Tokaj is the wine of kings and the king of wines. You can try a bottle of 1999 Tokaj Hetszolo Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos at $65 for a 500ml flask. If the wine comes from the village of Tokaj itself, it is called Tokaj, but if it comes from the Tokaj-Hegyalja region around the village, the northeastern part of Hungary or the adjacent southern part of Slovakia, it is Tokaji. To English speakers it is Tokay, not to be confused with its namesake fortified wine drunk in gutters from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.
In fact, the only thing Tokaji has in common with the fortified Bowery wine is that both are sweet. By the 18th century, this wine was a favorite in the French Court and was introduced into the Russian imperial court by the Habsburgs, thus its connection with European royalty who worshiped sweet wine. This wine in its usual style, Tokaji Aszú, tastes of botrytis (a flavor like honey), quince and raisins when it is young and changes to almond, walnut, chocolate and bread as it ages — a bit like a liquid Almond Joy.
The grapes used to make this wine are grown in the Carpathian Mountains (shades of Dracula). The mountains shelter the region from the east, north and west resulting in a macroclimate of humid nights and long warm autumn days, which together with the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, favors the development of Botrytis Cineria — the Noble Rot. The grapes used — Furmint, Hárslevelü and Muskotályos — are picked late in the extended autumn from Halloween to mid-November.
The Hungarians began making sweet Botrytis-affected wines in 1650, more than 100 years before similar wines were made in Germany and Sauternes in France. The Abbot Maté Szepsi (the Dom Perignon of Hungary) ordered the harvest delayed because he feared a Turkish invasion. The grapes shriveled to raisins and “rotted” on the vines but they made wine anyway and found the next Easter when they drank the wine that it was much admired. To make the wine, the “raisined” grapes are mashed into a paste and fermented into a very sweet, thick syrup — Aszú. The rest of the crop is made into more ordinary highly acidic, white wine, thus yielding three wines: Aszú, Tokaji and Tokaji Aszú (a mixture of the other two wines). The Aszú is measured in units called puttonyos. Tokaji Aszú 6 puttonyos is about 15 percent residual sugar (root beer is about 10 percent, so this wine is sweeter than root beer).
The wine is aged in a network of low tunnels dug originally to protect the wine from marauding Turks. A fungus, racodium cellare, which grows on the walls of the tunnels causes a flor-like seal on the tops of the casks and imparts a sherry-like character to the wine.
For most of the 20th century this unique and very special wine languished. Under Soviet domination, quantity not quality was encouraged. As usual, Stalin’s encouragement was brutal and very effective. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, groups of investors both in Hungary and in the international wine industry have been working on rebuilding the image of this noble wine. They’re advertising it and selling it on the Internet now, and because of them, it may be one of the next fashionable wines.
Jo and Tom Chesworth are both American Wine Society-certified wine judges and can be found in the firstname.lastname@example.org.