The peep-toe pumps. The pencil skirts. The body-skimming dresses, swingy coats, sweaters and pearls. All underpinned by … the power girdle.
I’ve been secretly hoping sixties glamour would make a comeback. Then, Mad Men came along, and Hallelujah. Designers took notice. Michael Kors created a collection around the show. And then retro designs by Chloé, Jimmy Choo, Marc by Marc Jacobs and all the rest appeared before filtering right down to Walmart’s window dressing. Air kisses all around.
I’ve also been secretly hoping Tokaji Aszú — pronounced toe-kEYE ah-sue — would become the new black. But the truth is, if you mention the name “Tokaji Aszú” outside wine circles, the most likely response would be a polite “Gesundheit.”
Quite amazing when you consider this gorgeous Hungarian sweetie was the most expensive and sought after wine in the world for centuries — far more celebrated than top bottlings from Bordeaux or even Burgundy. It was favoured by the likes of Napoleon III, Beethoven, Catherine the Great, Voltaire and Queen Victoria. It was poured in royal courts throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Russian tsars would send Cossacks to guard the vineyards. And ordinary mortals couldn’t even buy it.
But then the iron curtain thing happened in 1945, stifling quality and keeping the rare bottlings of decent Tokaji Aszú out of sight. Ironically, this happened just as many nations began drinking better wine, the industry globalized and markets opened up. When the curtain rose in 1989, the Tokaj vineyards were dusted off, pumped full of investment, and were probably better than ever. But the Hungarian sweet wine had all but faded to obscurity, and the tastes of the masses had moved on. Sweet wines weren’t — and aren’t — in vogue anymore.
Sadly, fabulously concentrated and complex sweet wines are only loved and drunk by those who work in the wine industry.
So of course, I was surprised to read the other day that the Royal Tokaji Company, a top producer of this wine, launched a new €3.25 million/CAN$4.32 million winery this past September to double production and feed the growing market.
Could Tokaji Aszú be moving past the Gesundheit stage? Could it be catching on, becoming revitalized, and regaining some its former glory?
If so, now is the time to buy a bottle because before long, prices will skyrocket. Today, a decent bottle of Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyos will only set you back about $25, letting you bring it to a dinner party and wow guests for not much more than a song.
Hugh Johnson said, famously, “Tokaji does for you at the end of the meal what Champagne does for you at the beginning.” And of course, he’s right — despite the fact he has a vested interest in saying so, as co-founder of the Royal Tokaji Company.
Nothing elevates lunch or dinner like a glass of Tokaji Aszú, especially served with a morsel of cheese. But not just any cheese.
It makes blue cheeses taste horrendously putrid, which may surprise you, given Roquefort is a famous match for Sauternes, also made from grapes shrivelled by botrytis, or noble rot. And the hard goat cheddar Chèvre Noir, from Quebec, doesn’t work at all either.
But a creamy bite of fresh chèvre or a butter-nutty sliver of Ossau-Iraty, the handmade sheep’s milk cheese from the northern Basque region of France, is like jungle sex.
Tokaji Aszú, like Sherry, is a catchphrase for a whole slew of wine styles. But unlike Sherry, its nomenclature is far easier to understand. Essentially, the term aszú means noble rot, and the wine’s sweetness is gauged by the number of puttonyos noted on the bottle, from three to seven — a puttonyo being the traditional basket used to collect the aszú grapes.
A wine that’s sweeter than seven puttonyos is called Tokaji Aszú Eszencia, which is only made in great years. Beyond that, an extremely sweet wine from the precious little free-run juice of the aszú grapes exists, simply called Eszencia — so rich, it’s taken by the spoonful, not glass. In fact, the Royal Tokaji Company gives the first bottle of each vintage of Eszencia to a very important person with a small crystal spoon. Last vintage, it was given to the Pope.
Is Tokaji Aszú always sweet? Yes. Any wine made with grapes shrivelled by noble rot has more sugar than yeast could possibly convert to alcohol, leaving residual sugar in the wine. But the style is such that the sweetness is always balanced with searing acidity, so every mouthful finishes cleanly.
