July 24, 2013

Wine: Character gets to the heart of wine – and oneself


I recently wrote about my allegiance to character as the guiding principle in approaching wine (and/or life). In sum: Character is not shorthand; not grape variety or color or price or even home region. Rather, character is the underlying spirit of a wine: its "is-ness," expressed through personality.

Some of that came from some stuff in my own life, exposed through discussions with my therapist. The process of peeling back layers of psychological disguise to get to the heart of oneself inevitably, even if gradually, leads to an ability to distinguish core from shell. The trick is to stay in a state of self-comfort, rather than the state of anguish that arises when self and presentation are in conflict.

I (kind of, not really) digress. The wines that most recently and most definitively convinced me of the primacy of character are two that in name and origin have little connection: the Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec "Le Haut-Lieu" 2011 ($26, SoPo), and the Kiralyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec 2011 ($19, SoPo).

France. Hungary. One is known for wine and pleasure; the other is known for Sovietization and goulash. But note the "sec" in each wine's name, the French word for "dry," a sign that each is from a category where the wines are often sweet.

Hungary's Tokaji region produced for centuries the most coveted wines in the world, when wines with significant sweetness were better appreciated. It's only after the fall of Communism that winemakers in the area were able to focus on producing high-quality dry wines from the indigenous grapes of the area, Furmint and Harslevelu.

Vouvray, in France's Loire Valley, has always been the source of some of the greatest, most age-worthy white wines in the world: dry, barely sweet, sparkling, and very sweet.

Both the Huet and the Kiralyudvar wines are owned by Anthony Hwang, who was born in the Philippines but now divides his time between residences in New York and Hungary. Hwang had collected the wines of Huet for years and developed a close relationship with the family. When Gaston Huet was no longer able to run the winery and family members were not in a position to continue the tradition, Hwang himself stepped in and bought the majority of the company's shares.

Both wineries produce wines along the full spectrum, from bracingly dry "secs" to "moelleux" Vouvray and 6-Puttonyos Aszu Tokaji, the latter two of which are among the greatest dessert and meditation wines in the world. (Yes, including -- and often surpassing -- Sauternes.)

It was on a trip to Budapest that Hwang encountered Kiralyudvar. He tasted the wines, and in relatively short order bought the winery, in 1997. This in itself is uncommon. The vast majority of aficionados with the resources to collect wine (or buy wineries!) will stick with the better-known regions and the better-known names. Hwang loved this great Vouvray. He loved this great Tokaji. His own character, I'm guessing, informed his commitment to these two distinct wines of character.

In recent years, Hwang has helped effect a sharing of resources and approach at the two wineries, most notably by using the same winemaker: Noel Pinguet, Gaston Huet's son-in-law. Although Pinguet worked alongside his father-in-law from the 1970s until Huet's death in 2002, he was the one to introduce biodynamic practices to the winery.

At Kiralyudvar, the departure of renowned winemaker Istvan Szepsy (who left to develop his own estate in Tokaji) allowed for Pinguet to step in. Thenceforth, Kiralyudvar too became a winery committed to biodynamics, closer attention in the vineyard to nurturing quality fruit, earlier harvest to preserve acidity, slow fermentations with exclusively native yeasts, aging in old wooden barrels.

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