From grapes desiccated by noble rot in the Tokaj wine region of Hungary burst forth a plethora of traditional and modern wine styles. Rarest among them is the world’s sweetest and most complex grape elixir, Eszencia: a honey-like nectar once reserved for royalty that’s been coveted for centuries. The long history of wine made from aszú fruit (originally meaning “dried grapes,” the term has evolved to include grapes with high sugar levels affected with noble rot, or Botrytis cinerea) in Hungary dates to the mid-16th century.
By the year 1737, a three-tier classification system of the Tokaji vineyards was in place—notably predating the sweet wine classification of Port by several decades and Sauternes by more than a century. Sweet and aszú Tokaji wine styles rely on clean fruit, botrysized bunches, or individual aszú berries. The latter are picked in multiple passes through the vineyard and then worked into to a paste or dough; varying amounts of this material are then macerated in fermenting must or wine.
The two main grape varieties allowed are Furmint and Hárslevelu” , but Sárgamuskotály (Muscat Blanc à Petite Grains), Zéta (Oremus), Kabar, and Kövérszo” lo” are also permitted and used in small amounts. Both sweet and aszú wines are aged in Hungarian oak casks or barrels that can vary in size; two of the most common, Gönci and Szerednyei barrels, hold roughly 136 and 220 liters, respectively.
Finished wine styles are determined using a combined measure of minimum residual sugar and dry extract, which refers to the dissolved solids in the wines that have been elevated due to concentration imparted by noble rot. Traditionally, the wines of Tokaj have been made with oxygen freely available during fermentation, which occurs over a period of many years in some aszú styles. This practice helps stabilize the wine without contributing oxidative flavors and defines these traditional skin-contact sweet styles.
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