Moving from Halloween to the Spring Races, following my blog post last week let’s take a look at Romania’s neighbouring country, Hungary. Hungarians often declare themselves as a horse riding nation, but they’re even more famous for their wine making skills and the excellent sweet wines of Tokaj.
Not to be confused with Tokay, the synonym for Pinot Gris in Alsace nor with Tokai Friulano, a grape variety also known as Sauvignonasse, Tokaj is one of the oldest wine regions in the world and the first of a kind to be classified in the 18th century. Hungarian wine culture stretches back to Roman times and this specific region has gained its reputation for its botrytised dessert wines. In fact, it’s held in such esteem, that the Hungarian national anthem thanks God for dripping sweet nectar onto the vineyards of Tokaj.
Tokaji wines became the staple in Europe’s royal courts, and quoting Louis XIV, king of France they’re the “Wine of Kings, King of Wines”. From the region of Tokaj, which is now one of UNESCO’s World Herritage Sites comes the much-prized Aszu, a barrel aged botrytis dessert wine. Botrytis Cinerea is a beneficial fungus often found in humid and warm areas, which attacks and dehydrates the grape berries, concentrating their sugars and by doing so leaving a trademark honeysuckle aroma in the wine.
Tokaji Aszu has a variation of fruit tones and spice notes such as pear, apricot, quince, exotic fruits, nuts and nutmeg with rich and salty volcanic minerality. Furmint, which is a native wine grape variety planted in 90% of the regions vineyards, dominates the blend adding a harmonious, fruity palate and aromatic profile to the Aszu. Harslevelu (linden leaf), another native variety is responsible for the spiciness and together these grapes give a phenomenal ageing potential to the wine. Meanwhile a third grape, the Muscat Blanc provides a flavour distinct of any other sweet wine. Grapes are not harvested until November and for a Tokaji to be an Aszu it needs to be matured for a minimum of three years with two of them spent in an oak barrel. 2013 vintages and onwards only require 2 years of maturation with 18 months in oak.
The sweetness of the wine is measured by the Hungarian word “puttony”, which translates to a large basket used for harvesting grapes. On the label, the number of “puttonyos” indicates the residual sugar content. 3 puttonyos is the least sweet Tokaji Aszu and is also the most reasonably priced of them all.
On the other end of the scale is the Eszencia made out of undiluted juice of botrytised grapes which can take a decade to ferment with up to around 800g/l of residual sugar content and only 5% ABV. Eszencia is one of the rarest and most expensive wines in on Earth.
There’s a site I’ve found selling Hungarian goods in Australia from where you can purchase a variety of Tokaji wines, and not only do they have the widest selection, prices also seem to be the lowest on the market starting from $29.95 a bottle for a 3 puttonyos. Dan Murphy’s lists a bottle of 3, 4 and 5 puttonyos Aszu each ranging between $33 and $50. Vintage Cellars has a 4 puttonyos for about $50, while International Fine Wines has some older vintages on sale for up to $266 a bottle.
Aszu pairs well with oriental cuisine, foie gras, cheeses, cured ham, game and of course a range of desserts, or it can be drunk as a dessert on its own.