Three Blind Hungarians

bottlesProf. Dr. Tim P. says: One of the hazards of wine writing is watching bottles pile up all over the house waiting to be tasted. (Somebody has to do it.) Since I firmly believe that multiple opinions are always better than one, I periodically pull together an informal panel to work through the backlog.

I recently did a miscellaneous session—some wines I needed to write about, some I might mention somewhere, some I just felt duty-bound to sample because they had shown up at my door. My two tablemates were a serious student of wine somewhere on the trail of a Master of Wine certificate and the co-author of a forthcoming book on pairing desserts and desert wines. All the bottles were wrapped in brown paper bags (showing what a high-class event this was).

The whites were a particularly odd quartet: two Hungarian whites from indigenous grapes (the Woodsman’s White and Carpenter’s White in the Craftsman series) and two barrel-fermented California Chardonnays. Trying to be helpful, I noted that the four wines were really two and two. “We noticed!” my pals chimed in unison; the contrast between the pale straw of two glasses and the golden oak tones of the others needed no announcement. We tasted through all the wines before talking—though occasional comments did pop up, things like, “Many trees died for this wine.”

Both of the Hungarian whites had intriguing, aromatic noses; we came up with peaches and almonds on the Királyleányka (Woodsman’s), white peaches and kiwi on the Irsai Olivér (Carpenter’s). The Woodsman’s had a surprisingly rounded mouthfeel, the Carpenter’s left a distinctly tart impression; both had personality. The two Chards were well-made, higher in alcohol, noticeably oaked, and sweet with caramel and cotton candy in the mouth. And roughly triple the price of the Hungarians.

On to the reds. We had three Merlots (not my favorite grape, which is why I have friends come over), two Merlot blends, and a complete ringer, a California Tempranillo laced with an idiosyncratic mix of other grapes. The Craftsman Journeyman’s Red (Merlot and Kékfrankos) was fourth in line, after three Californians at different price points, and I couldn’t help but mumble, “Finally, a red wine that’s actually dry.” Then on to the next sweetie.

Again, there was nothing wrong with any of these wines—they were all clean, full of cherry fruit, varietally correct, right on the target their makers aimed at. The Journeyman seemed to come from a different universe: lighter in color and body, thoroughly dry, begging for food, opening with fruit and ending with black pepper. It wasn’t “better” is some absolute sense; it just stood out in an all-too-familiar crowd.

The contrast was so clear that when we got to the rogue Tempranillo, slightly drier and less heavily oaked than the rest of the Golden State lineup, we declared it positively “European.” All in all, a pretty educational hour for a random batch of wines and a trio of jaded palates.