Sweet Tokaj!

We could see each other more often…

We could start our imaginary letter to aszú or sweet szamorodni this way… Because they are like that famous but distant relative we often talk about but only see at occasional family gatherings. Even then, it’s only at the end of dinner, for the dessert – or not even then. But what makes aszú special? Where is its place among sweet wines and in gastronomy? And why don’t we taste it more often? To find out, we asked two Tokaj experts: Tamás Kovacsik, owner of the Aszú restaurant, and our colleague, Kristóf Alkony, who has just finished the WSET Diploma wine course, and is also linked to Tokaj by his dad, who is the founder of the Kaláka winery. 

“The jaws of everyone who tasted it dropped in amazement”

“It’s a big plus for Tokaj and aszú – that it has an extremely harmonious acid structure despite its high sugar content. I don’t think there are any similar kinds of sweet wine that reach this level of complexity and density,” says Kristóf Alkonyi. Although there were only one and a half pages dedicated to Hungary in our textbook, and we only dealt with sweet wines for one afternoon, we talked about Tokaj and we also tasted aszú because it often comes up in the exam. The jaws of everyone that tasted it dropped in amazement, which was great to see.”

Tamás Kovacsik also thinks that the greatest virtues of aszú are its complexity and excellent acid structure, and for this reason it’s not heavy or too sweet despite the high sugar content. Modern gastronomy endeavours to minimalise sugar and this doesn’t do aszú any favours, even though the sugar is present in a completely different form here. It’s also relatively unknown that its physiological effects are markedly favourable, even when drunk as an aperitif or a digestive.

“Our guests from Asia are seriously interested in aszú. This is partly because Tokaj wines pair well with the hot, spicy, sweet and sour cuisine extremely well. Asians aren’t averse to drinks that are high in sugar. To start with, I almost always show a late harvest wine to Western European guests, before turning to aszú. I often experience a bit of reluctance on the part of the male guests, but whoever tastes it is blown away. Because of the vibrant acidity, even the guests who are knowledgeable about wine think that the sugar content is a lot less than in fact it is – they often say 50-100 grams or less. That’s the uniqueness of Tokaj!”


“They are practically ageless”

“Aszú is one of the best wines for ageing in the world. The denser, creamier, less lean aszús, like the ones Zoltán Demeter and István Szepy make, hit top form 10-15 years after hitting the market and keep their best form for a long time,” says Kristóf.

“They are perfect at a young age but they are practically ageless,” confirms Tamás Kovacsik. “In our restaurant, the oldest aszú is from 1912 but among the wines we sell on a daily basis –the 1999 is in amazingly good condition for example, and it’s not even been touched by age. Aszú changes with time. Recently, I had the opportunity to taste several really old aszús – among them a 150-year-old – and while it might sound surprising, they absolutely had great characteristics. Because of its lengthy production method and the long ageing process, it has a high price, yet it’s a fraction of what it’s really worth. If it gets to find its rightful place in the world, we’ll probably only be able to get hold of it for many times its current price.”


“It doesn’t make me sad if someone chooses an aszú instead of dessert”

“It goes well with a lot of things. Besides the already mentioned Asian meals, for example, it’s great with goose and duck liver, cheese – especially with blue cheese, desserts with walnut, peaches, grapes, dried fruits, curd cheese, vanilla and caramel – even salty caramel – and also along with dishes with yellow beetroot, sweet potatoes and pumpkins. It can also substitute desserts. It doesn’t make me sad if someone chooses aszú instead of a dessert,” adds Tamás Kovacsik.
“I also like to drink it by itself, for example after a festive dinner, or to open a bottle late at night. It has status, it brings peace and calm… it possesses such an incredibly layered nose and palate that you can admire and talk about it for minutes or even hours, also while enjoying it.” 

How is sweet wine and aszú made?

Sweet wine is made in three different ways:         

• By halting or stopping fermentation. This can happen in several ways. For example, by the addition of neutral wine distillate (for fortified wines like port).

• Sweetening. Note that the addition of sugar is banned in the EU, but in certain countries the addition of grape juice or must is permitted.

• By concentrating the naturally occurring sugars in the grapes. This can be achieved by freezing (ice wine), drying and shrivelling. When botrytis (more precisely botrytis cinerea, i.e. noble rot) appears on the already ripe and shrivelled berries, such sweet wines like szamorodni, aszú or Bordeaux’s Sauternes can be made. The mesoclimate is special in Tokaj (the proximity of the rivers, the humidity in the air, the temperature and the sunshine) and thanks to the grape varieties, the appearance of botrytis can always be expected. The volcanic soil provides minerality and good acidity. The harvest is also special; the shrivelled berries are picked one by one, even though it’s an incredibly time-consuming process. Even internationally, aszú is regarded among the most outstanding wines but there are a lot of other good sweet wines in the world. Now, we also selected a few of those.