Drunk and Hungary: The Pleasures of Tokaj

Written by Matthew DeBord on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Afraid of dessert wine? Oblivious to dessert wine? Harbor no
opinions whatsoever about dessert wine, and believe that anything with the word
"dessert" in it should, in fact, be not wine, but Jell-O chocolate
pudding? You’re not alone. In a country rapidly accustoming itself to a
level of everyday wine consumption that would have astonished our grandparents,
postprandials of the sweetish sort are a final oenological frontier. This is
a shame, because dessert wines are a wonderful way to both finish off a good
meal and avoid the calorie-bomb issues associated with many heavy restaurant

When I talk about dessert wines, I usually exclude such things
as digestifs, brandies (Cognac, for example), sherries, cordials, liqueurs,
booze (bourbon, scotch) and port. Examples of dessert wines would include late-harvest
rieslings, zinfandels and viogniers–varietal grapes that are vinified as
semisweet, sweet or dry table wines, both red and white–as well as the
great Sauternes of Bordeaux, of which Chateau d’Yquem is the most famous,
Moscato, Banyuls, Trokenbeerenauslese (a rare, rich and widely coveted style
of German sweet wine produced from what is called the "noble rot,"
a natural process that concentrates a grape’s sugar), along with a wide
variety of others.

There are basically four ways to obtain a sweet wine that don’t
involve the addition of sugar, a process known as "chapitalization."
You can harvest the grapes late in the season (hence the term "late harvest");
you can wait for the appearance of the noble rot, a beneficial fungus known
as botrytis; you can allow the grapes to freeze, resulting in eiswein in Germany,
or "ice wine" in the New World; or you can permit the grapes to dry,
or raisin, which intensifies sugar concentration.

But there is also a unique, fifth way of obtaining a sweet dessert
wine, and right now it’s my favorite. The wine that results from this technique
is known as "Tokaj," and it hails from Hungary, where, believe it
or not, there is a great and ancient wine culture that more or less went into
hibernation during the Soviet era and the Cold War. In America, Tokaj is probably
the most famous Hungarian wine, although I don’t believe it is very widely
consumed. Still, it retains its adherents and can be found at most quality wine
shops (Crossroads, Sherry-Lehmann). For those who really get into it, Tokaj
can become an obsession.

Up front, you should understand that there are three ways of
referring to Tokaj. First and foremost, as "Tokaj," which is the real
deal, the venerable old wine long produced in the town that bears its name,
located in the far north of Hungary. You’ll sometimes also encounter Tokaj
spelled as "Tokay," but this can get confusing, because Tokay is an
alternative term for pinot gris in the French region of Alsace. Australians
also refer to muscadelle as "Tokay." So, for our purposes, we’ll
only be dealing with Tokaj, and with "Tokaji," the "i" being
added to distinguish sweet wines produced in the region of Tokaj, as
opposed to in Tokaj itself.

This is where it gets complicated, because the production of
Tokaj (and Tokaji) is based on a process similar to chapitalization, but it
does not involve the addition of sugar to a wine. Instead, grapes used to make
a base wine are harvested late, to ensure that there’s plenty of alcohol,
which then allows the wine to be predictably sweetened later. It’s this
sweetening process that lends Tokaj its distinctiveness. What happens is that
grapes that have either been harvested late or that have exhibited the noble
rot–but that have not been fermented independently to serve as the base
wine–are classified as "Aszu" and then set aside to dry, further
concentrating their already high sugar levels. When the time comes, Aszu is
crushed into a paste, and then added to the base wine. Aszu paste is parsed
into "puttonyos," and of all the weird little terms associated with
Tokaj, this is the most important, from both a price and bottle-labeling standpoint.
If you go to a wine shop in search of Tokaj, you will be confronted with smallish,
long-necked bottles filled with a honey-amber liquid, each labeled according
to Aszu content. This is expressed as the number of puttonyos used in making
the wine: three, four, five or six puttonyos, with six being the sweetest, and
the priciest.

(These are the basics of Tokaj. If you want more, I suggest
checking out the Oxford Companion to Wine, where you’ll find an
entry on the subject that covers all the bases of Tokaj production, as well
as the history of the greatest of Hungarian wines.)

So, how does Tokaj taste? And more importantly, how does it
smell? A five- or six-puttonyo Tokaj is effusively floral at the same time that
it suggests darker, lustier undercurrents. The bouquet thus cuts in two seemingly
contradictory directions, but is nonetheless wonderfully integrated in the end.
Ironically, for a wine produced in a country that for decades languished under
Marxist banality and Soviet repression, Tokaj is the viticultural embodiment
of dialectical materialism. A glass of the stuff brims with springtime, but
also implies cozy shades of winter. It’s a dessert wine that I could easily
imagine drinking year-round, or even as an aperitif.

On the palate, Tokaj continues the theme of happily reconciled
contradictions. It is lush and mouth-filling, thick and dense with substance
and texture, but the flavors are light, citrusy, shimmering. There is sometimes
a hint of bitter orange peel, a subtext of nutmeg, even a sort of graininess
that I personally associate with the idea of mashed-up Aszu being integrated
with the base wine. I like the idea that Aszu represents an essential, lusty
core, while the base wine acts as bright medium, and that the two are joined
in a delicate confectionery waltz.

It is a wine both feminine and masculine, faint and hardy. It’s
autumn in a bottle, which makes it perfect to sample now. And you can do so
at plenty of restaurants, though I recommend Veritas and Savoy, both of which
usually keep five- and six-puttonyo Tokaj on hand.