Advent, Christmas, New Year. Well over a month to celebrate with one of the most special and unique Hungarian wines, Tokaji Aszú which definitely belongs to the greatest sweet wines of the world. Its elegance and prestige lift it above everyday wines into the realm of drinks for special occasions so this is the time of the year to buy and open a few bottles of aszú, what’s more we have several arguments to demonstrate the diversity of aszús.
If you are looking for an elegant and lasting present then look no further. Aszú is a unique wine with many shades resulting from the various microclimates and differencies in soil composition of the numerous vineyards. The fact that it is a wine that cannot be produced in every vintage makes it even more precious. Botrytis cinerea a type of noble rot punctures the skins of healthy and ripe berries assisting the evaporation of liquid matter and thereby increasing the concentration of sugar, acidity and flavour compounds. Manually picking the aszú berries one by one often in wintry conditions is a painstaking process. Furthermore all aszús have to go through 18 months of ageing in barrels and a further 12 months in bottle before they are ready to be sold.
Though aszú and stuffed cabbage or breaded fish are obviously not great matches there are many festive dishes that go well with aszús. Besides the classic and well-established pairing of goose or duck liver aszús also make good match with roast duck and quince or even slightly more adventurous choices like rabbits or pigeons with sauces made from sweet spices and fruit. Any dessert might be a good pairing, however it’s also worth considering aszú as a dessert on its own. It is also a great match with blue cheese or young soft cheese served with quince jelly. Should one suspense with traditional dishes and go for something Asian this year then of course aszú is once again an excellent choice.
One of the golden rules of matching food and wine is that the wine should be at least as sweet as the food and this is a requirement easily met by aszús. Classic Christmas cakes contain lots of walnuts, roasted oily seeds, chocolate, candied and dried fruits, jam, marzipan and sweet spices. Beigli, Gerbeaud cake, walnut cake, fruit cake, pumpkin cake, pecan nut cake, chocolate raspberry Pavlova the list could go on. The aroma profile of aszús make them ideal choices for desserts so it’s a no-brainer when it comes to matching festive cakes.
A Dessert On Its Own
One can have aszús instead of desserts. It is by no accident that you can find them on many restaurants’ dessert menus; the honeyed, sweet spices aromas coupled with the concentration and weight of this wine provide a complete experience for your tastebuds. For centuries aszú has been famed for its healing properties so despite the sizeable dose of sugar it contains it is still good for your health. One feature that makes aszús so uinque is their high acidity which makes them balanced and lively so you shouldn’t worry that an aszú on its own will leave you feeling saturated. Let’s enjoy a glass of golden aszú as part of the festive menu and indulge in the treats of Christmas.
With aszús the customer is free to make a choice between young and mature, supple or concentrated examples sometimes reaching above 200 gramms of residual sugar. Properly stored Tokaj Aszús can be enjoyed for several decades as the years of ageing add extra layers to the wine’s complexity, however younger aszús also have much to offer with their abundance of fruit and vibrant and bright profile. Feel free to experiment to find the best food matchings but don’t forget that what really matters is to find the one you love the most.
Tokaj wine region and Tokaji Aszú
Thanks to the special microclimate of Tokaj the onset of Botrytis cinerea or noble rot responsible for the shrivelled „aszú” berries is an almost certain occurrence each year. This is why the proximity of two rivers, Tisza and Bodrog is so important, the morning fog ascending from the rivers followed by dry sunny days create ideal conditions for the production of aszú berries. When this fungus infects healthy and ripe berries it sets off the process of aszú production. Botrytis punctures the grape skins thereby assisting the evaporation of liquid matter and by doing so increasing the concentration of sugar, acidity and flavour compounds. Furmint is the most important of the local varieties and its characteristic acidity pays dividends in this process but the other varieties are not far behind in terms of producing aszú berries.
However this is not a uniform process so the shrivelled berries have to be picked one by one over a prolonged period. This is an extremely labour-intensive process; even experienced pickers can gather only 6-7 kilograms a day. Depending on the vintage the same vine might have to be revisited 4-5 times in one harvest period as only the properly shrivelled berries can be picked. The enormous manual work demands of the harvest should well justify the higher price of aszús in itself; you won’t find a similar process in any other sweet wine producing region in the world. Once the liquid matter has evaporated the aszú berries are macerated in the fermenting juice or base wine of the same vintage for 24-48 hours with regular stirring for proper extraction. With the maceration completed the aszú paste is removed, pressed and the resulting must is fermented to arrive at Tokaji Aszú. A Tokaji Aszú goes through 18 months of barrel ageing followed by 12 months of bottle ageing before its ready to be sold.
The somewhat perplexing number of puttonys is actually an indication of the sweetness and concentration of an Aszú. Traditionally this number was determined by the number of butts (baskets) holding about 25 kilograms of aszú berries added to one Gönci barrel (136 l) of wine. The new regulations in effect since 2013 prescribe a post-fermentation residual sugar content of at least 120 gramm/liter which is equal to 5 butts in the traditional system and it is no longer mandatory to indicate the number of butts on labels.