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Tokaji Aszú astounds as always

Sweet, but balanced with acidity, this classic remains an excellent reason to drink Hungarian wine.

As dry Tokaji wine increasingly grabs all the attention, we should never neglect the sweet side of Tokaj and its crowning glory: Tokaji Aszú. While the region’s still fledgling dry whites are starting to build a reputation, Tokaji Aszú is and continues to be among the world’s greatest sweet wines, if not the greatest of all.

What makes the best Tokaji Aszú so special is its ability to possess vibrant freshness from the tingling acidity to counterbalance the sumptuous sweetness and thus make the wine remarkably layered, complex and yet not cloyingly sweet. The all important acidity was referred to in the tasting note made by the prestigious American wine magazine Wine Spectator, which has recently given a whopping 93 points to Tokaj Classic’s Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2010. Despite the difficulty of this rainy and cool vintage for dry wine, it is proving to be an excellent year for botrytized wines. “Marked by racy acidity, this nutty dessert wine is intense and long, with flavors of lemon pâté de fruit, orange peel and almond,” said Wine Spectator’s Bruce Sanderson. He also referred to its classic minerally finish.

Normally, the Furmint grape provides the steely and focused backbone in an Aszú blend, with the main supporting act being played by the more luscious Hárslevelű grape, possibly along with some Muscat-like fragrance from the Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc), or one or two other grapes ending up in the mix. Furmint – whose thin skins make it ideal for attracting so-called “noble rot” or botrytis, which greatly concentrates sugars, flavors and acids – is occasionally deemed sufficiently hedonistic by itself to go it alone. Disznókő’s ultra rare and most premium offering, Kapi 6 puttonyos Aszú (pictured), is not only made exclusively from Furmint, but it also comes from a single vineyard. French-owned Disznókő has just launched the 2011 Kapi 6 puttonyos, only its third ever release of Kapi. This wine is just a baby but it already shows considerable breeding. It is lemon-colored, full-bodied, reflecting the warm vintage, and fleshy with lots of peach, green apple, lime, white flowers, some tropical fruit and green pepper on the nose and palate. It currently doesn’t taste that sweet despite the 164 g/l of residual sugar, but it oozes pure flavors in Disznókő’s trademark contemporary, fruit forward style.

The 2011 vintage was hot and dry and the grapes ripened very early, but botrytization was slow and limited due to a lack of humidity, explains estate director László Mészáros. Nevertheless, the quality of the Aszú berries was exceptional, with great concentration from extreme shriveling, he adds. Mészáros and his team were surprised by the unexpected freshness from a very hot vintage. This could have something to do with the high limestone content of the Kapi vineyard, which can preserve acidity in wine. Its soil also comprises volcanic rhyolite tuff and lighter clay. The Kapi is a south-facing plot situated at 150-180 meters above sea level in the upper part of the Disznókő’s estate. The Aszú grapes for Kapi 2011, of which 4,654 individually numbered bottles have been made, were picked by hand, one by one, with three successive sortings between September 28 and November 11, then steeped in a Furmint-based must. This lengthy process served to allow the fruit to express all its richness and aromas, according to Mészáros. The price is HUF 29,000, which is right at the upper end of the Tokaji Aszú scale, but Disznókő is a company that puts considerable effort into every single drop, which shows here. Its estate Aszú wines, which are blended from grapes coming across all its vineyards, always offer great value. Incidentally, the dryness also led to the lowest amount of Eszencia, the über intense elixir made exclusively from the free-run juice of Aszú berries, in the quarter of a century that the estate has thus far been operating.

The 2005 Kapi 6 puttonyos is currently in majestic form and is striking that delicious middle ground between youth and age, with notes of mushroom, apricot, candied orange peel, with a refreshing burst of fresh citrus on the finish. It was a cooler vintage with lots of rain in August and September, with the grapes shriveling slowly. Another top Aszú from this vintage is Oremus’ Tokaji Aszú 5 puttonyos, which scooped 93 points from Wine Advocate. The 1999 Kapi, which comes from a “classic big vintage”, is naturally much more developed with an amber color, and is now registering plenty of tertiary notes like dried apricot, ginger, and orange peel, but the finish is, as ever, propped up with that welcome zesty citric zip.

I’ve been getting mixed reports about the potential for good botrytis this vintage but, as ever in Tokaj, there can be significant differences between individual plots. This wet and cold weather could well put a dampener on proceedings and is more likely to lead to the development of malign grey rot rather than noble rot, unless the sun starts shining soon.