The wines of Tokaji run like a golden thread through Hungarian history. There are references to their nectar-like quality in the Hungarian national anthem. Imperial Tokaji, the world’s sweetest wine, has always been prized. As its name implies, much of it found its way to the Habsburgs’ cellars. Emperors often used it as birthday or Christmas presents for fellow monarchs. So I was delighted to taste some non-imperial bottles over dinner at the Hungarian embassy, courtesy of that impressive fellow Kristóf Szalay–Bobrovniczky, the ambassador, a good friend of President Orbán’s. Mr Orbán is much demonised. Along with President Trump and Brexit, he is seen to be a threat to the Fifth International: the pseudo-liberal bureaucratic one. That apart, he cannot be accused of resembling Mr Trump.
At times, Hungarian democracy may have a rough edge: can anyone name a single infant democracy in which that was not the case? From the Turkish victory at Mohács to the glorious uprising in 1956 — and beyond — Hungary was often embattled and frequently oppressed. Those are not the easiest circumstances for cultivating the gentler arts of government. Moreover, President Orbán is a patriot and a Christian: how deeply unfashionable. He believes Hungary should control its own borders: how un-European. Having escaped Soviet rule, he is not interested in being told what to do by the Germans. How absurd: does he not realise that it is more than 70 years since the Germans tried to exterminate anyone? Does he not trust the Bundesreich?
It was certainly easy to trust the Hungarian wines. The sweet wines — aszú — are the product of dried grapes which have developed noble rot and are harvested as late as January. They are grown on a plateau full of extinct volcanoes. Broken-down igneous rock has infused the soil with a steely minerality, of particular assistance to the Furmint grape, which is used for the aszú wines but also bottled on its own. I was especially impressed by a 2011 Palandor from the Karádi-Berger winery. Crisp but also subtle and with plenty of length, it would work well as an aperitif or with smoked fish; think of it as filling the role of a fino or a dry white Bordeaux.
The aszú wines have further to go. Production standards fell away under the communists and though the recovery has been enthusiastic, it is still incomplete. Tokaji makers tend to be patronising about Sauternes or Barsac, insisting that their vineyards are much older. Be that as it may, the Magyars have not yet succeeded in emulating the spine of structure which we find in the finest sweet Bordeaux. In some ways, that is strange. Good Furmint has plenty of structure. Given a bit more time, the vignerons will surely succeed in passing that on to the aszú bottles. But good Hungarian wine is good value. Look out for the Royal Tokaji label and prepare to salute a work in progress.
Sweetness: on Sunday, I lunched with an old friend at Scalini in Fulham. Italian by name and by nature, at least during weekends; this would not be the ideal place for a business lunch, but who wants to talk business over Sunday lunch? The place was full of Italian families. Why is it that in restaurants, their children, though not in the least repressed, seem to have a lesser share of original sin than their English equivalents? While smiling at their innocence, there was plenty to encourage pleasantly sinful thoughts. In response to summer weather, the place could have been rechristened all’ombra delle ragazze in fiore. These ragazze were fetching enough to remind one of the Tenth Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass.’ Inter alia we drank a good Gavi — Brogla 2016 — which did nothing to discourage… seasonal thoughts.