Tokaji Aszú: it’s not Just for Christmas


It’s a shame that most of us only think of cracking open a bottle of Tokaji Aszú on special occasions, such as the festive season. Not only is it considered by certain critics to be the best sweet wine in the world, but also by some as one of the finest wines of all. And yet, it can be impossible to get people to even sample the sublime stuff, as they go running for cover when the words “sweet wine” are mentioned.

Sweet is perhaps not the best way to describe these botrytized beauties, the best of which are as layered as they are rich, with incredible length and complexity driven by the Furmint grape’s angular acidity that cuts through the residual sugar (up to around 150 grams per liter for a top of the range 6 puttonyos).

This gives endless length and prevents the wine from being cloying. Tokaj, also referred to as Tokaj-Hegyalja (Tokaj-foothills), is sitting on such a rich reserve of awesome Aszú, that it is a shame not to partake when in Hungary.  

Tokaji Aszú ticks all the terroir-related boxes for fine wine. It’s made for the most part from indigenous grapes with the base from the focused and linear Furmint, which is typically fleshed out by the fruity and honeyed richness of Hárslevelű, along with several others (although the opulently floral Sárgamuskotály or Yellow Muscat is an outsider).

The region’s soils are remarkably diverse due to the huge amount of volcanic activity millions of years ago, with the composition sometimes varying considerably in one vineyard. The edgier style of wine from the volcanic-based vineyards makes a nice contrast to the softer, fruitier style coming from more loess-based soils around the town of Tokaj.

Tokaji Aszú is made from a centuries old process that is unique, whereby the botrytized berries are picked one-by-one in several sweeps of the vineyard, and steeped in a base wine made of regular “healthy” late-harvest grapes that have not been hit by the so-called “noble rot”.  

To add a historical aspect, a lot of Aszú comes from the first vineyards to be officially classified in the world. Note that Szamorodni from Tokaj is made in the same way as other great sweet wines like Sauternes (from Bordeaux), with the bunches comprising both regular and botrytized grapes picked together, and then pressed.

Incidentally, botrytis can be detected on the nose by an intense dried-apricot note. Tokaj has the conditions that allow the botrytis to develop, by virtue of the high amount of moisture in the air in fall, thanks to the region being influenced by the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza rivers and a high water table. This noble rot shrivels the grape to a near raisin-like state and intensifies the sugar, acidity and flavors.

Climate Disrupter?

However, climate change appears to be disrupting the botrytizing process in some vintages. Add onto this the surge in demand and interest in dry wines, and Tokaji Aszú isn’t as plentiful as it once was. Given the amount of work that goes into it and its relatively rarity, it is still very reasonably priced.

The top eight wines, and nine out of the top ten, in the “100 best Hungarian Wines 2018” from Winelovers were all Aszú, with top spot going to Grand Tokaj for its 6 puttonyos 2013. This vibrant, fresh and contemporary citrusy style represents the new improved face of the region’s largest producer, which has been seriously turned around after considerable investment. This wine also shows how an ancient winemaking process can be rendered current and hip with the use of state-of-the-art technology. It is amazing value at HUF 5,840 from  

In another, very similarly-named Hungarian listing, “Top 100 Hungarian Wine”, top spot was also claimed by an Aszú: István Szepsy’s 6 puttonyos 2009 (HUF 33,500 from Bortársaság). Just when you think Aszú can’t get any better, then along comes Szepsy, adding new nuances and fine details. In this particular ranking, red wines put in a strong showing with a good few making the top ten.  

While Tokaj’s reputation was built on botrytized sweet wine, much attention these days has turned to the dry wines made in the region. The top dry white in the Winelovers’ ranking appeared in 17th place: Sanzon’s Classic 2015, Furmint with 8% Sárgamuskotály. It comes from two sets of grapes, one batch of which was picked in the middle of September with the second coming in early October, both from the Meszes vineyard in Olaszliszka.  

Made by the extremely capable hands of Erika Rácz, who fermented the wine in stainless steel and then aged it in 500-liter Kádár Hungary barrels on the fine lees for four months, this wine strikes an excellent balance between freshness, fruit, florality, complexity and subtle oak, at costs HUF 4,200 from Sánzon’s Rány 2015 (now sold out, but the 2016 will soon be available) claimed 23rd place.  

Ninth position in the Winelovers list was claimed by Kreinbacher’s Prestige Brut Magnum 2013 from Somló – a wine which shows Furmint’s ability to produce top quality traditional method sparkling wine. And it’s a great choice to see in the New Year with!


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