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Tokaji stages a comeback

Hungary's tokaji wines once were considered the most hedonistic sweet wines in the world. The ultra-rare eszencia bottlings rated more highly than France's great Chateau d'Yquem. Drops of this honeyed liquid were smeared on the lips of dying emperors. If they didn't smile, it was proof they were goners. For the past half-century, tokaji has been out of fashion. The wine originated in the hilly northeast corner of Hungary, in tiny Tokaj-Hegyalja, the world's least-known great wine region. Its best vineyards were classified into first, second or third growths long before Bordeaux had the idea. Producers do make dry whites, but the famous wines, called aszu, are all sweet and made from local varieties, primarily furmint. Grapes affected by botrytis cinerea, or “noble rot,” which shrivels them and concentrates the sugar, are individually picked into traditional wooden tubs -- puttonyos -- and set aside. In great vintages, like 1999, the syrupy liquid that accumulates bottom of the vats is bottled separately as eszencia. The grapes are then crushed and blended with a base wine. Tokaji labels carry a sweetness level -- three to six puttonyos -- indicating how many tubs of these grapes are added to each barrel. More means richer and sweeter wines, but fortunately high acidity gives them a refreshing quality. “The searing acidity counterbalancing intense sweetness ensures longevity,” says Ben Howkins, managing director of Royal Tokaji Co. Some great tokajis have lasted more than 150 years. Royal Tokaji, one of the new wave of producers determined to bring classic tokaji back to prominence, makes a couple of vineyard blends. The 1996 Nyulaszo ($85) features exotic dried pear, honey and clove flavors, while 1999 Betsek ($70) has hints of caramel and dried apricot. The even sweeter 1995 Aszu Essencia ($165) -- not to be confused with the more expensive true Essencia -- tastes of marmalade and roasted coffee. Served chilled, all would pair splendidly with foie gras, blue cheese or a chocolate dessert. After the fall of communism, foreign companies rushed to snap up the fabled vineyards, convinced there was money to be made in reviving a legend. Royal Tokaji was the first in 1989, French insurance giant AXA followed, along with Spanish wine company Vega Sicilia and others. More than a decade later only a few consumers know what these wines are. “No one has any idea of style or vintages or aging the wines. So producers aren't making much money at the moment,” says Howkins.  “But I see 2006 as the tipping point. Our sales from January through May are up 27% over last year.” The fabulous 1999 Essencia is certain to attract attention. Each 500-millileter, numbered bottle (half the production of 1,200 bottles is headed to the U.S.) comes in a velvet-lined wooden box with a crystal sipping spoon. There are 33 spoonfuls in a bottle. At a mere 2.9% alcohol, this transcendent treacle won't give a hangover. So far, says Hawkins, the U.S. and the U.K. are the strongest markets for Essencia, but Taiwan is coming up fast. And when Christie's auctioned off rare 19th-century tokajis in March, they were snapped up at good prices -- one bottle of 1845 Eszencia went for $1,998. Signs that the wine's fortunes are reviving? For producers and dessert-wine connoisseurs, that would be sweet news indeed. (Bloomberg)