This post is about a technology far older than computers – the making of Tokaji wine. It is an article I wrote several years ago.
Tokaj Aszú Wine
“Tokaj Aszú is more than wine, because when you first encounter it, it is so much more than you had ever expected!”
Janos Pogacsas – vintner
You do not drink Tokaji Aszú. Its richness and complexity beg to be slowly and conscientiously enjoyed. While this is true of all great wines, it is particularly true of the Hungarian Aszú. Praised by Shakespeare, Goethe, Popes and Kings, this one-time favorite of Europe’s aristocracy slipped into obscurity for half a century but is rapidly returning to its former status. It is, arguably, the most delicious dessert wine in the world.
The undeniable fact is that Tokaj Aszú wine is unique. This is due both to the geological conditions of the Tokaj region, and to the process by which it is made. Golden or deep amber in color, voluptuously viscous on the tongue, this wine does not need an experienced palate to sense the complex combinations of flavors. Citrus is almost always present, mixed with other fruits, but the sweetness is always counteracted by acids, providing a long and balanced taste.
Never heard of Tokaj wines? Not surprising. During 40 years of Soviet domination, the quality of the wine deteriorated drastically. Also, cold-war relations made importing to the West difficult. Thus an historic superstar faded into near oblivion. Since 1989, however, a renaissance has occurred with the privatization of most of the vineyards and investments in several large wineries by European firms. A new page has been turned, and prices for the best wines are rising.
Tokaj Aszú is a late harvest, botrytised wine. On the vine the grapes are infested with the fungus botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot.” Late in the season this fungus pierces the skin of the grapes, allowing the water to evaporate, shriveling the grape and concentrating the sugars and flavors to an incredible degree.
There are other botrytised wines, such as the famous French Sauternes, but no other uses the same production method. First, the Aszú berries are individually picked. These are stored while normal white wine is made from other grapes from the vineyard. When the new wine is ready, mashed Aszú berries are added, and the mixture soaks, for 24 to 48 hours. Next the strained wine is aged in oak barrels at least two years (by law), though most is aged much longer. The oak provides the deep color and much of the complexity in flavor.
There are several varieties of Aszú. In the old days, the pickers would carry the grapes from the fields in wooden baskets strapped to their backs. This basket was known as a puttony. Traditionally Aszú was categorized by the number of puttony measures (aprox. 20 kg.) of Aszú grapes that were added to a standard Gönc barrel (136 liters). Wine is produced in the range of 3 to 6 puttonyos. Today the puttonyos rating is determined by the amount of residual sugar in the wine (see table). This rating can be found on the label of any bottle of Tokaj Aszú.
The unique properties of Tokaji Aszú come from the Furmint grape which is the basis of the wine. This is an exceedingly crisp and acidic variety that balances the incredibly high sugar content so that the wine never is syrupy or cloying.
There is one other level, past 6 puttonyos. This is the fabulous Tokaj Aszú Essencia. In this rare wine, usually made in only the best years, the sugar content can reach 600 grams/liter! Still the sweetness is balanced by acidity so that it never seems syrupy. To this is added Hárslevelű which adds the delicate aromas and fruit flavors. Muscat or a couple of other grapes may also be added to increase the complexity of the wine.
Aszú wines from Disnókö and Royal Tokaj, usually 5 and 6 puttonyos, seem to be generally available in large cities in the U.S. Both of these vineyards provide very good wines. Very large wine shops in major cities may carry a wider selection, and wine-searcher.com can locate other offerings including some rare older vintages.
I recommend trying a 5 puttonyos to start enjoying this extraordinary wine. Remember to savor the aroma for it alone is worth the price of the bottle. Then sip slowly and roll the delicious essence around the tongue.
Delighted with the precious beverage, Louis XV of France offered a glass of Tokaji to Madame de Pompadour, referring to it as “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” (“Wine of Kings, King of Wines”). [Wikipedia]
Perhaps you will agree.
By the way, a rather droll story on the topic, The Bottle of Tokaji, is in my first anthology of short-short stories Twist.
Literary/Contemporary — 1922 words
University student Gretta returns returns home to find that her roommate has opened a very special bottle of wine.
The usual January drizzle greeted Gretta as she left the bus depot and walked to her bicycle. She clipped her pack to the bike’s rack, pulled her knit cap over her dark hair and started home. As the day slowly brightened, she was thinking of hot tea.
“Gotta a confession to make,” Jill started in. “Roger and I came home from the party about midnight. After we were talking a while we got this incredible urge for some wine. So we went in and raided your little stash. Of course we’ll pay you for it. Hope you don’t mind.”
Link to anthology: Twist