Tokaji Aszú (toe KIGH a ZOO) may be as close to tasting the nectar of the gods as we can get. It is a luscious Hungarian dessert wine made from botrytized grapes, or grapes that have been affected by the mold called botrytis cinerea. The mold punctures the skins of the grapes, allowing water to evaporate and concentrating the sugars inside. When the grapes are pressed, a golden nectar is produced. The three main grapes that make up Tokaji--furmint, hárslevelu, and muscat blanc à petits grains—are all high in acid, lifting Tokaji out of simple sugary sweetness into a whole other realm of flavor.
The process for making Tokaji is incredibly labor intensive. The mold-affected berries are picked one by one and made into a paste. The rest of the grapes are picked and made into a base wine, which is then blended with the paste to create different levels of sweetness. Tokaji’s sweetness levels range from 3 to 6 puttonyos (the number of baskets of botrytized grapes added).
Tokaji comes from a region in Hungary next to the Slovakian border called Tokaj-Hegyalja, which has one of the longest traditions in the world of making great wine. King Louis XV of France referred to Tokaji as “The wine of kings and the king of wines,” and it truly was: Peter the Great of Russia, Queen Victoria of England, and Napoleon III of France could not get enough of it. Tokaji almost disappeared during the 20th century, starting with the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s, then continuing with World War I and II. The real knockout punch, however, was Communism, which almost completely destroyed the quality of wine produced in Hungary. Tokaji was saved in the 1990s by outside investors who couldn’t bear to see one of the world’s great dessert wines vanish. They invested huge sums of money, opening up estates such as the Royal Tokaji Wine Company (founded by English wine writer Hugh Johnson and others) and Oremus (founded by Spanish powerhouse winery Vega Sicilia). The quality and reputation of Tokaji has been climbing steadily ever since.
Tokaji should be served slightly chilled, and an open bottle can last for weeks (the sugar preserves it). We love Tokaji from Alana-Tokaj, Disznókő and the Royal Tokaji Wine Company—especially with a salty blue cheese or a fruit tart.
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