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The Unlikely Miracle of Tokaji AszĂș
By Rebecca Murphy
Nov 18, 2014
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Tokaji Aszú--the wine Louis XIV of France declared “the king of wines and wine of kings” is--legendary.  Its fans have included such luminaries as Pope Pius IV, the Greats - Peter, Catherine and Frederick, Thomas Jefferson and Queen Victoria.  Tokaji Aszú is golden amber in color with intensely concentrated dried fruit flavors layered with such seasonings as lemon grass, dried roses, chalk, caramel, burnt orange, coffee or molasses, depending upon the age of the wine.  Sweet, yes--but with focused acidity that slices through the unctuous flavors cleansing the palate and gracing it with a lingering memory of its pleasure.

The grapes varieties in Tokaj are Furmint, making up about 60 percent of plantings, plus Hárslevelü at about 30 percent, with the balance comprised of Sarga Muskotaly (a.k.a. Muscat Blanc), Kövérszõlõ, Kabar and Zeta.  Aszú is not a grape variety, but the state (or condition) of the grapes that go into the aszú wines.  An aszú grape is fully ripe, shriveled from dehydration and infected with Botryris cinerea, also called noble rot.  It’s hard to believe that a grape so unattractive can produce a wine so beautiful and ethereal.

Botrytis fungi is, metaphorically speaking, the “little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead”:  When it’s good, as in an aszú grape, it’s very good and when it’s bad, as in bunch rot in Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s horrid.  Botrytis thrives in humidity and still air.  The Tokaji region is perfect for encouraging the good side of Botrytis.  Unlike the broad, flat plains so good for Hungary’s agriculture, Tokaj-Hegyalja sits at the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains.  Hillsides provide good drainage for water and cold air, as well as exposure to sun and protection from northerly winds on the southern slopes.  Volcanic activity has created soils advantageous for grape growing:  Subsoils of tufa and top soils of loess in the south and clay in the north.

I had the privilege of learning about the wines of Tokaj from László Mészáros, the director of Disznókő, one of the winery estates owned by AXA Millésimes.  A subsidiary of the French insurance group AXA, this company under the leadership of Christian Seely specializes in acquiring wine estates and investing in their vineyards and cellars.  They also own Château Pichon-Longueville and Château Pibran in Pauillac, Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy, Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, Mas Belles Eaux in the Languedoc, and Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley of Portugal.

The timing of my trip was perfect for observing and actually participating in the 2014 harvest, which in mid-October was about half completed.  Grapes at Disznókő are harvested by as many as 200 workers with several passes through the vineyards beginning in late August to early November.  The first grapes harvested are Botrytis-free ripe clusters, which will be used for dry Furmint table wine.  In later passes though the vineyard, the harvesters select clusters that have ripe, botrytised grapes.  Portions of clusters without the noble rot are separated from those with botrytis.  The aszú grapes are picked berry by berry from each cluster.  We harvested about five short rows of vines.  Lazló taught us to look for dried, purple grapes and to avoid grapes that had any splits in the skins where fruit flies can generate acetic acid, the main ingredient of vinegar.  Those grapes were left on the ground.  A few of the clusters were so ripe that they easily snapped off the vine.  However, some grapes were not quite developed to aszú condition, so we rested the cluster on a cane of the vine for future pickers to evaluate.  These grapes are too precious to be tossed.

For dry Furmint wines grape clusters with stems are direct pressed, allowed to settle, and then fermented in stainless steel at 60˚ to 68˚F. The  must doesn’t go through malo-lactic fermentation, but spends a month and a half on fine lees and bottled six to eight months after harvest.  We tasted the 2013 ($20), which was refreshing and mouthwatering with chalky, citrus, grapefruit, white peach flavors with very crisp acidity.  It’s a great partner for seafood, or as an aperitif to get your taste buds fired-up for dinner.

The late harvested grape clusters, some with Botrytis, some not, go into the late harvest wine, while more concentrated fruit goes into Edes (sweet) Szamorodni.  The name is Polish, meaning “as it comes,” so the grapes are not selected one by one but picked in whole bunches in which both shriveled and botrytised grapes are present.  The 2012 Tokaji Late Harvest ($26), containing 85 percent Furmint, 10 percent Hárslevelü  and five percent Zéta, had the honeyed aromas of Botrytis with rich apricot, dried pineapple, orange zest caramel flavors and moderately high acidity.

