Posts Tagged ‘Wine’

Tokaj (Hungary)

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

August 18, 2010 (Wednesday) – August 20, 2010 (Friday):

Who’s Hungary for dessert wine!? We are! When we were planning our round-the-world trip, it didn’t initially occur to us to visit Tokaj, Hungary, home to one of our favorite dessert wine regions. It’s a city not always easily found on a map, and definitely not a metropolitan destination. But since we would be traveling on a eurail train pass through Europe, which allowed us up to 15 stops to most cities in Europe, why the heck not make a trip out to this rural Hungarian region and witness firsthand the birthplace of our beloved dessert wine.

Unfortunately, things almost didn’t turn out so. Leaving Zagreb, we were on a 5am (yes, a god-awful time of 5am) train departure to connect through Budapest, then onto Szerenc, then finally to Tarcal to arrive at 2:30pm, from there our hotel would pick us up and take us to the hotel. Simple, sound like a good plan. Not quite. Our 5am train didn’t arrive until 7:30am, which meant we were already over 2hours behind schedule. Once we finally got to Budapest, we of course missed our connecting train. No thanks to several unhelpful train ticket agents, we finally managed to figure out what trains we needed to take to get us to Szerenc, then onto Tarcal…by then a good five hours later than scheduled.

The train ride out to Tarcal was in and of itself quite an experience. Having hopped onto the train last minute with no reservation meant we would be standing a good portion of the way. But that wasn’t the worst part, these trains were not those modern bullet train-types with modern amenities, they were essentially communist-era transport trains. Although the train did have seats, we were relinquished to standing in the stairwell/entrance area of the car. The eastern European summer heat was beating down at a good 85 degrees with our only respite being the open windows of the train car. But that meant the deafening noise of the outside world passing by at 75mph to drown out your own thoughts. And even if you were lucky enough to formulate any thoughts to yourself, your concentration would be broken by the constant stench of cigarette smoke emanating from your fellow comrades stuck in the stable with you. .But hey, we’ll be sipping on sweet Tokaj wine in a just a few, let there be no complaining.

One of the most amusing incidents did happen going to Tokaj (and it wasn’t the train ordeal). Once we arrived at the Tarcal train station (it was really more like a depot, than a station…something you would see out of an old wartime movie when the train would slowly approach the depot and through the windows of the train, you would spy soldiers standing guard armed with machine guns and a German shepherd). Anyway, once we arrived, we went to the street-side of the depot waiting for the hotel car to come pick us up. Tarcal is a small town in rural eastern Hungary, with the population of Hungarians probably close to 99.5%, and the other 0.5% being outside tourists, with Asians probably rarely ever visiting. So, as we were waiting for our ride, about half a block down the street to our left, we noticed a group of about six junior high / high school kids gathered together. We could hear them mumbling stuff to each other and giggling, obvious that they were looking at us and talking about us. After about a few minutes, two of the girls mustered enough courage to walk over to us and ask in their Hungarian broken-English, ” Do. you. speak…..English?” Then they giggled at each other proud to have made first contact with these humans with small eyes and black hair. To us, it was as if they’ve never seen Asians before, and have only read/heard about them from their textbooks. When we replied back in perfect English that we did in fact speak English, they continued to giggle some more and turn back to their friends who were all still standing half a block away at a safe distance, that yup, these foreign-looking beings are safe, and indeed do understand the English language. Then our car arrived, and we said goodbye to our two curious Hungarian ambassadors.

Finally, Tokaj wines. I was looking forward to our upcoming two-day binge-fest (so to speak) on Tokaj dessert wines. The hotel we were staying at, Grof Degenfeld, arranged all of our tours and tastings. The hotel itself also had a sprawling winery, which we would taste their wines on the last day. As for the following days’ activity, we started out with a morning visit to Chateau Dereszla winery. After a 30 minute tour of their cave, we had tastings of their library of wines, from lighter (and less sweet) furmint wines to edes szamorodni to various aszu wines. Nice and yummy, just like how we like our tokaj wines.

Afterwards, following lunch and a stroll through the town of Tokaj, we took the car to the second winery, Disznoko. Again we took a tour of their facility and learned about the process of making Tokaj aszu wines (i.e., that puttonyos are the traditional wooden “baskets” used to collect the grapes and the number of baskets of grapes used would determine the sweetness of the aszu wines, anywhere from 3 puttonyos up to 6 puttonyos).

Although it feels like we could never have enough Tokaj wines, spending two days in the Tokaj wine region we definitely had our decent share. Despite the (minor) ordeal we went through to get to Tokaj, the end result made up for the inconvenience. Now onto Budapest.  (And wouldn’t you know it, just so things would come full circle, of course our train leaving Tokaj was delayed two hours…)

To view more pictures from Tokaj, visit the Photos.

