It is 450 years since the first written mention of Aszú in Tokaj and the region’s glorious wines are still worth celebrating. Clearly, there’s something special about a wine style that has lasted more than four centuries, adored by royalty, and praised as ‘king of wines and wine of kings’ by Louis XIV.
In these days of drinking young, fresh, uncomplicated wines, where do these gorgeous, honeyed elixirs fit into modern drinking habits? They certainly deserve more than just being consigned to the dessert menu, on the rare occasions we health-conscious generations even allow ourselves that little luxury.
Scroll down to find 10 best Tokaji wines for food pairing
First, a quick description of what Tokaji Aszú is all about and why it’s unique. Tokaj is a cool northern wine region of complex volcanic soils, steep slopes and deep cellars carved into the bedrock. This cool climate and the local grapes, with Furmint in the leading role, mean the wines always have a spine-tingling thrill of acidity, whatever their style.
Two rivers meet here creating perfect conditions for foggy autumn mornings which give botrytis cinerea, the noble rot fungus, a helping hand. Then sunny breezy afternoons shrivel the berries into raisins, called Aszú. These must be laboriously picked one by one and they can’t simply be squeezed for juice as in other sweet wines. If you try, the result is a small trickle of gorgeously intense syrup that barely ferments – this rare Eszencia is sometimes served by the teaspoon. Yoghurt gelato makes a lovely sharp contrast to it. Its richness also matches well with sticky date pudding.
Read more: What is Aszú and why is it special?
Indeed, it’s that fine, vibrant acidity that makes Tokaji wines so versatile with food. Even the sweet wines always have a lightness and ethereal quality to them, finely balanced between sweetness and acidity, so they are never cloying to drink.
Pairing Tokaji Aszú with dessert is obvious – puddings based on apricot or mango; quince and honey cake, or spiced poached pears echo typical flavours in younger Aszú (2016 or 2017). Lemon cheesecake or creme brûlee also work well with these wines, with the acidity contrasting the creamy richness. For seasonal fare, match a more mature complex Aszú (2013 or older) with Christmas pudding and mince pies. The cheese board is another obvious match for sweet Tokaji – salty blue cheeses like Roquefort are a particularly heavenly match and for an unusual option try tangy dry Szamorodni with aged sheep’s cheese.
But there’s plenty of scope beyond these conventional boxes too. Indeed, Isa Bal MS believes that dry wine with savoury food is a relatively recent invention, as historically sweet wines would have been a more traditional choice.
‘I am always looking for balance and I believe Tokaji can do this with its acidity,’ he says, adding: ‘I focus on the saltiness of the food with the sweetness of the wine and its botrytis elements.’
In Hungary, there’s a tradition of matching pâté, especially goose liver with sweet Tokaji, but nuts and mushrooms can work beautifully too, or try a soup with a hint of sweetness like pumpkin.
There’s a place for sweet Tokaj with main courses too. At a recent food-matching lunch at Trivet in London, Bal matched bright young 6 Puttonyos Aszú to spiced poached lobster, while crispy veal sweetbreads took on a new dimension with a more mature 2013 Aszú. Pigeon with persimmon was a great match with beautifully complex, aged Aszú wines from 2003 and 2007, while for non-meat eaters, smoky roasted celeriac with bitter chicory and freekeh worked magically well with the same wines. Asian dishes with spices like five spices, zingy lemongrass and coriander, or sweet and sour notes can be great with sweet Tokaji too.
Of course, there are other options from Tokaji too with a new generation of refined traditional method sparklers offering a vibrant appetite-stimulating aperitif, and brilliant dry wines in several styles. Young fruit-driven fresh Furmints are great with dishes like fresh fish, grilled prawns, or fennel risotto to give just a few ideas, while the more complex, oak-aged, often single-vineyard expressions (think a slightly fiery, mineral version of white Burgundy) can partner more serious main dishes and would even be a good choice for the Christmas turkey or goose.