I'm Lucky To Have Tasted This Even Once in My Lifetime
I'm Lucky To Have Tasted This Even Once in My Lifetime
Posted August 05, 2016
My lunch break on Thursday was extended. Like most people, I typically end up working through the midday meal.
But I typically don't get invitations like this one: a Tokaj wine pairing luncheon at a renowned local restaurant. I don't always get this kind of opportunity to sample a wine that I am lucky to taste even just once in a lifetime. #YOLO
Tokaj is a wine region in northeastern Hungary, near the border with Slovakia. Protected by the arc of the Carpathian Mountains, Tokaj has a continental climate with warm summers. The soils here are of volcanic origin. It is Tokaj that is home to the world’s oldest known vineyard classification system - beating Bordeaux's 1855 Classification by over a century - and also to one of the world's most age-worthy, renowned dessert wines. #SorrySauternes
When I told my friends I would be attending this pairing, I had to explain to them how ridulous and amazing the wine is. I had only ever read about Tokaji Eszencia, a rare, expensive, long-lived dessert wine. Having now tried it once - and I am SO immensely grateful for this opportunity - it still confounds me.
Tokaji Eszencia is made from botrytized (i.e. "noble" rotten) grapes, as in the production of other famous dessert wines like Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese. Tokaji Eszencia is made only from the free-run juice - these grapes are not pressed or crushed - of native Hungarian white grape varieties. It takes years, yes, years, to ferment completely. Even when it has finished, it is only 2 - 5% ABV.
How is it possible that after all that time fermenting, it's still so weak?
Because it starts out as nearly pure sugar. Yeast cells, like our cells, need water to function. In such concentrated juice, there is little free water to be had, so the yeasts work really slowly. They can only ferment so much sugar into alcohol before they can’t survive anymore. The result is a wine that can have as much as 800g/L residual sugar (almost 8 times as much as coca-cola) and only 2 - 5 % alcohol by volume. Because there is so little free water available to either friendly or harmful microbes, this wine will last centuries. Literally. I am told the oldest one on the market is from the 1600s, predating the United States.
We didn’t jump right into the Eszencia. We had to warm up our palates, so we started with the Patricius Estate Dry Furmint.
Patricius is a relatively young estate founded by a Hungarian family returning home. In the pre-Communism era, the Kekessy owned important vineyards in Tokaj. The land was confiscated during communism, and the family fled. Father and daughter Deszo and Katinka returned to Hungary in the 1990s, purchasing vineyards and reclaiming their ancestral roots as a wine-producing family.
Furmint is the main white variety of Tokaj and the dominant variety in dessert wines. It has bracingly high acidity (which is favorable for balancing sugar in sweet wines). It makes bold dry white wines which, in Hungary, are often served with game meats. Patricius's Furmint is a refreshing, bright and friendly style and a great introduction to the variety. It served as our welcome aperitif.
Next, the Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos was served. Tokaji refers to the region and Aszu to the botrytized berries. Aszu, in Hungarian, means noble. Botrytis is also called "noble rot," precisely for its role in producing such phenomenal dessert wines. Puttonyos is a historical reference to the baskets used for picking. Tokaji Aszu is made by mixing a paste of these sweet, botrytized berries into a base wine made from non-botrytized berries. The wines were then labeled according to how many baskets, or puttonyos, were added to the base wine. The more puttonyos, the sweeter the wine. These days, only 5 and 6 puttonyos wines can be labeled as such, and the label is no longer determined by the number of baskets used but by the level of residual sugar in the finished wines. Tokaji Azu 5 Puttonyos has a minimum of 120/L and 6 Puttonyos has a minimum of 150 g/L. Sauternes has a minimum residual sugar is 45g/l. #SorrySauternes
What makes this possible?
It comes down to the acidity of the autochthonous grapes used in Tokaji Aszu. Furmint is, by nature, a super high-acid variety. To relay the importance of the balance of sugar and acid, I always use the same analogy: Lemonade. Think of good lemonade. You can only use as much sugar as you have lemon. The acids and sugars need to be in balanced. And if there’s no acid, it’s just cloyingly sweet….but when there is bright acidity, it's a whole different story.
Because aszu berries are separated from healthy berries, there is a longstanding tradition in Tokaj not only of hand-harvesting and not only of picking grapes bunch by bunch, but hand-harvesting berry by berry.
The Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos was paired with foie gras. The acidity of the wine contrasts with the fat of foie gras. Yet both are rich, full and decadent. After all, Tokaji Aszu was called “the king of wines and the wine of kings” by Louis XV. So bring on the foie gras.
Not a foie gras fan?
Tokaji Aszu isn’t just for foie gras, bleu cheese and dessert. Its sweetness makes it a great counter to spicy and smoky foods as well. Try out a few pairings. Once you open a bottle it will last considerably longer than other wines because of the sugar content, so you have a bit of time to experiment.
After the Aszu, Patricius’s Dry Yellow Muscat was served with a seasonal salmon entree. The Muscat is pleasingly aromatic and brighter than an Alsatian counterpart. We all agreed this is a great wine for a Pinot Grigio lover looking for adventure.
With dessert, an almond pastry with charred peach and vanilla ice cream, the Late-Harvest Katinka Tokaji was served. This wine, named after the daughter in the father-daughter team, is a friendly, balanced dessert wine. The pairing was perfect, the wine being sweeter than the dessert itself, and the peach bringing out the sweet carame-and-baking-spice notes as well as the tanginess of the wine. If you are interested in ordering this wine, please email Stacy directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Then the piece de resistance. Tokaji Eszencia is typically served in spoonfuls...because that’s all you really need for pure contentment to set in. That's it, it’s barely fermented grape juice, and it is absolutely mindblowing. With flavors ranging from fresh and tangy to ripe and caramelized, it is viscous yet bright. At this event, the wine was served in glasses. Only small pours, to be sure. But I was a bit disappointed - it is slightly less frowned upon, I believe, to lick your spoon clean than it would be to try and dig out that last taste from a wine glass.
I admit it was really hard to get back into the groove to work after this lunch break. But it was totally worth it. #YOLO
$12.99 per btl
$13.98 per btl