Verona and Venice (Italy)

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

August 7, 2010 (Saturday) – August 14, 2010 (Saturday):

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…What to do here for a week??  Years ago, having gone to Florence, Rome and Tuscany…something new is now what we seek. (ok, that’s it with the “rhyming”).

Miriam’s been to Venice before, so instead of staying in someplace where either of us has already been, we stayed in fair Verona, a short 2-hour train ride from Venice, with the hopes to just relax for a week, in a B&B.  So Miriam found a nice B&B in Verona, just outside the main city center.

The B&B was great.  With only four rooms, which were not always occupied, it felt like we had the whole hillside villa to ourselves.  Breakfasts (consisting of croissants, sometimes prosciutto, yogurts, cereal, and fresh fruits) were served on the outside patio area, which our host, Marco, prepared graciously everyday.  On another side of the villa, there were additional patio seating where we could read and take care of trip planning, all the while enjoying a beautiful view of Verona.   At night, we would utilize the large dining area to continue to do more trip planning, while enjoying the bottles of wine we purchased from Germany and from our wine tasting trip in nearby Valpolicella (more on that later).   All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay (especially the air conditioning), and the comfortable B&B a perfect escape from the wretched heat and humidity.

Yup, the European summer heat had finally found us.  After a month in Europe, we’ve mostly been greeted with mild climate and occasional rain.  But in Verona, the temperature would hover around 30-35 degrees Celsius (or 86-95 degrees F), not temperatures we would want to walk around all day in.  So luckily, we had a whole week to explore Verona.

My basic impression of Verona was….very Italy.  Small town, narrow streets, vibrant market squares.  Aside from the heat, walking around the town and taking in the surroundings was very enjoyable.  Reminded us about everything we love about Italy.  Much like Rome with its Coliseum, and Tuscany with its Duomo, Verona had its Arena — enormous structures situated in the thick of the city.   The Arena is an open-air coliseum, which during the summer months, is used to house the summer opera season.  Lucky for us, we’re in Verona….and it’s the summer. So, let’s watch an opera.  The opera we chose was Aida.  The Veronans?…Veronese?…Veronians?…let’s just call them Italians.   The Italians in Verona take their summer opera season seriously.   There are certain ways they like to enjoy their opera at the Arena.  For instance, many purchase the unreserved “seats” in the upper parts of the Arena.   I say “seats” because really you’re just purchasing an area in the upper parts of the Arena and sitting on the hard stone.  Knowing this, there are opportunistic vendors outside the Arena selling cushions, which we bought two of the inflatable variety.  Luckily we did, because not only did the cushion provide comfort from the hard stone, but also provided protection from the warm stone that had been baking all day in the hot weather.  Another fascinating practice the patrons of the unreserved section of the Arena do is to hold up candles throughout the beginning of the opera.  And when you’re in the upper sections, with the open air and the sky as a backdrop, it makes for a wonderful scene.

So that’s basically the most touristy thing we did in Verona.   Like I said, it was hot so we really didn’t want to walk around too much (and one day towards the end of the week, it actually poured, so we didn’t want to walk around too much then either).  Mainly we just did some light walking around the town and relaxed at the B&B.

As for day trips outside of Verona, we took a nice wine tour in the Valpolicella region to taste some Amarone wine, and also spent a day in Venice.

Without even knowing, Verona is quite close to the Amarone-producing wine region of Valpolicella.  We found a tour operator that gave semi-private wine tours of the region.  To me, next to Brunello and Barolo, Amarone wine comes a close third among favorite types Italian red wines.  After explaining the wine-making process of Amarone wines, the tour guide took us to the Campagnola and Brunelli wineries.  Two very different wineries in terms of size.  Both are family-owned and run, but Campagnola is much larger in scale to Brunelli.  Whereas Campagnola has a state-of-the-art assembly line production and bottling facility, Brunelli has a single (maybe two) production farmhouse.   But both wines were very good.  We bought a couple bottles and enjoyed them back at the B&B during the evenings.

As for Venice, it was my first time and Miriam’s second time there.   Having gone to Venice now, I must agree, it’s not really worth staying there . It’s probably better just visiting on a day-trip.  We got in most of the sights and did a walking tour around the city.  We found a restaurant (Do Spade) for dinner that served cichetti (Italian tapas).  We got there as it opened, and there was another couple, a Japanese couple, also waiting.  We got seated and then another small group of Japanese tourists arrived in the restaurant.  A few minutes later, another Japanese couple came in for dinner.  What’s going on?  We noticed a few of them had either a Japanese guidebook or some printout.   This restaurant must have been featured on some Japanese guide, because when we left after dinner (which the food was quite good by the way), all the patrons were Japanese except for probably two tables of Italians.  It was quite odd.

