Tag Archives: Aszú

Aszú, a drop of golden nectar for the festive season

2016-06-02-18-54-34Advent, and Christmas, will soon be upon us and the question is what sweet tipple you should imbibe along with your mince pies or festive biscuits. Although not usually one to drink much sweet wine, I have learned to appreciate the delights that aged port, tawny or ruby, have to offer. Of course, in the UK, you would be tempted to go with a port, or maybe madeira, a drop of Sauternes or an unctuous sweet sherry; however, I currently reside in Hungary and there is something just as delicious and precious on offer, indeed many would claim far more precious. Tokaji Aszú, dubbed the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines.

What makes Aszú so special? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is perhaps one of the mostbotrytised-grapes labour-intensive wines in the world and it’s made from rotten grapes to boot. I can see the uninitiated beginning to pull a face right now. However, this isn’t just any kind of rot, it’s ‘noble rot’, a special type of rot called ‘botrytis cinerea’, which attacks the grapes, thinning the skins, sucking out the moisture and concentrating the sugars and flavours in the grape whilst not breaking the skins. The grapes, hence their must and the ensuing wine, also gain additional flavours from this botrytisation process. Aszú is also generally made principally with the Furmint variety, which is known for its high acidity, thus allowing a wonderful balance between all that unctuous sweetness and some fresh, zippy acidity.

The Tokaj region, where Aszú is produced, lies in the northeastern part of Hungary, sandwiched between and around the rivers Bodrog and Tisza, which give rise to morning mists in the autumn. Why is this important? Well, in order to develop, botrytis needs warm, damp conditions, and the microclimate in this area is just perfect for this. The morning mists are burned off by warm sunshine – just right for botrytis to develop and spread their fine fungal threads over the bunches of grapes.

_zmp0343-misolataTokaji Aszú has been made for centuries in the region. The story goes that the region was under attack by the Turks and the grapes were therefore left out on the vines long past the normal time as nobody set foot in the vineyards to do any work at this time. After the danger had passed, the large quantity of ‘rotten’ grapes were then used to make a late harvest sweet wine, the descendent of which we now know as Aszú. Legend has it that this wine was produced by the Calvinist preacher László Maté Szepsi, forebear of the prominent Szepsy family still residing and making wines in the region.

Firstly, the botrytised grapes, outwardly reminiscent of raisins, are picked individually from each bunch at harvest time. Women work through the vineyard in several tries, selecting and picking only these ‘rotten’ grapes; this is an extremely labour-intensive and costly process. Then, the grapes are placed in vats, where they are stored before perhaps being trodden into the consistency of a paste known as ‘aszú dough’ or simply processed. During this time, any extremely concentrated and sticky must that drips out of these perforated vats under the weight of the berries themselves will be bottled as ‘escenzia’, an even sweeter, and somewhat expensive treat, generally enjoyed by the spoon rather than by the glass!

This aszú dough or berries are then macerated in must, frementing must or wine from the same vintage_zmp0362 before being pressed and the resulting extremely sweet must transferred to oak barrels or vats where it will ferment slowly in a cool environment, perhaps for as long as several years; it will spend at least 18 months in Gönczi barrels before it is released for us to delight in.  You can find a visual representation of this process on WineSofa – Aszú-making infoposter.

So, what does this delicious, unctuous wine taste like?

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a bottle of the Grand Tokaji Aszú 2013, which I believe may be the one awarded gold and an incredible 97 points in the Decanter Asia Wine Awards, so I’d like to share my experience of that here with you.

Grand Tokaji Aszú 2013

grand_tokaj_tokaji_aszu_2013(Alcohol content 9.5%, Sugar content 170.8 g/l)

The wine was made with 100% procured aszú berries. It was an excellent vintage so the berries were high quality and completely infested with botrytis. The aszú berries were mainly Furmint and Hárlevelű as well as smaller amounts of Zéta, Kabar, Kövérszőlő and Muscat grapes. The base wine was 100% Furmint and the aszú berries were added to the fermenting base wine after steeping for 24 hours. After pressing, fermentation took place in vats. The wine was then aged in new 500-litre barrels for a minimum of 18 months in the Szegi Cellar.

Tasting note

Attractive golden colour. Aromas of exotic lemon, acacia blossom, spice, ripe apricot, white peach and a herbal note. A balanced elegant wine with lively acidity, flavours of citrus, grapefruit, candied lemon, dried pineapple, honey, sunlight, almond, stone fruits and hay with a long, slightly salty finish. A concentrated, tangy wine with a long future ahead of it.

This was only one wine, and a relatively young one at that. If you are interesting in finding out more about the characteristics of Aszú, then check out this Aszú flavour wheel or get your daily dose of Aszú throughout Advent by following #KoccintsAszuval on Facebook, although you will probably need some Hungarian to do the latter!

