Editor’s note: The Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper regularly visits wine regions across the world in an effort to bring back the best options for diners. Recently, he visited Hungary to learn more about the unique Hungarian wines available. Many of these will soon be on the menu at The Bristol Bar & Grille. In this second part of his two-part series about Hungarian wines, Harper focuses on the specifics of the Tokaj Aszu dessert wine, a favorite of his, and gives his recommendations for the best bottles to purchase. Read part one on the history of the region and suggestions on the best producers.
The process by which the great dessert wines of Tokaj, Hungary are made is a fascinating one. Every grape has sugar in it. For a dry wine, the sugar and yeast combine to make alcohol. The sugar is consumed during fermentation. In contrast, dessert wines keep or get their sweetness at the end of the process. Fermentation is stopped before completion, or is unable to remove all residual sugar. It leaves behind that luscious sweetness.
Here is the way they do it in Tokaj: The grapes are allowed to stay on the vine after the normal harvest. This creates more sugar to leave behind after fermentation. The grapes get botrytis, or noble rot, as they are attacked by the fungus Botrytis. The fungus punctures the skins of the grapes and causes dehydration. It leaves them looking rotten or like raisins. As a result, grapes made by botrytis and late harvest produce a fraction of the wine that ripe grapes do. This, of course, is one of the primary reasons dessert wines are expensive. Referred to as Aszú in Hungarian, the process is part of the name of the great wines of Tokaji Aszú.
The methods of late harvest and botrytis are how Aszú is made, but the story of how this began is a combination of mystery and legend. Why in the world would anyone leave grapes on the vine to rot without fully being aware they would make majestic wines of sweet perfection? As is the case with many a great invention, it happened by mistake. In ancient times, vineyard workers were told when to harvest the grapes by the landowners. One legend purports that a vineyard owner was away at war or detained by illness or other situations. The workers, being afraid to harvest without the direction of their owner, left the grapes on the vine, which caused them to over-ripen and be attacked by botrytis. When the owner finally returned months after the usual harvest, he was aghast at the appearance of the grapes and mad at the vineyard workers inaction. Despite thinking all was lost, he ordered the vineyard workers to harvest and make wine from the “rotten” grapes. The resulting wine was rich, lush, sweet and delicious. All was forgiven.
While the story seems a bit magical, it is probably rooted in some truth. Botrytis simply cannot occur in most vineyards. When it does, it is not consistent. Of the grape varieties in the region of Tokaj, the most important is Furmint, followed by Hárslevelű and Muscat Lunel. Indigenous to Hungary, Furmint is very susceptible to botrytis. It represents the majority of the Aszú blend. Botrytis is widely assisted in Hungary by the confluence of two rivers: the Bodrog and Tisza. The presence of rivers or bodies of water increases humidity, which is essential for the fungus to grow. Additionally, most growers will make multiple passes through a vineyard, days or even weeks apart, to pick individual bunches of overripe botrytized grapes and in some cases even individual berries.
Before 2013, Aszú was added to a dry base wine to create varying levels of sweetness that were measured in units of Puttonyos. The more Aszú they added, the sweeter the wine. You can still find labels that list the range of Puttonyos on a scale of three-to-six. However, after 2013, all Tokaji Aszú will be at a sweetness level of five-to-six Puttonyos. These are intensely sweet, complex and lush dessert wines. The final level of Tokaji is Eszencia, which is 100 percent Aszú. This is an unbelievable wine that is thick and viscous. It gives you the feeling that the gravity in the glass is different than outside the glass. The closest equivalent could be honey, but with crisp balancing acidity. It has a very low percentage of alcohol as no yeast can survive to ferment more than a couple of percentages. This is the remedy reputed to bring czars back from their deathbed and what inspired King Louis XV to call it the wine of kings and king of wines.
I eschew dessert not because I don’t enjoy it, but simply because I am trying to live a healthier lifestyle, saving the carbohydrates for something I may appreciate more. One way to satiate my sweet tooth is with a complex dessert wine, which serves as dessert in a glass. If you are good with diving into a dessert, when pairing it with a dessert wine, be sure that the wine is as least as sweet as the dessert. If the dessert is sweeter then the wine, the wine will seem sour. Truth be told, very few wines pair well with a dessert that is over-the-top sweet. Suitable accompaniments for Aszú are crème brûlée, fruit tarts and certainly blue-veined cheeses. I recommend tasting the following two wines to give you an idea of Aszú’s sublime deliciousness:
Recommendations of Tokaji Hungarian wines
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos
Béres Estate 2008
Intense color of full golden with copper highlights. Flavors of vanilla, orange preserves, dried apricot, honey, beeswax and light minerals. A fantastic wine with a rich, sweet and seductive round texture that is extra long. Finishes with balancing acidity. A classic dessert wine that pairs well with blue cheeses.
Barta Estate 2013
Very intense yellow/gold color. An amazing wine that is as thick as lemon curd with unbelievable unctuousness, yet with fresh acidity. Full body, full flavored and full sweetness with the favors of Acacia honey, lemon curd, baking spice and mandarin orange marmalade. It boasts an infinite finish that cannot be forgotten. When wine is said to be the nectar of the gods, I am quite sure this is what they mean!