence of something fantastic.
2007 Samuel Tinon Dry Szamorodni
The Grape(s): Furmint, Hárslevelü
The Region: Tokaj, Hungary Retail Price: $46
The Importer: Blue Danube Wine Company
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in the new Wine Grapes tome. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.