Tokaji, this picture-postcard pretty Unesco World Heritage town is designated as a white wine-growing region, hence, no reds are cultivated here. If you insist on making a red, you ship your grapes in from somewhere else. They might call some dry, but there’s this distinct fruitiness that makes them stand out as true Tokaj wines. My favourite was the Hárslevelü or ‘linden leaf’ varietal which can be damn awful ranging from a mouthful of acid to a beautifully rounded fruitiness of elderflower and spiciness to give it that extra lift and dimension. Needless to say, in the warm May sunshine, this was the elixir of the season and a sprightly lifter of the spirits especially from Benkö Borház, a tiny ‘pince’ or winery next to all the others with its ‘cave’ dug into the hill behind it.
Tokaji Aszú, the “Wine of Kings and King of Wines” (quote: Louis XIV, no less!) heralds from the picture postcard pretty town of Tokaji as its name suggests. The number of ‘puttonyes’ is indicative of the price and quality of course. From 3 to 6, the higher you go the higher the sugar content with 180g/l topping the list. And then there’s esszencia, the uncrushed steady drip created by the weight of the grapes, which can reach heady heights of 700 to 900 g/litre.
But back to the garden variety – the botrytized (noble rot) berries are handpicked one by one and crushed into a kind of paste after which new wine or fermenting must are added to it. The transformation takes place for a period of at least 3 years, could be 2 in small Hungarian oak barrels, maybe 3, one in bottle, maybe more, whatever the whim of the winemaker. At around €18/half litre for 5 puttonyes, it’s affordable for a salary from the real world. Once you taste it, you fall in love and the dreaming begins. How many bottles can I fit into my suitcase, how many can I afford? The sweetness, yes, it’s there, but it’s the complexity that is so full of apricots, marmalade, even lychee and a touch of nuts and smooth, oh I almost forgot to mention smooth, the word hardly suffices. Even if you’re not a dessert or sweet wine fan, you cannot NOT appreciate this liquid gold. At the end of the day, I find it hard to distinguish between 5 puttonyes and 6 and I settle for 5 from the delightful Teri whose husband is the kick-ass winemaker at their ‘pince’ called Benkö Borház. A litre costs me under €30 and I do believe I’ve struck a bargain.
But I like wine with spunk and even though I’m not particularly a semi-sweet wine drinker, I really did fall for two other types in this region. Forditás means ‘pour over’ or ‘turning over’ when aszú paste or dough is used for a second time with must being poured over it. From the fine Hétszölö winery, the 2003 vintage had a slightly kerosene nose similar to what you might find in Riesling, and behaved like the teenage sister of the more grown up aszú it came from. Lots of lovely orange, just a little marmalade and an absolute delight at cold, cold temperatures.
You can say what you like about semi-sweet or sweet wines, pull up your nose at it or insist that it can only be taken with desserts, the longer you stay in this region, the more you start appreciating the fact that they’re meant to go with the local food and a good semi-sweet Sárgamuskotály has enough spice and body to go very well with a good goulash in my humble opinion!