April 30 2010 issue
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SPECIAL REPORT Tokaji Ben Narasin
István Szepsy strokes one of the porous white stone columns that line the loggia of his winery. "This is the secret of Tokaji," he says. "It’s the stone that gives us our great acidity."
Ten million years ago, the area of Hungary we know as Tokaj was a savage region of flame and magma. Thousands of volcanoes brought up molten rock from the earth’s depths that would ultimately cool into porous and mineral-rich hills. Szepsy credits the gradual erosion of nutrients and minerals, and the blanket of topsoil it created, for the distinct minerality and acidity that define Tokaji sweet wines.
Szepsy’s view should matter: his family has been associated with Tokaji wine since the 1600s, and he is one of the few Hungarian owner-producers in the region. When the Communists controlled the country, all commercial wineries were property of the state. Families could make wine for their own use, but could not possess more than a modest vineyard or sell any of their production. Fabled Tokaji brands disappeared under a system mandating bulk wine for the home market, Russia. With the fall of Communism in 1990, Hungary was left with a healthy debt and unhealthy vineyards. National assets were sold to the highest bidders, and most wineries were snapped up by foreign buyers.
The best-known producer in the region today is Royal Tokaji, a syndicate led by British wine writer Hugh Johnson. Among the first to see the promise of bringing back the quality and legend of Tokaji, Johnson and his colleagues convinced the government to sell them top-quality vineyard land in 1990. More recently, French investors led by Château Clinet owner Jean-Louis Laborde have purchased Château Pajzos, and French insurance giant AXA, which owns châteaux such as Pichon-Baron and Suduiraut, has bought Disznókő. The Álvarez family of Spain’s Vega Sicilia founded Oremus in 1993. Alongside these foreign entrepreneurs, Hungarian expatriates who have prospered elsewhere have now bought some properties, and a few small family producers, like Szepsy, have gradually expanded their production.
While Tokaj has received attention of late for its dry white Furmints, the region’s past and present are still dominated by the allure of the sweet Aszú. Besides Furmint, the allowed varieties are Hárslevelű, Kövérszőlő, Kabar, Yellow Muscat, and Zéta (once called Oremus). Traditionally, the grapes were crushed in a puttony, a wooden basket used for collecting grapes, which held about 25 liters. The more puttonyos of botrytised grapes added to the fermentation barrel, the sweeter the wine—hence, the familiar six tiers of puttonyos designations. Today, while sweetness levels are still denoted by puttonyos on the label, the measurement is based on grams of sugar per liter rather than baskets of grapes. Three- puttonyos Aszú must contain 60-90 grams per liter, with another 30 grams of sugar added to the range for each higher level. Thus, 5 puttonyos requires 120-150 grams, and 6 puttonyos 150-180 grams.
For the small number of wineries that produce it, Essencia (spelled Eszencia in Hungarian) stands above all other Tokaji wines in both sugar content and complexity. The wine must contain at least 240 grams per liter of sugar—some reach 500 grams and beyond—and it carries no puttonyos designation. This ultra-rare elixir is made from the free-run juice of the Aszú grapes as they rest after harvest, their weight alone extracting the small tears of juice. "You need about 200 pounds of Aszú berries to make one bottle of Essencia," notes Ben Howkins, managing director of Royal Tokaji. "It’s the closest expression of terroir of any wine because it’s the least interfered with." The wine ferments at a glacial pace, sometimes continuing for a decade. When Royal Tokaji made its first vintage of Essencia, Howkins recalls, "to our astonishment, it took over seven years to finish fermenting." Although it’s far too expensive for by-the-glass service—often $500 for 375 ml or 500 ml—Essencia is sometimes sold by the spoonful. Royal Tokaji nestles a crystal spoon in the velvet lining of its individual wooden box, making a beautiful presentation.
Aszueszencia is a classification between Aszú and Essencia, created by blending the two types, and must exceed 180 grams of sugar per liter. Since few houses produce enough Essencia to bottle commercially, Aszueszencia has often been a showcase wine. Due to concerns about market confusion, however, the Tokaj wine-classification body has proposed elimination of the category (although the rule has not yet been formally adopted). Royal Tokaji produced its last Aszueszencia in 1996. Some winemakers, including Szepsy, prefer to blend their Essencia production into their 5- and 6- puttonyos wines to optimize the quality of their top labels.
Like Jerez and Porto, Tokaj has a byzantine set of wine regulations whose interpretation varies from one producer to another. For example, a "late-harvest" designation is a Wild West of possibilities, with little regulation and, therefore, maximum flexibility for winemakers. The grapes are left on the vine for their sugars to mature, but aren’t necessarily afflicted by botrytis. These labels, like Royal Tokaji’s Áts Cuvée, can offer exceptional dessert-wine flavors and regional character at compelling prices. They are easily recognized by their bottling, since they can’t use the distinctive clear, bulbous Aszú bottles closed with wax and embossed with seals. Instead, the slender, long-necked bottle shapes associated with late-harvest Rieslings are typical.
Between unregulated late-harvest and Aszú is Szamorodni. In contrast to Aszú, which is made from still wine combined with whole botrytised berries, Szamorodni—which means "as it comes" in Polish—is made directly from grape clusters containing both healthy and afflicted berries. The wine can be produced dry or sweet. Although it requires slightly less aging than Aszú (a two-year minimum versus three), Szamorodni can appear in the signature bottle.
Finally, there are two second or pressed wines known as Fordts and Msls. Fordts is created by adding still wine to the Aszú paste. A "second-class Aszú," according to the Tokaji Wine Atlas by Ernő Péter Botos and Ferenc Marcinko, Msls is made by adding wine to the lees that remain after Aszú is racked off and leaving it to macerate. Both are heartier sweet wines, less elegant than Aszú, yet with unique flavor profiles. They rarely leave their local market, but much like crusted Port (also known as "poor man’s vintage"), can provide outstanding value as by-the-glass alternatives to the premium wines.
Even without hand-sourcing Fordts, Msls, or—on the extreme end—Essencia, sommeliers can distinguish their programs by offering Tokaji to their customers. The wines’ ethereal balance of acidity with sweetness leaves a clean finish on the palate and thus will appeal to diners who are not enamored of thicker, more syrupy dessert wines.
Tokajis pair exceptionally well with cheese, whether before or after a meal or as an elegant intermezzo. It’s the "perfect cheese-board wine," according to Valentina Moya, sommelier of The Village Pub in Woodside, Calif. Moya once conducted a detailed pairing test of all her dessert wines with all the cheeses offered by the restaurant and found the Tokaji "paired really well with every single cheese." The Pub offers Royal Tokaji’s 5 Puttonyos by the glass and an amazing 12 other choices by the bottle. It’s "quite a versatile wine," adds bartender Chris Reddin; "it goes with most of the desserts we have," particularly panna cotta. Desserts prepared with plums, a characteristic flavor note in Tokaji, are also a good fit.
Goose liver is as common on Budapest menus as meatloaf is in American diners, and Tokaji is the local pairing of choice. Moya often suggests a 5 puttonyos as an alternative to Sauternes with the chef’s signature foie gras salad. The crisp acid wipes the palate clean of the thick fat, while the sweetness pairs well with the salad greens and the dense foie. "Tokaji has more acidity; it’s more lively," says Moya. "Any time someone orders a foie gras salad, I try to lead them to Tokaji."
Lead your guests to Tokaji, and they may declare you their new wine leader.