Feeding the Wine Bug
By James Molesworth, tasting coordinator
The wine bug, for which I have been told there is no known cure, has bitten many of us. I inherited it from my father. In its most advanced stages, it creates a profound obsession with wine, which can be appeased in any number of ways. For consumers, importers and critics by finding a new, seemingly undiscovered, rarity and then sharing the news (and wine) with others. For the winemaker by creating something truly unique, giving birth to a wine and seeing it join the pantheon of greats. I myself, a budding critic, have a constant flow of wines from which to choose in order to ease my craving. Unfortunately, though my obsession is often satisfied, I always find it merely temporary.
As more and more people are bitten by the wine bug, the back roads and countryside of winedom are being strip-mined for undiscovered rarities, and consequently they are becoming all the more rare. Joint ventures between superstar winemakers have become commonplace these days, with each one creating less and less enthusiasm. Remember all the hoopla around Opus One's creation? Nowadays, it seems, a day doesn't go by without some announcement of a newly created winery.
Yet, lo and behold, something has appeared that genuinely piques my interest. Chateau Pajzos, a Hungarian estate in the Tokay region, is releasing an Eszencia. Eszencia, a word that held magical connotations for the royalty of Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, yet since then had been dropped from the wine lexicon as if it were Chaucer's English. Now this ought to give me a temporary fix for my bug. This extremely rare wine, of which only 300 500-ml bottles are being released, has all the markings of being something truly special. It has history behind and hype leading it on. Luckily, I'm in the right place at the right time to check it out.
Eszencia is a dessert wine made from the botrytized Furmint grape and is made only in Hungary's Tokay region, named for the town of Tokay. Eszencia carries over 40 percent, sometimes as much as 70 percent, residual sugar. Yet the bracing acidity of the Furmint grape wears all that sweetness on itself like an Armani suit -- seamless and suave. I find wine much more fun than clothes, though, since you get to taste it.
Plus, I've always been fascinated with sweet wines. Most people seem to pass them by as if they were some sort of oddity for eccentrics to toy with, yet they can put such an exclamation point on a great meal. I guess in a way they are oddities, created most often by a fickle mold that shrivels the grape skins and, in that perfect irony of nature, produces a profoundly concentrated elixir and drastically limits the amount of wine the grapes can produce.
Yet the Pajzos Eszencia deserves attention not merely because of its rarity -- most wine lovers will be lucky to ever be in the same room as a bottle, each of which will retail at $400 -- but because it is the first Eszencia to be released since a group of Western winemakers led by Jean-Michel Arcaute and Jean-Michel Cazes of Bordeaux invaded Tokay (Disnoko, another Tokay estate run by Cazes, has since released an Eszencia as well, from the 1992 vintage) and revolutionized the area after many years of Communist control. The fact that the 1993 vintage may be Hungary's finest postwar harvest is also of note. Since it is the first Western-style Eszencia to be released, it will serve as a benchmark. Whether it is a good or bad benchmark, only time will tell.
I am looking forward to these 1993 Tokays, which are now starting to be released, with the same anticipation I have for my annual shipments of Ravenswood single-vineyard Zinfandels. I have had the Cooke, Old Hill and Dickerson bottlings in my cellar since the late '80s and, while the wines are no longer unknown, they never cease to give me that temporary fix for my wine bug. I'm a terroirist at heart, and the various distinctions that the same grape can display when grown in different vineyards will never cease to amaze me.
The Pomerol estate Chateau La Conseillante, never the mightiest scorer when reviewed, always thrills me. It makes that singular, personal connection with my palate that brings a wry, impish grin to my face -- often forcing my fiancee to ask "Are you all right?" While most people trample each other for Petrus or Pahlmeyer, La Conseillante is for me the ultimate expression of Merlot.
The best, though, is when both my fiancee and I share that fix at the same time, which usually happens when drinking wine from Meo-Camuzet, my favorite Burgundy producer. The gift of a bottle of Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanee Les Chaumes is the easiest way for a dinner guest to be invited back, quickly. Mastering the art of making Pinot Noir may be winedom's Holy Grail, and while those same trampling hoards run for wines from Leroy or Williams Selyem, for me Meo-Camuzet comes the closest to attaining it.
None of my favorite wines are discoveries any longer -- all have been lauded (or denigrated) at some time or another. In the late '80s and early '90s my wine bug was well-fed, but I now have to scramble along with everyone else to get these wines into my cellar so that I can get my fix at a moment's notice. I am not bitter, though. For me, it's not a competition with the person next to me. While the opportunities to ease my cravings are fewer as more and more people discover what I have discovered, I'm confident there will always be something else out there to discover -- as long as there are enough winemakers attempting to create something truly unique. I enjoy sharing the information I come across with others. I enjoy sharing the wines I discover with others.
Right now it's the 1993 Pajzos Eszencia. I have been lucky enough to taste it, though I must admit I won't be able to share it with as many people as I would like to. That's a bit of a shame, because I found it to be mind-bogglingly good. After the Eszencia has come and gone, it will be time to look for a new fix. How long it will take to find it, I'll never know until I do.
This is where that obsession caused by the bite of the wine bug is both satiated and reignited at the same. Even as I search for my next fix, I know that when I find it, it will only be a temporary one. It just makes me savor the moment all the more. I know I have a very, very advanced case of the wine bug, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from tasting coordinator James Molesworth. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.