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Tokaji Aszu Wines Are a Taste of Hungarian Sweetness

“It’s not that I don’t enjoy cocktails, or after-dinner Cognacs and brandies, or the entire wonderful array of spirits (of which I particularly prize great mezcal and Islay single malt). But as I have become firmly ensconced in middle age, I find myself all too aware of what Len Evans, the Australian impresario, used to call his Theory of Capacity.

“According to Mr. Evans, as we age we become acutely conscious of our finite capacity to enjoy the world’s wonderful wines. By that calculation, no space or time can be wasted on bad bottles.

“By extension, our limited capacity for alcoholic beverages must be devoted primarily to what we love the most. For me, that’s wine. So I rarely indulge in cocktails and spirits.

“Even at the holidays, which seem to call for punches and nogs, I prefer to stay with wine. Luckily, this realm offers many pleasing dimensions that go largely unexplored, like sweet wines, which offer novel, celebratory shivers.

“The range of sweet wines encompasses wildly diverse styles like passito wines, an Italian term for permitting grapes to dry to raisins, concentrating sugars and flavors; ice wines, in which grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine, intensifying the proportion of sugar in the juice; and wines made from grapes attacked by the botrytis cinerea mold, the famous noble rot, which amplifies sweet flavors in complex and unexpected frequencies.

“Botrytis accounts for the most famous sweet wine, Sauternes. It is also intrinsic to the great sweet chenin blancs of the Loire Valley, the wonderful beerenausleses and trockenbeerenausleses of Germany and the paradoxically legendary yet little-known Tokaji aszu wines of Hungary.

“These aszu wines are perhaps my favorite sweet wines, astoundingly fragrant and honeyed, yet fresh, balanced and refreshing. Their complexities unfold in gorgeous waves that echo in the mouth. In every way, they signify the sweetness of life and inspire the joy of the holidays.

“Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, Tokaji aszu, which came from the wine region in northeastern Hungary centered on the town of Tokaj, was renowned through European capitals. Phylloxera, the ravenous aphid that devastated European vineyards beginning in the mid-19th century, took a heavy toll, made more terrible by World War I, the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War II and Communism.

“By the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, Tokaji aszu (pronounced TOKE-eye-ee AHS-ew) was almost a historic footnote, a half-forgotten luxury of centuries past.

“But after Communism, the region drew significant foreign investment, and recovery has been quick. You can now find quite a few superb Hungarian wine producers.

“Yet, as wine drinkers today largely ignore the once-prized sweet genres, many Hungarian producers have turned their attention to producing dry wines. I don’t quarrel; some of these wines can be very good. Still, the sweet wines can be simply stupendous.

“Take the 2008 5 Puttonyos aszu from Royal Tokaji. When you pour this wine (only lightly chilled, please), you are almost enveloped by its aroma. What is it? Peaches? Apricots? Crisp apples? But it’s more than fruit. Spices, too, like cinnamon, and flowers and honey. Take a sip and you are immersed in a luscious nectar. The sweetness, which could be overwhelming, is balanced by vibrant acidity. The result is surprisingly refreshing and invites more sips.

“While similar, a 2005 5 Puttonyos aszu from Samuel Tinon is also entirely different, as if the botrytis had taken the wine in unexpected directions that year. The peach and apple flavors beckon, as does the great acidity and balance, but the flavors seem wrapped in hazelnut and caramel, beautifully fresh and complex.

“Even better is a 2001 Hetszolo 6 Puttonyos aszu, sweeter than the other two, with aromas of wildflowers, honey, apricots and caramel, bordering on syrupy yet held together and carried forward by that fresh, urgent acidity.

“What are these “puttonyos”? The word puttonyo, or basket, signifies an old method of gauging the sweetness in the wines. Aszu wines are made by pressing the grapes shriveled by botrytis into a paste and then blending that paste with a still wine. Moderately sweet wines contained three puttonyos of paste while a sweeter wine contained four, and so on. Nowadays the puttonyos statement refers simply to the level of residual sugar in the wine.

“Since 2014, only the five and six puttonyos wines are permitted to use the term. Those in the three and four category now use generic phrases, like late harvest. These wines can nonetheless be excellent. A 2008 Oremus Late Harvest was exceedingly fresh, floral, fruity and quite sweet, perhaps the equivalent of a 4 Puttonyos, if I were to guess.

“The great balance in these wines comes from the natural acidity in the grapes, particularly furmint, the dominant variety, though three others play roles — harslevelu, muscat blanc à petit grains and zeta — and a few other grapes are also permitted. Usually the wines are blends, though occasionally, as with the 2001 Hetszolo, you’ll find a 100 percent furmint aszu.

“A 500-milliliter bottle generally sells for around $50, though the Samuel Tinon, an outlier, costs $90. With these prices comes a rapturous wine and an added benefit. Once opened, they will keep for several weeks if refrigerated, extending the holiday pleasures.”

Eric Asimov, November 30, 2015
Tokaji Aszu Wines Are a Taste of Hungarian Sweetness