And of course, the joy of any wine made with nobly rotten fruit is not just the luscious concentration, but the tremendous complexity that increases with time. The best of these sweet wines will age for more than 200 years in bottle, gaining layers of flavour annually and exponentially. Just think: you could buy a bottle for your great grandchild’s wedding.
Ever wonder how anyone could have thought it a good idea to make wine from rotten grapes? I mean, have you ever seen a bunch of grapes affected by botrytis? They’re a filthy, ugly, mouldy mess. Well, the Hungarians were the first to consider it, not the French or the Germans.
It’s said that one year, an invasion of Turks to the Tokaj Hegyalja region in Hungary delayed harvest. When picking finally happened, the fruit was shrivelled with this rot, but out of desperation, people made it into wine anyway. Then, presto, the wine was delicious, and grey rot became noble.
So celebrated was the wine from that misty north eastern Tokaj region, its vineyards were the first in the world to be demarcated, protected and controlled with a classification system based on terroir, which happened in about 1720, predating the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 by more than a century. The vineyards of Tokaj were the world’s first fine wine region.
And in case you’re looking for a bit more conversation fodder while you uncork a bottle for friends, Tokaji Aszú is made like no other wine on the planet. A dry wine called Tokaji Szamorodni made from the local Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Muskotáky grapes is dumped over a barrel filled with a measure of mashed botrytized berries ranging from three to seven puttonyos. Then, it undergoes a slow second fermentation, then aged for at least three years before bottling.
I won’t go into any more detail about how these wines are made. Their magic, to some degree, lies in the fact that you don’t need to know much about them to appreciate them. Just like you don’t need to know how an impeccably tailored dress is made to appreciate how it looks on Joan Holloway. In fact, talking about any wine too much can do more harm than good.
What is worth knowing is that even the best and rarest bottles of Tokaji Aszú are excellent value compared with world’s other top sweet wines. In fact, a bottle of Eszencia from the excellent 2000 vintage from Oremus, a leading producer founded by Vega Sicilia of Spain, sells for just $399 for in Ontario. Meanwhile, a bottle of Château d’Yquem from Sauternes from the stellar 2005 vintage costs $595 — about $200 more for the same amount. And the latter would arguably be no better.
Granted, the comparison wouldn’t quite be grapes to grapes. Although both are made using nobly rotten fruit, Tokaji Aszú is made the local varieties mentioned —Furmint, Hárslevelű and Muskatály — and tastes like quince, orange and sultanas in its youth. Meanwhile, Sauternes is made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, and tastes more like marmalade, honey and stone fruit. But both develop huge complexity and serious depth with time in bottle.
If you decide to taste Tokaji Aszú yourself, turn to any of the following leading producers. None will let you down.
best producers of tokaji aszú
The Royal Tokaji Company
food and wine pairing suggestions
Although it’s tempting to serve all Tokaji Aszú with, or as, an after-dinner treat, the lighter 3- and 4-Puttonyo wines are best before dinner or during a mid-afternoon snack when the nose and palate aren’t tired. It also gives the wine a chance to shine on its own, rather than sharing the spotlight and competing with other foods for attention. And as a first act, like a killer cocktail dress or well-cut jacket, a spot of Tokaji Aszú always adds a note of drama to a party.
• tokaji aszú 3 puttonyos
Bacon, onion and Gruyère tart
Fresh chèvre drizzled with honey, sprinkled with walnuts, and served with toasted bread
• tokaji aszú 4 puttonyos
Individual goat cheese soufflés
Gougères — small choix pastry rounds stuffed with Gruyère
Wines with more than 4 puttonyos can be a bit rich before dinner, making the wine and food that follows taste bland and flat. So these sweeter wines are best with morsels of cheese after a meal.
And all Tokaji Aszú should be served chilled to a just cool 8 degrees Celsius, in small tapered stemware to capture the aroma. A 2-ounce serving is standard.
• Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos
• Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos
Ossau-Iraty — a smooth, pale, medium-soft cheese with a gentle nutty-creamy flavour.
• Tokaji Aszú 7 Puttonyos / Tokaji Azsú Eszencia / Eszencia
On its own.