“Wine is bottled poetry”.  ..… Robert Louis Stevenson

When it comes to sweet things, America is in the middle of a love affair: Corn syrup, chocolates, sugar, candies, syrups, ice cream – we can’t get enough. But tag the word “sweet” onto a wine and watch peoples’ facial expressions turn from sweet to sour.  I’ve poured wine on occasion that I wouldn’t use as pancake syrup.  (Don’t ask. It shall remain un-named). I suspect that’s because for many in the U.S., our experience with sweet wine has been limited to low cost, cloying, sugar rushes. Another factor is that quality sweet wine is necessarily expensive because it is so costly to produce.  Squeeze those issues together and what emerges is really an issue of quality versus perceived value. In Europe, people understand what goes into making a French Sauterne or a German Beerenauslese or TBA (see two reviews below or    http://www.winemizer.net/2013/02/beerenauslese-and-trockenbeerenauslese.html).

Hosting a dinner party recently, I concluded with a Tokay, and indeed the wine was poetry. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the wine but no one had any familiarity with it, despite being generally knowledgeable about wine.  Some of that is attributable to Hungary being a battle ground in two world wars and subsequently having its vineyards “re-organized” under Soviet rule until 1989, and its wines being generally unavailable in the West.

Tokay is an "out of this world" Experience
What a shame, because Tokay (properly Topkaji  Aszu) is Hungary’s gift to the world of gilded dessert wine. Louis XIV described it as, “The wine of kings and the king of wines.” -  Strong praise from a Frenchman describing another country’s wine!  Vineyards have flourished there since at least Roman times.  In fact, the vineyards of Tokay were the first in the world to be classified according to quality, a century and a half before France’s 1855 Classification. And it was in Tokay, in the mid-1600s, that the beneficial effects of allowing grapes to become botrytized were first discovered.

Tokay Aszu is made primarily from four indigenous Hungarian grapes:  Furmint, Harslevelu, Muscat Lunel, and  Oremus.  The Tokay region (properly Tokaj-Hegyalja) is about 120 miles northeast of Budapest, and about one-third the size of our Napa Valley. The four grapes used are late ripening and thin skinned making them susceptible to Botrytis cinerea, a.k.a. “noble rot.”  Oremus is capable of attaining high sugar levels, Muscat and Harslevelu are highly aromatic, and each of the first three grapes  are crisply acidic.  This unique combination of acid and sugar is what gives Tokay Aszu, even at its sweetest level, beautiful balance and depth without being cloying.

Botrytis is a beneficial fungus that sets upon grapes under particular climatic conditions.  It punctures the grape skins causing water in the grapes to evaporate so that inside the grapes, sugar and acid gets concentrated.  These shriveled, raisin like grapes (called aszu) are hand selected and handpicked and lightly crushed into a paste. The rest of the crop (those not botrytized) are made into a base wine.  The aszu paste is then added in various amounts to the base wine. The level of sweetness is measured in puttonyos.   For comparison purposes, a French Sautenes would be approximately equal to a 4 puttonyous.  A German Beerenauslese would be close to a 4 or 5 puttonyous.. Tokay Aszu must be aged at least two years in oak and one more in bottle before being sold, and is ready to drink upon release. It can be cellared forever.
Most Tokays that you will find will be from 3 to 6 puttonyous. There are two levels above 6, but they are so rare, it is unlikely you will find them.  Given that a 4 is roughly equivalent to a Sauternes, you may wonder why anyone would want a 6. In fact, while sweet, a 6 puttonyous Tokay is anything but simple. The color of honey, it has a silky rich, full mouth feel. It offers tastes of dried peaches and apricots, cinnamon and caramel. Its nose is floral perfume, apricot and honey. It finishes clean and crisp because of its high acidity. It is not sticky sweet. It is a joyful experience that will long last in your wine memory as one of the best.

Try this wine with foire gras or a rich blue cheese. Try it with an apricot cake for dessert.  You can find several Tokays under $50 (U.S.).  I found the 2000 Baro Waldbott (normally $50) for $25 as a “close out. The 2005 Disznoko (5 Puttonyos) {label pictured} was $40. Disznoko is a Classified First Growth since 1732. Try that against a Sauternes or TBA for pricing!   Then consider that Tokay represents only about 4 percent of Hungary’s total wine production, that only a small percentage of the grapes are aszu, and that when little no botrytis takes hold, no Tokay is produced: one taste and you’ll appreciate what a remarkable value Tokaji Aszu offers.

Kedves egeszsegere!
………………………………. Jim

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