Now, here’s the part I never understood until visiting Tokaj and having Mészáros explain how Aszú wines are made.  Those individually selected aszú grapes are harvested into small bins, then placed into large steel open tanks that have spigots at the bottom of the tank.  These tanks rest inside the winery covered with heavy-duty plastic to keep the fruit flies away from the grapes.  The aszú grapes rest in these tanks until the harvest is completed and as they rest, the grapes release some of their juice due to the weight of the grapes piled above them.  This gorgeous, bright and clear liquid is periodically drained from the tank and placed into small, glass fermenting containers.  This is the ultimate Tokaji wine, Eszencia.  It may ferment in the cellar for two or three years, but the alcohol never gets over three percent.  We got to taste the juice from one of the tanks.  It was like drinking very aromatic honey with vivid acidity.

For the Tokaji Aszú at Disznoko, Mészáros said they start fermenting the base wine made from late harvest--but not Botrytis-affected--fruit in one tank, and place measured amounts of the aszú grapes info another tank.  When the fermenting base wine reaches the desired level of alcohol (usually around three percent), the base wine is added to the aszú  grapes.  Producers are permited to use either a fermenting or completely fermented wine as the base wine.  Here they use both, depending upon the aszú grapes.  The grapes are combined with wine, because they are so dry they cannot be successfully pressed.  As the grapes are macerated with the base wine, they soak up wine and become more plump.  When the maceration is finished, they draw off as much free-run juice as possible, letting it begin to ferment the sugar from the aszú juice. The remaining aszú grapes, which have formed a paste, are gently pressed for six or seven hours, and that juice is added to the fermenting wine.  The aszú wine is cellar-aged for three years at least two in barrel.  After the aging period the winemaking team evaluates the different wines to determine blends, and if they will produce a 5 or 6 puttonyos wine.  (More on “puttonyos” below.)  The wine is bottled in 500 ml bottles, which has been required since 1855.

We tasted the Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2005 ($49), which had a golden amber color and dried pineapple, apricot, caramel flavors with notes of dried roses and anise.  There was a savory, mushroomy, umami character to the flavor, which added delicious complexity.  The texture was silky and viscous, while bracing acidity added levity and elegance.  The skin contact also adds texture and structure--this is not a sissy wine!  You could serve it with a classic pairing such as foie gras or a blue cheese, but conisder serving it with a butternut squash soup.  Disznókő wines are imported by Vintus Wines.

This “puttonyos” business is one of the things I found confusing.  Fortunately, today you can consider that, the higher the number of puttonyos, the sweeter the wine.  As Mészáros explained, the traditional way of making aszú wines was to collect the aszú grapes into wooden buckets holding about 27 liters, called puttonyos.  Three to six buckets were put into a vat used only for the aszú grapes, and the grapes were crushed by foot.  Then, one cask the size of a 136 liter barrel of must or fermenting wine was added to the vat of crushed grapes and macerated for 12-60 hours.  The free- run juice was filtered through sacks into barrels to ferment.  The paste of aszú grapes in the filtering sack was crushed by foot to release additional juice, which was also filtered into barrels. The number of puttonyos on the wine label indicated how many buckets, or puttonyos of aszú grapes, went into the wine.

The unique aszú wines of Tokaj have been celebrated for centuries, and have an illustrious history.  According to the trade organization Tokaji Renaissance, the first records of making wine in the Tokaj-Hegyalja area was in the 13th century.  The first written record of Tokaji wines was by the scholar M. Istvánffy in Historia Regni Hungaria the 15th century.  The first mention of Aszú wine was in a family inventory in 1571.  Nomenklatura by Fabricius Balázs Szikszai completed in 1576 discussed wine made from aszú grapes.  The territory of the wine region of Tokaj was declared by a royal decree in 1737, making it arguably the first delimited wine region in the world.  (The Duoro Valley also lays claims to that title citing the year 1756.)

The Tokaji region had the same devastating problem with phylloxera (the root louse that destroys vitis vinifera vines by feeding on the roots) as the rest of Europe in the 1800s.  They replanted by grafting vitis vinifera vines onto American roots.  Then there was WWI with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  WWII ended with Hungary as part of the Soviet empire, along with the typical results of state-imposed communism, namely, the soul-numbing, dumbing-down of creativity and suffocation of the striving for excellence .  The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 opened the doors to foreign investment and the opportunity to bring Tokaji wines back to their former glory.

It’s always interesting to me how we humans have decided to add items to our diets that are quite apparently ynappetizing, whether raw or prepared a certain way.  It brings to mind the saying, “He was a brave man who first ate an oyster.”  The legend regarding the first aszú wine goes something like this:  Pastor Mate Szepsi Laczko made do with very late harvested grapes, which were shriveled and infected with Botrytis, because the harvest was delayed due to the threat of Turkish raiders.  Thus was a miracle derived from human caution and pragmatism.