It’s been 450 years this year since the Aszú winemaking method in Tokaj was first mentioned in writing – back in 1571. Get to know one of the world’s great sweet wines from Hungary and its unique production method…
What is the Aszú method?
Aszú is the Hungarian word for shrivelled and botrytis-affected berries, and the resulting wine they make.
It is not known exactly how the method of selecting Aszú berries came about, but it may be in part because serfs working the vines and the land were allowed to pick Aszú berries separately and keep the money they made from them, rather than paying a share to their landlords – a right they fought tooth and nail to protect.
The Aszú grapes must be harvested laboriously one-by-one. A good picker may pick less than 10kg per day, visiting each vine four or five times. After harvest, these grapes are crushed and soaked in either grape juice, young wine or (most commonly today) fermenting must in order to extract flavours and sweetness.
What makes Aszú wines special?
This special winemaking method is a reflection of the unique climate in this part of Hungary.
The Tisza and Bodrog rivers meet in Tokaj and because their waters are slightly different temperatures, most autumn mornings see the region enveloped in fog. Afternoons are then sunny and breezy, creating the perfect environment for noble rot to develop.
The noble rot fungus punctures microscopic holes through the grape skins, and the resulting evaporation of water content shrivels the berries to raisins.
Puttonyos and the Tokaji sweetness scale
The traditional measurement of sweetness for Tokaji was based on the number of buckets, called puttony in Hungarian, of Aszú berries added to each 136L gönci barrel (a typical Hungarian barrel) . However, today the classification is based on residual sugar.
In 2013, Tokaj regulations changed significantly, removing the ‘three’ and ‘four’ Puttonyos categories.
Today, all Aszú must be the equivalent of at least five Puttonyos, measured as 120g/L of residual sugar, whilst six Puttonyos must reach at least 150g/L. In practice, producers choose to label their wine according to the style it most represents, as long as it also meets the legal minimum.
This may sound very sweet, but Aszú wines are incredibly well-balanced with vibrant acidity. This is due to a combination of the region’s complex volcanic soils, cool nights which help to retain acidity, and the unique native grape varieties.
Furmint is Tokaj’s most planted grape variety, susceptible to noble rot but always with its hallmark vivid acidity. When making Tokaji it is typically supported by Hárslevelű and Muscat to add fruitiness and fragrance.
These wines are a true labour of love, and are also some of the world’s greatest sweet wines.
Matching Tokaji Aszú with food
Five Puttonyos Tokaji is mostly about the interplay between sweetness and refreshing crispness, which means they are well-matched to pâté and light cheeses. Fruit-based desserts like apple crumble, poached pears or fruit tart go well with this style too.
Six Puttonyos Tokaji is more about gorgeously luscious sweetness, although acidity still comes into play so that the best wines are never cloying. Try matching these wines with full-flavoured blue cheeses or varying types of paté.
More ambitious chefs might try Asian-spiced savoury dishes: Peking duck with plum sauce, caramelized pork, sticky sesame tofu, or Thai red curry with pumpkin.
What are the ageing requirements for Tokaji wines?
Recent rule changes have brought the minimum ageing period for Tokaji Aszú down to two years in total, with at least 18 months in barrel, though individual producers may choose to age for longer.
Of the other sweet styles of Tokaji, Szamorodni, which is made from whole bunches of grapes with varying proportions of Aszú berries. It must be aged for 12 months, with a minimum of six months of oak ageing. Late harvest Tokaji does not have any oak ageing requirements.
The incredibly rare Tokaji Essencia, made from the syrupy free-run juice that trickles from pressed Aszú berries, usually contains more than 450g/L of residual sugar and is fermented in glass demijohns. It is occasionally served by the spoonful, and legend has it that this exceptionally sweet wine can cure many illnesses.