Crowned the Wine of Kings and King of Wines by Louis XIV, Tokaji Aszú has been enjoyed by French kings, German emperors and Russian czars through the centuries.
Along with the flagship Aszú, the famous wines of Tokaj also include Szamorodni and the rare Eszencia. The grape varieties responsible for this fare include the yellow Furmint, the Debröi Hárslevelü (Lime-leaf) and the yellow Muscatel.
The sweet essence of Tokaji dessert wines is a product of late-picked grapes that have been left on the vine to make an incredible transformation. A normally undesirable windborne fungus - Botrytis cinerea to be specific - takes hold on the grapes, feeding on their organic acids, but leaving their sugar untouched. This is known as "noble rot." The grapes subsequently shrivel as they lose water. It is during this process that a most unique flavour is developed, and Aszú comes into being.
Aszú (pronounced UH-soo) is the name given to these late grapes, which are collected in tubs called puttonyos. This is mentioned because the puttony is used as a measure of sweetness of the wine, referring literally to the number of tubs of Aszú added to the must before fermentation. This gives us the grades that are marked clearly on every bottle of Aszú, from 3 to 6 puttonyos (sometimes abbreviated to putts). The body and richness rise with the number, as does the price.
The circumstances that lead to a perfect batch of Aszú are in themselves rather extraordinary. Factors such as the vine's flowering time finishing early enough in June, ample rainfall in July and August to negate the scorching effects of the sun, and dry weather from mid-August to October to prevent a high moisture content, are all important requirements on which production depends. Furthermore, the rain must return in late October in order to soften the grapes' skins, and this should be followed by a cool dry period in which the grapes will begin to dry and wither. Fortunately, the Hungarian weather is very accommodating.
In fact, those who have sought to transplant to other areas the vine varieties form which we get Tokaji have inevitably met with failure - the genuine king of wines can be obtained only from the hills of Hegyalja, in the region of Tokaj.