So that’s Verona (/Valpolicella/Venice). Next up, a 7am (12-hour) train ride to Zagreb, Croatia.

To view more pictures from Verona / Venice, visit the Photos.

Rheingau Wine Region (Germany)

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

July 30, 2010 (Friday) – August 1, 2010 (Sunday):

So as you know from Miriam’s post the Germany portion of our trip started off rough.  But we eventually reached Koblenz-Lutzel and made our way to the Rheingau.

You may be wondering why in all of Germany would we be going to Koblenz-Lutzel.  Well, many years ago, Miriam first visited Germany and took a river cruise down the Rhine River.  And on this boat ride, she enjoyed views of majestic mountains and rolling vineyards all around.  And upon these majestic mountains looking down on the river Rhine, laid series of medieval castles to which some were now converted hotels.  Then and there she dreamt that one day she would return to the Rhine River with a charming and handsome man and spend a fairytale adventure in the medieval castle-hotels.

Well, things don’t always happen as you plan, so instead Miriam gets to spend time with me in the castle-hotel.  And so, Koblenz-Lutzel was the nearest train station to Schloss Schoenberg (the castle-hotel) from where we could rent a car.

Miriam already touched upon our tough time navigating through German roads without a GPS device and relying solely on directions saved from Google maps.  But really, with all of the intuitive engineering coming out of Germany, you would think their road signs would be logical and easy to follow.  But then again, it was the German company, BMW, that did afterall give us the non-intuitive iDrive system.  Luckily, the car we had was only temporary and in a couple of days we could switch to an Audi with a proper GPS.  At any rate, after several mis-turns, trackbacks, and circling around we eventually did manage to make it to Schloss Schoenberg.  And what was waiting for us when we entered our room, and nice decanted bottle of sherry, a welcome gift from the hotel.  Germany is turning out alright afterall.

The castle-hotel was first-rate with 360-degree views of the Rhine River and surrounding valley.  The property itself was on the less larger size; not small, but not like those palatial castles built for kings that are now various tourist attractions.  Sleeping in the room (as well as walking around in the castle), you could get a sense of how life could have been like back in the day in the castle (obviously now with updated amenities and upholstery to warm the feel of the interior).  While not cheap, but also not expensive, staying here was an experience that was well worth trying.

The next day we spent driving around the Rheingau to visit various wineries for wine tasting.  The region, which runs along the Rhine River, is famous in Germany for its vineyards and their Riesling wines.  Yum.  We visited Schloss Johannisberg and Kloster Eberbach.  They were both situated along the hills overlooking the Rhine, with great views of the sunny valley.  A wonderful setting to be tasting wine, especially crisp, white wines.

After the full day of wine tasting, we headed down to Mainz where we would stay the night before we headed onto our journey of Germany’s famed Romantic Road.

To view more pictures from Rheingau, visit the Photos.

Saturday Night…Day

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

The weekends are the best. Saturdays are even better. This Saturday was even better better. Full day of good televised sports. UCLA in the NCAA tournament (though they lost). Then South Korea in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, which they killed Venezuela 10-2 to advance to the finals. Be the reds!!

On top of all that, we decided to walk over to Delfina Pizzeria on Fillmore and picked up two pies. THEN…we had a little Pinot Noir tasting in our living room. Yes, just the two of us. But we figured, we’re eating Delfina pizza, why the hell not.

First off, we started with my 1999 Domaine Drouhin pinot. I figured, its been 10 years, Pinot are probably well matured by now. (Side note, I bought this bottle like in 2001, and have been saving it since waiting for the right moment/occasion to open it up. I guess a random Saturday night in 2009 was the “right” occasion). We opened the bottle, poured the contents into our decanter and let it breathe. After some time, mmm. mmm. mmm. This isn’t a wine review entry so there will be no descriptions about earthy tones, or sweet blackberries or tobacco and coffee hints, with a taste of chocolate. Whatever the hell all that even means. It tasted like wine and alcohol. It tasted like…good. Well worth the 10 year wait.

Then, we decided, why not open another bottle simultaneously and compare. M likes…nay, loves Duckhorn’s Migration pinot noir; and since we had several bottles of their 2007 as well as their 2006, why not open a bottle of the 2006 and see how Napa Valley pinots compare against Willamette Valley pinots. So off we were, a 2006 Duckhorn Migration pinot against a 1999 Domaine Drouhin pinot. Who would win? Who would emerge the dominant player in the pinot market? Well, there were no winners. Because when it comes to alcohol, the true winner is always the imbiber.

Beisbol spoken here.