We recently did our staff food and wine pairings for the summer menu at Chef Mavro. One wine, the Grof Degenfeld Muscat Lunel from Tokaj, Hungary, was a runaway favorite with a new Kona Kea Shrimp recipe, garam masala and hearts of palm-green apple remoulade. The just-off-dry Muscat Lunel is a light straw color, with lemon and orange flavors and floral notes. It has crisp acidity and is very refreshing.
Tokaj-Hegyalja is the most famous of the Hungarian wine regions, with the oldest wine classification system in the world dating back to 1772. It is famous for its rich, sweet dessert wines named Tokaji Aszu. (Wines from the village of Tokaj have the letter "i" at the end of their name – Tokaji – to show they are from the village.) They have such a storied history that they were referred to as "the king of wines and the wine of kings" by France’s King Louis XIV, and they get a mention in the Hungarian national anthem.
The region is broken into seven subregions: Mad, Satoraljaujhely, Tarcal, Tolcsva, Sarospatak, Tallya and Tokaj. Six grape varieties are grown there: Furmint, Harslevelu, yellow Muscat (known in Hungary as Sargamuskotaly), Zeta (Oremus), Koeversz and Kabar, with the first three being the most important. Furmint, the most widely planted grape in Tokaj, produces full-bodied, bone-dry whites and provides the body for the Aszu wines. Harslevelu accounts for about 30 percent of the vines in the region and provides aromatics and spice in the blend of Aszu wines.
The wines from Tokaj range in style from bone-dry and fruity to sweet and syrupy, with the famous Aszu wines falling in a wide range in the middle of the spectrum. The dry wines are labeled with the grape variety on the label, which will sometimes even say "dry" or "off dry." Aszu wines are made from grapes that have been affected by botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. The botrytis is a fungus that removes the water from the grapes and ends up concentrating the remaining flavors, sugars and minerals. The dried grapes are picked by hand and trampled in huge vats, making an Aszu paste. The paste is added to fresh grape juice and left to sit for 24 to 48 hours. The wine is then put into wooden goenc, or casks, and left to a slow fermentation.
The wine was originally rated by the number of puttonyos, the capacity of traditional wooden carrying vessels, of Aszu paste added to the cask of base wine. In modern times, the puttonyos number expresses the amount of residual sugar in the wine, with ratings of increased sweetness from three puttonyos to six puttonyos.
Above six puttonyos you reach Eszencia. This is the free-run grape juice from Aszu grapes in the vats as they are collected during the harvest. It’s one of the most exclusive wines in the world with an enormous concentration of sugar. Eszencia is generally added to Aszu wines but is sometimes allowed to ferment on its own, which takes years with the high sugar levels.
A few producers to look out for are the aforementioned Grof Degenfeld, the Royal Tokaji Wine Co., Disznok, Oremus and Kiralyudvar. Seek out a dry, single varietal wine as a nice aperitif, afternoon sipper, or to pair with food, and the sweeter Aszu wines with desserts, blue cheeses, or foie gras.
Todd Ashline is the sommelier/restaurant director at Chef Mavro. Contact him at 944-4714 or visit www.chefmavro.com.