Caroline Gilby MW says there are lots of reasons for independent merchants to get behind a Hungarian classic. Published in association with Wines of Hungary
With International Aszú Day fast approaching on December 10, now is a great time to highlight the amazing sweet wines from Tokaj.
There are many wines and grapes with their own “day”, but few can claim more than 450 years of history (since the first written mention of Aszú) and there’s good reason why these wines are still hugely admired.
This December, Wines of Hungary UK would love to persuade independent wine merchants and their customers to explore further. Aszú and sweet Szamorodni are perhaps the obvious choices as touch of luxury for festive season sweets, but there’s so much more to these incredibly versatile wines that can also match beautifully with savoury dishes thanks to their elegant balance, drinkability and living acidity.
As customers arrive in wine shops looking for advice on festive food matches, there’s an opportunity to encourage them to look beyond the obvious dry white, red, Sauternes and port.
Tokaj sweet wines are truly some of the world’s greatest and offer amazing value for their quality compared to other big-name sweet wine regions, offering exciting wines at a fair price for their quality to customers. Typical retail prices start from around £25 for a 50cl bottle of Aszú (Szamorodni is usually a little less): not cheap, but still a lot of wine at the price point. And in case customers are concerned about finishing a bottle in one go, it is reassuring to know that the wine can keep beautifully for weeks after opening.
What makes the sweet wines of Tokaj so amazing? Of all the wine regions in the world, only Tokaji and Sauternes produce sweet wines as their main focus. And arguably Tokaji is the greatest of all for its incredible balance of luscious, velvety sweetness balanced by vibrant acidity, so even though the wines are undoubtedly rich, they are never cloying.
This is the result of the coming-together of several factors. First is the cool, continental climate in Hungary’s far north eastern corner, with sunny afternoons and steep volcanic slopes, constantly washed by mountain breezes.
Second is the nearby confluence of two rivers that create foggy mornings, perfect for the noble rot fungus to work its magic.
The third factor is grapes. Furmint is the most important, and usefully prone to noble rot while always retaining crisp acidity. It may appear alone or in blends with Hárslevelű and Yellow Muscat.
The most important Aszú styles are 5 Puttonyos, which is all about the interplay of sweetness and crisp acidity, or richer 6 Puttonyos with its silky sweet, but still vibrant style.
Aszú wines today are produced from individually hand-picked, nobly-rotted and shrivelled berries (Aszú in Hungarian). These are then soaked in fermenting juice or young wine for a few hours to a couple of days.
Next comes a minimum of 18 months in barrel, adding layers of depth and complexity to these golden elixirs, though unlike the old days, this is carefully controlled to avoid excessive oxidation and browning.
Szamorodni is another important historic style of Tokaj sweet wine. It has a new, modern face with shorter oak ageing and more fruit-forward elegance (made from whole bunches of less shrivelled berries or a mixture of noble rot and healthy fruit).
Wines of Hungary UK is running a campaign to put sweet Tokaji into more glasses this season and as part of that asked 10 top UK restaurants and sommeliers to match Tokaji Aszú or Szamorodni with main courses and savoury dishes.
Some of these ideas might inspire customers to add sweet Tokaji wines to their Christmas dinner, as they are working well for the restaurants who joined the challenge and added sweet Tokaji to their menus.
Some of the pairings included richly savoury dishes like smoked duck, lamb tartar, duck liver mousse, slow-cooked pork belly or sweetbreads plus vegetarian options based on gourds as well as cheese dishes (blue cheese and Tokaji is a made-in-heaven combination) and Asian-spiced fish or lobster.
All these work amazingly well with Tokaji’s special sweet-acid balance. Desserts shouldn’t be forgotten too – like torched pineapple, cheesecake or apricot crumble. Thinking ahead to the festive season, roast goose, turkey with its sweet and savoury trimmings, or sweet treats like Christmas pudding, mince pies, Christmas cake or hazelnut log are all great matches.
Very few of these wines can be found in supermarkets, so this this is a real opportunity for indie merchants to suggest something a little bit different that also offers a great consumer experience.
Customers might also be interested in news of Wines of Hungary’s consumer campaign – a trip to Tokaj is on offer for the most inspiring sweet Tokaji and creative food combination. To be in with a chance of winning, all consumers have to do is design and cook a dish with a sweet Tokaji wine, then take a picture and share it on social media with the hashtag #dinewithaszu.
Merchants interested in joining this programme can contact their regular supplier. Many distributors have sweet Tokaj wines, though these are sometimes well-hidden on their lists. We’d love you to join us in celebrating these amazing wines, as we need merchants who are talking directly to their customers to be ambassadors. You can also contact Wines of Hungary (email@example.com) for details of distributors who hold sweet Tokaji stocks in the UK.
With the festive season looming, now is the time to offer customers a taste of some of the best sweet wines in the world, to celebrate International Aszú day and to elevate their festive experience with a special but affordable luxury. Egészségedre!