 

 

 

Repositioning Tokaji aszú as a premium brand

Would you pay upwards of €1000 for the luscious amber nectar that is Tokaji aszú? Maybe in the future you’ll have to.

Until now you would have paid €80 for a bottle of István Szepsy’s aszú, but maybe in the future, you’ll have to fork out €1000-€2000 for a bottle, a ten to fifteen-fold increase. István, in an interview with Borbrand, says that people will need to decide what is the best sweet wine in the world.

All Szepsy’s wines will maintain the same quality, the difference will be in the quantity. The ‘normal’ Szepsy wines are made from three grape varieties, whereas the ‘luxury brand’ will be made from single varieties, using the best grapes from the very best vineyard plots. It’s obvious, he says, that wine from such a premium parcel should make its way onto the world market. The first year released will be the 2013, followed by the 2015.

Great Tokaj Wine Auction

P1110830Last November I was fortunate enough to be in Beaune during the weekend of the P1110851auction of the Hospices de Beaune. I had the chance to attend various events connected with this, including various cellar visits, tasting of the auction lots from the barrel at 8am with the locals, an impromptu informal tasting with Gina Gallo and Jean-Claude Boisset, and the Sunday evening ‘Diner de Gala aux Chandelles’. Quite an experience!P1110859

For the past couple of years, a similar event has been organised in Tokaj as part of the ‘Tokaj Spring’, taking the ‘Vente de Vins’ as its inspiration. This year will be the third occasion that the auction has been held. It will take place on the weekend of 24-26 April and offers a unique opportunity to sample some wines that are not on the open market, from dry white wines right up to 6 puttonyos aszú.

Great Tokaj Wine Auction 2014So if you have some surplus cash and fancy investing in a barrel of Tokaj of your own, Great Tokaj Wine Auction 2014here is your chance!

Of course, if you don’t have that much cash to splash around, you could always just take the opportunity to enjoy what should be a unique weekend in Tokaj.

Start off on by travelling style and taking the ‘Tokaj Express’ to travel to Tokaj. A heritage train with the opportunity to thumbs_tokaj-grand-02try some wines even before you arrive in Tokaj. Take part in one of three guided tours led by winemakers, one of which will be led by Mr Szepsy himself.

Great Tokaj Wine Auction 2014On Saturday you’ll have the opportunity (if you have registered, that is!) to taste the auction lots in Sárospatak castle, followed by a picnic lunch. It will initially be a blind tasting, so you won’t know whose wine you are trying. You’ll only find that out later, when there will be the oppportunity to retaste the wines.

You can find a list of the auction lots on the Tokaji Bor Lovagrend website. I unexpectedly had the chance to try the Zsirai Betsek Furmint from the barrel when visiting their cellar in Mád on Saturday.

A gala dinner dance will end the day and on Sunday you can visit participating producers.

A portion of the income will go towards supporting the Tokaj wine regon – a UNESCO world heritage site; so definitely a worthy cause.

At Tokaj Grand last weekend, we were able to taste some of the wines auctioned in 2013 and 2014. If these are anything to go by, if you do head off to Tokaj, you are in for a treat.

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Tokaj Grand 2015

tokaj_grand_logoA unique opportunity to try all the Tokaj wine region has to offer is coming up in Budapest shortly.

Tokaj Grand’ will take place on 28 March at the five-star Corinthia Hotel. It is being organised for the first time by Winelovers and promises to be a remarkable event.

Most people are familiar with Tokaj because of the sweet, botrytised aszú wines. However, kesei_szuretelesu_furtTokaj also produces some fabulous dry whites and some late harvest wines too. Tokaj Grand will give you the chance try some of these as well as the more famous aszú.

In addition to the opportunity to walk around and try the wines (over 200!) of more than seventy producers, if your Hungarian mesterkurzus_foto_graselly_balazsis up to it, you could also choose to attend one of the eight thematic masterclasses on offer during the day. Of course, you could just go along to the classes in order to try some great wines in a more relaxed environment! You’ll need to buy tickets for these in advance though.

Choose from themes such as:

  • Dry Tokaj wines and their international rivals
  • Mádi Kör selection
  • Disznókö 5 Puttonyos aszú vertical tasting
  • Szepsy masterclass
  • Tokaj Kereskedőház masterclass (in English)
  • Wine, intoxication…Bénye
  • Tokaji autumn
  • Mindszent Havi Mulatság

See you there!

Botrytis cinerea – the Jekyll and Hyde fungus

Caroline’s thoughts on Botrytis, including the following remark: ‘Historically speaking, botrytis cinerea would have been a widespread challenge to winemakers ever since wine was first made. But evidence suggests it may have been the Hungarians who first documented deliberate use of noble rot in winemaking in Tokaj in the 16th century.’

