Aszú itself is none other than a base wine, to which individually hand-picked aszú berries are added, either during or after fermentation. Thus, the wine ferments twice, endowing it with unprecedented richness and variety of flavours. The aszú berries, which are picked by women over several weeks (one person can collect 12-18 kg of aszú berries a day) are stored in vats with a hole in the bottom until the end of the harvest. The extremely sugar-rich juice is squeezed out of the berries by their increasing weight, and this, the esszencia or essence, drips out through the hole. Most of this esszencia is returned to the already fermenting Aszú wines. It is rarely bottled on its own, and if so, in minute quantities.
Not all wine regions have the right characteristics to produce wines like Aszú. It requires a unique climate, in particular the presence of a large natural body of water. Tokaj itself is located at the confluence of the Bodrog and the Tisza, thus guaranteeing the humid autumn air needed to make such wines. And what is needed for good Aszú wine? A fungus called Botrytis cinerea, more commonly known as grey rot, is what creates this special ingredient. Perfectly ripe, healthy grapes are also a prerequisite for this noble rot to spread through the clusters.
Tokaji Aszú is not simply a dessert wine. Although it’s certainly true that it goes well with most desserts, it can also pair well with roast meat thanks to its wonderful structure. This typically includes goose and duck liver; however, meat from large game animals can also accompany a beautiful Aszú wine. Chestnuts, figs, cottage cheese and citrus fruit can all harmonise with it, while many people also say it pairs well with sweet, aromatic cigars.
The Tokaj wine region itself is a volcanic area formed about 15 million years ago, which gives special characteristics to the wines. Although Aszú is a sweet wine, this is not what makes it special. The truly diverse soils of the wine region offer unique opportunities for the vines, and that is what makes this wine stand out, even as an accompaniment to food. The trinity of the acidity forming the backbone of the wine, the alcohol and the sweetness are all in perfect balance. Tokaj sweet wines, especially Aszú, are therefore vibrant, lively and characterised by fruity and floral notes. When drinking Aszú, you can tell you have a sweet wine in your glass, but good Aszú is never recognisable by its sugar content, rather it is the incredibly complex, rich, unique structure of the terroir, even by global standards, that provides the backdrop for Aszú’s almost incomprehensible complexity. The uniqueness of the soil, the climate and the two main Tokaj grape varieties, Furmint and Hárslevelű, are what set Tokaji Aszú apart from the rest of the world of naturally sweet wines. The Aszú wine is fermented together with the aszú berries and then aged in oak barrels. The 136-litre size typically used in Tokaj is known as a Gönci barrel. Barrel ageing with its resultant delicate contact with the air also shape the character, aroma and, above all, structure of the wines. Mandatory time of oak maturation is 18 months. Like any other wine in the world, Aszú wines are founded on excellent acidity, which ensure that the wines never feel heavy, despite often having a residual sugar content of around 200 grams/litre. When you consider all this, it becomes clear that Tokaji Aszú is not simply one of the best sweet wines in the world, it is rather a perfect terroir wine which just happens to contain sugar.