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Tokaji Aszíº


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For nearly four centuries, Tokaji aszú (pron. "tow-kigh ah-zoo") was the preferred wine of kings, emperors and other potentates, some of whom sent entire armies into Hungary in order to secure their supply. Standardized as a sweet dessert wine made largely or entirely from botrytisized grapes, it is both one of the oldest styles (classification of Tokaji vineyards predates that of Bordeaux by a century) as well as one of the longest-lived wines, with recent reports of early 18th century vintages remaining drinkable even today. Under communism the supply of Tokaji to the west virtually stopped, but since the restructuring of Eastern Europe about 15 years ago, production has been modernized and old stockpiles have been bottled and are available again. Although the varietal is grown in other regions as "Tokay", as far as I can tell the vinification of Aszú wine is peculiar to its original territory.

Two weekends ago, in conjunction with my annual potato-themed party, some friends and I cracked open our small collected assortment of Tokaji bottles, acquired one-at-a-time from local wine stores over the past several years, and had an informal vertical tasting. None of us are more than beginners when it comes to wine, as far as describing the experience.

We had at our disposal a case of INAO glasses and one bottle of each of the following (pictured left-to-right):

  • 1981 Oremus 6 puttonyos
  • 1988 Chateau Megyer 5 putts
  • 1990 Chateau deGeday 5 putts
  • 1992 Disznókö 5 putts
  • 1993 Disznókö 6 putts
  • 1993 Disznókö 5 putts
  • 1996 Chateau deGeday 5 putts
  • 1999 Chateau deGeday 5 putts

tokajivertvt8.jpg

All were purchased between 1999 and 2005 at local wine shops for $27 to $50 per 500ml bottle. I never saw any bottles of the top-rank Eszencia grade (made exclusively from the free-run juice of unpressed botrytisized grapes). The Hungarian neck labels indicated bottling dates between 1997 and 2000, and the fine print indicates that all were bottled at Disznoko, which is part of the AXA Insurance portfolio.

Prior to 1990 or thereabouts, the communist authorities routinely declassified all Tokaji by tanking them together before bottling. However, foreign investors began buying producers around 1992 and overhauling production methods, including a shift away from the prior woody/heavily-oxidized style. It is unclear whether the communist-era style or the new lighter style reflects the authentic pre-20th century style.

The high residual sugar levels proved taxing to many at my party (possibly the free-flowing tater tots had already done them in), so we eventually left the 1990 and 1992 bottles untouched. Curious to see what more refined palates would think, two days later I did a followup tasting at Vidalia with jparrott, joined at intervals by GM Mike and Chef RJ.

The 1996 and 1999 wines were dramatically different from the older bottlings; both had a golden straw color and a less complex but heavy sweetness, resembling a concentrated middle-of-the-road icewine. These were considered to be far more accessible by my novice group. I found the '99 to be rather simple, but Jake pronounced the '96 to be "freakshow" for its additional nuances.

Going backwards in time, the older wines varied from dark amber to deep garnet in color, with a woodier, heavily oxidized character and a syrupy body. "Balance" is a relative concept with this wine. 1993 was reportedly an excellent vintage, and luckily we had two on hand. Nearly all of the tasters preferred the 5 puttonyo version to the 6. The latter was judged to have begun to turn, so RJ arranged for it to meet decisively with an active vinegar mother and a warm spot in his kitchen.

The two 1980s wines had waited a long time to be bottled, and were remarkably complex despite the absurd sugar levels. The 1988 had also begun to turn slightly, but was mostly propped up by heavy doses of raisins and black fruit on the tongue. The 1981 was another story however, with no obvious problems...just an insane, syrupy symphony of honeyed fruit. I can't repeat the exact phrase used to describe it in polite company, but the metaphor that was referenced is still technically illegal in 17 states.

You probably need to be a sugar fiend like me to enjoy Tokaji Aszú, but it's a style that deserves more interest, especially compared to the number of insipid eiswein-wannabes out there in the same price bracket.

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I recently made a new dessert wine discovery at the Chevy Chase Holiday Wine Tasting - TOKAJI. Maybe a whole lot of you know about it but I had never encountered it before and man, am I hooked. This stuff is like liquid sunshine on an Indian Summer evening.

I picked up three bottles of the Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos and have already blasted through 2 of them, so today I headed to Schneider's in DC to pick up one more, and while I was there REALLY splurged and got one of the little 100ml bottles of the Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia. A bargain at $.64/ml. :(

If anyone has any other recommendations in this area I would love to hear about them.

Cheers,

durwoodx

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I had the 1999 Chateau Pajzos Tokaji 5 Puttonyos with cheese and membrillo as the end of Thanksgiving dinner this year, and thought it was lovely. I'd never tasted Tokaji before in my life, and plan to taste it again. It's regrettably expensive. I picked up this 50cl bottle at Wide World of Wines for $52.99 (or it might have been xx.95); the 6 puttonyos version of the same wine and vintage was about $30 more. Is anyone familiar with the novella "My Talks with Dean Spanley" by Lord Dunsany, or the film based on it that came out last year (called just "Dean Spanley" and not released in the US, but available for "instant viewing" from Netflix) with Peter O'Toole among others? Both really worth looking into. The story is utterly charming, and the film is a very nice adaptation of it, and if you love dogs and/or are interested in Tokaji, either one will entertain you (especially if you love dogs (and imagine not loving dogs)).

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I've had Takaji a couple fo times and experienced two very distinctive styles. In shorthand: one very Sauternes-like -- sweet, honey, pear etc -- and one much more Sherry-like. I hesitate to buy the stuff now because I don't much care for the sherry-style so I'm wondering if there's a pattern here. Are they actually different styles that can be predicted by producer, region, age, puttonyos or whatever? Or have I just run into random bottle variates, perhaps because of storage problems?

I get the same thing with Vin Santo sometimes, too, though it seems to be more a medium between the two styles.

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