Drunk and Hungary: The Pleasures of Tokaj

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:03

    Afraid of dessert wine? Oblivious to dessert wine? Harbor no opinions whatsoever about dessert wine, and believe that anything with the word "dessert" in it should, in fact, be not wine, but Jell-O chocolate pudding? You're not alone. In a country rapidly accustoming itself to a level of everyday wine consumption that would have astonished our grandparents, postprandials of the sweetish sort are a final oenological frontier. This is a shame, because dessert wines are a wonderful way to both finish off a good meal and avoid the calorie-bomb issues associated with many heavy restaurant desserts.

    When I talk about dessert wines, I usually exclude such things as digestifs, brandies (Cognac, for example), sherries, cordials, liqueurs, booze (bourbon, scotch) and port. Examples of dessert wines would include late-harvest rieslings, zinfandels and viogniers?varietal grapes that are vinified as semisweet, sweet or dry table wines, both red and white?as well as the great Sauternes of Bordeaux, of which Chateau d'Yquem is the most famous, Moscato, Banyuls, Trokenbeerenauslese (a rare, rich and widely coveted style of German sweet wine produced from what is called the "noble rot," a natural process that concentrates a grape's sugar), along with a wide variety of others.

    There are basically four ways to obtain a sweet wine that don't involve the addition of sugar, a process known as "chapitalization." You can harvest the grapes late in the season (hence the term "late harvest"); you can wait for the appearance of the noble rot, a beneficial fungus known as botrytis; you can allow the grapes to freeze, resulting in eiswein in Germany, or "ice wine" in the New World; or you can permit the grapes to dry, or raisin, which intensifies sugar concentration.

    But there is also a unique, fifth way of obtaining a sweet dessert wine, and right now it's my favorite. The wine that results from this technique is known as "Tokaj," and it hails from Hungary, where, believe it or not, there is a great and ancient wine culture that more or less went into hibernation during the Soviet era and the Cold War. In America, Tokaj is probably the most famous Hungarian wine, although I don't believe it is very widely consumed. Still, it retains its adherents and can be found at most quality wine shops (Crossroads, Sherry-Lehmann). For those who really get into it, Tokaj can become an obsession.

    Up front, you should understand that there are three ways of referring to Tokaj. First and foremost, as "Tokaj," which is the real deal, the venerable old wine long produced in the town that bears its name, located in the far north of Hungary. You'll sometimes also encounter Tokaj spelled as "Tokay," but this can get confusing, because Tokay is an alternative term for pinot gris in the French region of Alsace. Australians also refer to muscadelle as "Tokay." So, for our purposes, we'll only be dealing with Tokaj, and with "Tokaji," the "i" being added to distinguish sweet wines produced in the region of Tokaj, as opposed to in Tokaj itself.

    This is where it gets complicated, because the production of Tokaj (and Tokaji) is based on a process similar to chapitalization, but it does not involve the addition of sugar to a wine. Instead, grapes used to make a base wine are harvested late, to ensure that there's plenty of alcohol, which then allows the wine to be predictably sweetened later. It's this sweetening process that lends Tokaj its distinctiveness. What happens is that grapes that have either been harvested late or that have exhibited the noble rot?but that have not been fermented independently to serve as the base wine?are classified as "Aszu" and then set aside to dry, further concentrating their already high sugar levels. When the time comes, Aszu is crushed into a paste, and then added to the base wine. Aszu paste is parsed into "puttonyos," and of all the weird little terms associated with Tokaj, this is the most important, from both a price and bottle-labeling standpoint. If you go to a wine shop in search of Tokaj, you will be confronted with smallish, long-necked bottles filled with a honey-amber liquid, each labeled according to Aszu content. This is expressed as the number of puttonyos used in making the wine: three, four, five or six puttonyos, with six being the sweetest, and the priciest.

    (These are the basics of Tokaj. If you want more, I suggest checking out the Oxford Companion to Wine, where you'll find an entry on the subject that covers all the bases of Tokaj production, as well as the history of the greatest of Hungarian wines.)

    So, how does Tokaj taste? And more importantly, how does it smell? A five- or six-puttonyo Tokaj is effusively floral at the same time that it suggests darker, lustier undercurrents. The bouquet thus cuts in two seemingly contradictory directions, but is nonetheless wonderfully integrated in the end. Ironically, for a wine produced in a country that for decades languished under Marxist banality and Soviet repression, Tokaj is the viticultural embodiment of dialectical materialism. A glass of the stuff brims with springtime, but also implies cozy shades of winter. It's a dessert wine that I could easily imagine drinking year-round, or even as an aperitif.

    On the palate, Tokaj continues the theme of happily reconciled contradictions. It is lush and mouth-filling, thick and dense with substance and texture, but the flavors are light, citrusy, shimmering. There is sometimes a hint of bitter orange peel, a subtext of nutmeg, even a sort of graininess that I personally associate with the idea of mashed-up Aszu being integrated with the base wine. I like the idea that Aszu represents an essential, lusty core, while the base wine acts as bright medium, and that the two are joined in a delicate confectionery waltz.

    It is a wine both feminine and masculine, faint and hardy. It's autumn in a bottle, which makes it perfect to sample now. And you can do so at plenty of restaurants, though I recommend Veritas and Savoy, both of which usually keep five- and six-puttonyo Tokaj on hand.