The specialities of Tokaj constitute a whole family of wines. Every type of wine has taken shape in connection with the production of aszú in the course of changes in agriculture, demand, taste, and other historical causes and traditions.
For the sake of dispelling misconceptions, we must first establish that aszú is not a grape but a type of wine. It is mainly made using berries of furmint and hárslevelű, and to a lesser extent sárgamuskotály (yellow muscatel), that have undergone ‘noble rot’. In the unique microclimate of Tokaj-Hegyalja, in most years roughly a third of the berries not only shrivel, thereby concentrating their sugar content, but are also affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, which results in the development of distinctive flavours. These aszú berries are carefully separated out at harvest-time, crushed or ‘opened up’ as the saying is; must or wine from unrotted berries is poured over them, they are soaked, pressed, then fermented and matured.
That is how aszú is basically made, but several variants of it have developed over time. According to tradition, the number of puttony (small wooden tubs of approximately 20-25 kg each) of aszú grapes that are put into a ‘gönc’ barrel of 136 litres determines the rating of the aszú wine that is made from such grapes. Ratings of 3, 4, 5 and 6 puttonyos are distinguished, and above that number we speak of aszúeszencia, or ‘essence of aszú’. When, however, selected aszú berries are collected in a vat and allowed to press themselves by their own weight, and that is kept as a varietal, then we have natúr’eszencia, or ‘natural essence’. It is indicative of its concentration that its sugar content is higher than that of honey, and as a result it cannot be fermented. Naturally, in addition to this its wealth and complexity of flavour make it of the utmost value to the consumer.
Aszú berries, however, offer the possibility of making more than aszú. In inferior years, when they are scarce so that selecting them would be expensive, or the aszu process is less that perfect, they are processed with the other grapes and szamorodni is the result The name itself gives an indication of the technology involved. This wine was originally made for the Polish market, where it received the name, which in Polish means ‘as it was made’.
The concentration and enhanced intrinsic value of aszú berries is also shown by the fact that even after soaking in must or and being pressed they still retain a significant content, which can be put to further use. After the pressed aszú berries have been trodden or ‘pressed’ in sacks, they are turned out, must is again poured onto them and they are fermented a second time. This produces a wine which, while substantially inferior, is still of value and is known, because of the one-time technology involved, as fordítás or ‘turning’. And that some sort otf new wine be extracted from even7 stage of the preparation of aszu is shown by máslás ‘copying’ or ‘second wine’. The fully fermented, cleared wine, like any other, is separated from its lees. These aszú lees, however, are so conentrated that even after mixing them with wine and fermenting again they add significantly to ‘ordinary’ wine. improving it’s quality.
Pages could be filled with an account of the wealth of flavour and the pleasing characteristics of aszú and aszú-like wines, and so in these few lines we cannot ever attempt to do so. The microclimate of the lopes, the proportion of the varieties of grapes used, the peculiarities of processing, the length and method of maturation, the variation in vintages, the life of the wine – all contribute various things, but fundamentally we get from them all a miracle, with a ‘life’ that varies bottle by bottle. It is unique, and its range of tastes defies imitation. We have much and many kinds of them to taste, but to sense their dignity just once is enough to make us nod in agreement with the view expressed by Elizabeth I, Tsarina of Russia that ‘Non est vinum, nisi tokainum”. There is no wine like Tokaj wine.
For more interesting information:
> Hungarian wines and wine regions (authors: Zoltán Benyák, Tibor Dékány)
> Terra Benedicta 2003: Tokaj and Beyond (authors: Rohály Gábor, Mészáros Gabriella, Nagymarosy András)