For generations, the Carpathian Basin of central Europe has been famous among armchair adventurers as the lair of werewolves and vampires. But wine historians revere the region for the mysterious, amber-colored potion that was once served at the Hungarian court. It was incredibly sweet, with nuances of dried apricots, raisins, caramel, and honey, and for centuries the country’s fortunes were linked to this libation known as Tokaji. “It was a tool of diplomacy,” says oenophile and author Hugh Johnson. “Unlike other wines, it could not be bought. It had to be given—invariably from one potentate to another.” Indeed, as Louis XV opined upon sharing a quaff with court favorite Madame de Pompadour, “It is the wine of kings and the king of wines.”
Yet during the 20th century, Tokaji (also spelled Tokay) slipped into obscurity because Soviet-decreed production methods emphasized quantity over quality. But now, thanks to the fall of Communism, an influx of money from overseas investors, and the zeal of local artisans to restore their regal elixir to its former stature, Tokaji is gradually regaining its noble stature and once again tempting the palates of the wine cognoscenti.
This Tokaji elixir is not to be confused with Tokay– Pinot Gris from the Alsace or with the inexpensive forti-fied domestic wines sometimes called Tokay. The Tokaji of legend requires serendipitous climatic conditions and complicated, labor intensive methods of harvesting and fermenting. The process begins with the onset of noble rot, which shrivels the Furmint, Hárslevelú, and Tokaji Muscat grapes while condensing their sugar content to a remarkable 40 percent to 60 percent, at which point they become Aszú, raisinlike berries.
After the berries have been mashed by machinery designed to avoid crushing the seeds, the resultant Aszú dough is added to a base wine with an alcohol content of 13 percent to 15 percent that has fermented from mostly non-Aszú grapes. The sweetness of the resultant wine depends largely on the number of puttonyos (20- to 25-kilogram tubs of Aszú) added to each gönc (a 136-liter cask of base wine). This mixture is then stirred repeatedly, allowed to soak for one to two days, and then pressed again. After a second fermentation has taken place, the wine is transferred into casks and set aside for aging in caves that have a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and walls that are thickly coated with a fungus. A yeasty film forms over the Aszú as it ferments and oxidizes, reducing its alcohol content while increasing the wine’s flavor.
The result of this aging process, which takes a minimum of two years plus one year for each of the puttonyos added, is a potion of intense taste and nearly unlimited longevity. The sweetest Tokajis are the five- to six-puttonyos Tokaji Aszú and the much rarer Eszencia, produced only in vintage years and containing only first-run juice from the Aszú grapes.
As a dessert wine, Tokaji rivals the finest Sauternes in every respect but one: price. The wine of kings is a bargain today, with half-liter bottles of Château Pajzos Eszencia ’91 selling for a mere $200, while the 1993, a top year for Tokaji, costs $450.
While sipping a glass of Eszencia, one may recall that famous fanged Carpathian who once intoned, “I never drink . . . wine.” Obviously, that’s because the poor fellow had never tasted Tokaji.