Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What is Tokaji?

Tokaji is a wine region in Hungary, which produces some wonderful dry wines, but you really should look out for their sweet wines. They can be pricey, but definitely worth it for accompanying a sticky toffee pudding. It was Tokaji that opened me up to dessert wines, before thinking there was not much point to them.

I pronounce Tokaji as “To-Kai” with “To” as in Top and “Kai” as in Kite. Although I’m not sure this is exactly right it gets me passed the sommelier!

Tokaji is made from grapes that have been infected by a fungus called botrytis. This mould grows on grapes in areas that have damp mornings and warm sunny afternoons. This process of rotting and drying causes the grapes to shrivel up and lose water, causing the juice inside to become concentrated. Additional flavour compounds often develop in botrytis berries, such as apricot and ginger. The grapes that are affected by botrytis in Hungary are called Aszu berries, which are carefully selected at harvest to be made into the Tokaji dessert wine I love.

When you order a Tokaji sweet wine you will notice that it has a number of puttonyos. This is a very interesting part of Hungarian winemaking… Once the Aszu berries are picked, they were traditionally collected in baskets called Puttony. The number of baskets of sweet Aszu grapes that are added to the non-botrytis grape juice (also known as must) were counted and labelled on the wine. The system uses 3-6 puttonyos for Tokaji sweet wine, and these days actual sugar content is measured. The number of puttonyos is regarded as a level of quality and in 2014 the labelling changed to just “Tokaji Aszu” and only 5- and 6-puttonyos wines can be made under this label. However, I still find it cute to see the puttonyos on the label as it provokes evocative mental imagery of aged Hungarian men and women carrying large baskets of shrivelled up grapes. Wine that is made entirely from Aszu grapes is called Eszencia. Tokaji Eszencia is a syrupy wine that is so sweet it is typically served in a tablespoon, and because of its high sugar content can age for over 200yrs.

You may have already tried the sweet wines of the Sauternes and Mosel Riesling which aim to copy the nectar properties of Tokaji dessert wines. Some producers in Alsace France and Friuli Italy use “Tokay” or “Tokai” to attract attention, so don’t get tricked, you really should try the traditional Hungarian Tokaji Aszu wine.

If you’re not keen on dessert wines, then I would also recommend seeking out Tokaji dry wines, such as the dry white wine single-varietal Furmint. These wines are typically off-dry with high acidity, and although they are often aged in Hungarian oak you wouldn’t know it to taste it. A good alternative to a NZ Sauvignon Blanc and can certainly generate discussion around the dinner table.

To read about my review of a Furmint wine go to

1 comment:

  1. Brings back memories of my Dad serving a 5 puttonyos Tokai wine with walnuts one Xmas as an aperitif.