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|Slow wine, in the heart of Europe|
Ushio - November 2007
Twenty years ago, some Italian food producers started a wonderful campaign group called the Slow Food Movement. The idea was to start a reaction against the spread of fast food, symbolised always by McDonald’s hamburgers and the famous golden arches. The Italian founders wanted to encourage people to love high quality, pure, carefully grown food, cooked patiently and presented beautifully. Just like the best of Japanese food, in fact
While some campaigners gain attention by throwing bricks through McDonalds’ restaurant windows, the Slow Food Movement worked in more subtle ways, by organising groups of local supporters in towns and cities, at first all over Italy, then all over Europe, and now all over the world. Since 2004, in fact, there has been a Japanese branch of Slow Food, based in Sendai, with supporting groups in all the major Japanese cities.
This Slow Food Movement came to my mind recently when I was visiting a country in the centre of Europe, Hungary, in the company of some friends who I first met in Tokyo more than a quarter of a century ago. The organiser of our visit is a Canadian, but he was born in Hungary. His parents fled the country in 1956, when the Soviet Union brutally suppressed an uprising against the Communist government the Russians had installed. Now that Hungary is free, he wanted to return to celebrate his 60th birthday along with some friends, but also to investigate Hungary’s progress as a wine-producer.
With the help of a Japanese importer of Hungarian wines, Sawabe Sayumi of Sankyu Shokai, we arranged a trip to the oldest and most famous Hungarian wine region, an area called Tokaj, and paid a visit there to one of the oldest producers in that region. That was where I started to think about Slow Food.
The Szepsy family have owned vineyards and produced wine in Tokaj for more than 500 years. The current head of the family, Szepsy Istvan (Hungarians like to write their names in the Japanese style, with the family name first), showed us his farm and his cellars, and of course allowed us to taste his wine. This wine is Slow Wine in every possible sense.
Tokaj is famous for its slightly sweet wine, which people often drink at the end of meals, with their dessert. That taste, as Mr Szepsy told us, is produced by waiting a long time before harvesting the grapes each year. The reason for waiting is that some of the grapes need to rot, to become rather like moist raisins, helped by a mould called "botrytis". They are picked by hand, one by one, as the rot develops. In France and Italy, the grape harvest is usually in September. In Tokaj, these special grapes, called "aszu", are often not picked until December or even early January, sometimes even with snow on the ground around them.
The Tokaj wines, I learned, are graded according to how many buckets full of the aszu grapes are added to the normal grape juice. The best grade of wine has six buckets, known on the label as "6 puttonyos". Puttonyos is the Hungarian name for the buckets used to collect and measure the aszu grapes.
The second way in which Tokaj is the perfect Slow Wine, the alcoholic equivalent of Slow Food, is that truly Tokaj should not be drunk until several years after it has been made and bottled. Ideally, you should wait for at least ten years, but preferably as much as 20 or even 30. In that sense, Tokaj is like the best port wine from Portugal, or some of the finest red wines from the Bordeaux region of France.
There is, though, a third and more distinct way in which Tokaj is slow. It is that the whole region is taking a long time to recover from the period, which lasted from 1945 until 1989, during which the Soviet Union controlled the country. At that time, Tokaj continued to make small quantities of wine but the land was all owned by the state, the production was very inefficient, and little of the wine was exported. People like Mr Szepsy were allowed to own only very small vineyards; during the Soviet period he worked for a state-owned company.
So Mr Szepsy, and other producers like him, could begin to buy land and expand their vineyards only during the 1990s. They were short of money and so needed to sell their wines quickly in order to raise capital so that they could plant more vines and buy modern equipment.
The result was that they could not keep their Tokaj wines in their cellars while it matures and improves for 10, 20 or 30 years, waiting for it to become more desirable and valuable. They had to sell it young, and quite cheaply. It is still only 17 years since the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed and Hungary became liberated. So the result is that Tokaj Aszu wine has only been in full production for that amount of time, and most of the wine in the early 1990s was sold quickly and cheaply. Only now, as the producers become more prosperous, can they afford to hold on to the best Tokaj Aszu wine and let it mature.
As the Slow Food Movement says, it is important to be patient. Now that I have become a lover of Tokaj wines, I must wait until some older wine is available. It will be hard to wait so long. But it will be worthwhile. Recently, Mr Szepsy’s wines were put in a competition with the most famous sweet French dessert wines, from Chateau d’Yquem in the Sauternes area of Bordeaux. Mr Szepsy’s Tokaj Aszu was judged the winner.