Caroline Gilby on Wine

And on the eve of heading to Hungary to talk Tokaji at VinCE in Budapest , here is my latest piece for The Wine Society blog on the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Botrytis cinerea

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Tokaj

Where is it?
tokaj map

Named as a World Heritage Site in 2002 under the name Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape, Tokaj is probably the most famous wine region outside the country. It lies in the far north of the country, in the foothills of the Zemplén Hills, in fact the historic area extends into the southeast corner of what is today Slovakia.

A bit of history

botrytised grapesHowever, its fame long predated this distinction because it is the origin of Tokaji aszú wine, the world’s oldest botrytised wine, which has been produced since the time of Ottoman rule. Legend has it the harvest was delayed in Lorantffy Mihaly’s domain due to fears of the Turkish invasion until the grapes had shrivelled and Botrytis had set in, creating the ‘noble rot’. Nevertheless, the pastor Szepsi Laczko Mate turned them into wine and presented the result to the daughter of his lord.

Moreover, Tokaj’s system of wine classification is the second in the world, dating back to 1737, when the decree of Emperor Charles VI (Charles III, King of Hungary) declared the area a closed wine region and classified the vineyards based on soil, aspect and propensity to botrytis.

tokaj

Wine has actually been produced in the region and vines have been cultivated here for more than a millenium The name ‘Tokaj’ may be derived from a word for grape in Armenian that came into the Hungarian language in the 10th century, thus giving us an idea of when the settlement was formed. It is also evidence that viticulture was already being practised here at that time.

Tokaj wines have been enjoyed by royalty over the centuries. It was famously christened by Louis XIV of France “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” – Wine of Kings, King of Wines and Tokaj wines were a favourite tipple of Queen Victoria. The Russian emperors actually maintained a de facto colony in Tokaj so the supply of wine to the imperial Court could be ensured.

Terroir

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Tokaj boasts unique natural conditions and centuries of wine-making tradition. Its local climate helps to create a special terroir; it is bordered by two rivers Tisza and Bodrog whose mists, along with the sheltered slopes on the south-eastern fringe of the Zemplén hills, help to ensure perfect weather conditions to ensure the regular development of Botrytis (noble rot) and the subsequent desiccation of grapes in the long autumns. The vines, planted at altitudes of 100-300m produce the botrytised grapes (aszú), which make the luscious sweet wines for which the region is famous.

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The Tokaj region is comprised of a wide palate of bedrocks and soils, mostly clay or loess on volcanic subsoil – vines planted at altitudes of 100-300m

A labyrinthine network of cellars carved into the mostly volcanic rock provide a constant temperature of around 10-12°C; their walls are covered with a characteristic mould which feeds off the alcohol as the wine ages and maintains a humidity of 85-90%, ideal for the aging of Tokaji wines.

The wine region consists of 28 named villages and 11,149 hectares of classified vineyards.

Approximately 6000 hectares are currently planted with vines.

Tokaj is both a region and a district and contains one protected geographical indication (Tokaj) and one country wine or protected designation of origin (Zemplén).

The wines

Tokaj is most famous for its delicious amber sweet wines made from the aszú grapes, known through the English-speaking world as Tokay. These grapes impart aromas reminiscent of linden, marmalade and dried fruits, notably quince and apricot.

puttonyosAszú are individually picked as late as mid-November into buckets (‘puttonyos’) and crushed to a paste. Varying amounts of this aszú ‘dough’ are then added to non-aszú must or wine made from a mix of Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc Peit Grains), Kövérszőlő or Zéta, and left to ferment for 24-48 hours, stirred occasionally.tokaj cellar

It is then racked off into wooden casks and left to mature for several years in relatively small barrels in a labyrinth of cellars in the soft volcanic tuff, where walls thickly blanketed with fungus regulate the humidity.

mouldy bottles

The number of puttonyos of aszú added to a 136 litre barrel of must traditionally determined the concentration and the sweetness of the wine. Nowadays, the puttonyos refers to the content of sugar in the mature wine. Aszú ranges from 3 to 6 puttonyos.

Aszú conditions may not occur every year, thus a large quantity of dry Furmint is also produced. Furmint makes up approximately 60% of production; other grapes grown in the area are Hárslevelű (30%), Muscat Blanc, Kövérszőlő, Kabar and Zéta – these are the only grapes permitted for use in the region.

tokaj aszu

Although Tokaj Aszú is its most famous product, a wide range of types and styles of wine are also made in the region, ranging from bone dry Furmints, through Szamorodni (either dry or sweet), Forditás, Máslás, late harvest wines (késői szüretelésú) to the dentist-friendly sweet Eszencia.

Dry wines are sold as varietals: Tokaji Furmint, Tokaji Hárslevelű, Tokaji Sárgamuskotály and Tokaji Kövérszőlő.