August 30, 2008

Maniacal Mosquitoes and Tokaji Aszú
Sárospatak, Hungary

I really can't remember the last time I fought off such insolent mosquitoes (outside of SE Asia). Sárospatak is host to variety of blood-sucker that knows no boundaries, and walking around outside, even a few hours before dusk, might as well have you wearing a sign on your back that reads "Early bird mosquito special: 2-for-1, all you can eat!"

Long pants seem to be the de facto standard in the dead of summer. Many home windows even have screens—and when the windows have screens, you know it can get bad.

But as reward for our evening walk against the flying evil of the world, Laszlo showed up at sunset and offered to take us wine tasting at his favorite cellar. The drive would take us to the small wine country town of Tolcsva, south of Sárospatak, between us and the regionally famous winery town of Tokaj.

Tokaj is the Hungarian town whose name is synonymous with the Tokaji Aszú, a special type of sweet dessert wine. Tokaji Aszú is wildly expensive compared to the other types of wines found at markets and vineyards (some very nice bottles of Hungarian wine go for US$4–7, whereas the Tokaji Aszú start at $10, and rapidly climb to higher than $40).

The amber-colored wine of varying intensities, placed inside delicate bottles with long, thin necks, screams out "You can't afford to drink me, you poor, poor, backpacker. Move along to the bottom shelf."

Inside the Sajgó Showroom Cellar

Ah, but thanks to Laszlo's kindness (and frequent cellar patronage), I was able to not only taste large samples of some award-winning Tokaji Aszú, but a half-dozen other wines as well.

What makes the Tokaji Aszú so special is the process necessary to produce the wine. At the end of September, when the Aszú grapes are nearly at their ripest, the skin of some grapes becomes contaminated by grey noble mold. The fungus fibers weave through the grape, causing most of the water to evaporate from it.

The colors of Tokaji Aszú

The extremely valuable, shriveled Aszú grapes are high in sugar content, and are finally plucked and separated by hand at the time of harvest (by dozens of old women sitting on stools).

There are six different levels of Tokaji Aszú, each created by adding specific amounts of the contaminated Aszú grapes during the production process. The lower number has the lightest color, and least amount of grapes. The highest number (a six) has the strongest concentration, darkest color, sweetest taste, and highest price tag.

Tasting Tokaji Aszú was the entire point of going to the town of Tokaj, but since these Aszú grapes are grown all over this small area in Hungary, it mattered not that I was having them from a cellar in Tolcsva instead.

The six types of Tokaji Aszú I indulged in stood out among all the others that were sampled that evening. Never before have I tasted anything like it—so sweet, so strong, so aromatic that it tasted more like a cognac than wine.

The only downside was the legions of mosquitoes awaiting us topside, as well as their friends playfully attacking us below, inside the cellar. But no negative mosquito experience could ever diminish the joys of getting fed glass after glass of increasingly complex and expensive wines, direct from the bottles and casks from the source that produced them.

Another amazing travel experience, courtesy of CouchSurfing and the generosity of our host.

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