Many dessert wines pair nicely with baked apple desserts in the fall. But for a luscious treat for a special occasion, try decadent Tokay.
Tokay is one of the rarest wines in the world, because its sweetness is created in the vineyard. A beneficial mold called botrytis cinera, or noble rot, affects some of the grapes. This only works with just the right grape varieties and just the right weather conditions.
The filaments in the mold punch tiny holes in the skin of the grape, allowing the water to evaporate and concentrating the sugars. These grapes are painstakingly collected and pressed into a paste that is used to sweeten wine made from grapes unaffected by botrytis.
The amount of sweetness added to the base wine determines how sweet the finished wine will be. It is described on the label in puttonyos, taken from puttony – the traditional basket used to gather the grapes. Wines are available from 3 to 6 puttonyos, increasing from very sweet to over-the-top decadent.
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For all its sweetness, Tokay is a beautifully balanced wine. The high natural acidity in the grapes provides a solid structure for the sweetness, so the wine doesn't taste candied or cloying. Tokay has pretty aromas and flavors of honey, dried apricots, orange jam, quince and golden raisin when young, developing more complex aromas like almond paste, walnuts and chocolate as it ages.
Its sweetness is a classic pairing with cheeses like Stilton or Roquefort, where the salty earthiness of the cheese and the sweetness of the wine create a unique combination. It is also lovely with desserts made with apples and pears.
Tokay is made in tiny quantities in Hungary. Tokay is the English spelling of Tokaji, meaning wine from the place Tokaj.
The wine is the national pride of Hungary, sung about in the national anthem, and has been called a wine of sugar and fire, the color and price of gold. From the 17th to the 20th century, the honeyed wine was prized throughout Europe. The wines were so precious (with reported aphrodisiacal properties) that Peter the Great sent soldiers to escort deliveries to his court.
The golden era ended in the early 20th century. Vine diseases, two world wars and communism caused the wines' quality, and popularity, to decline. But since Hungary became a democratic republic in 1989, the outlook has been improving. Many foreign investors, including wine makers from other European countries, have reached out and reinvested money and expertise.
As you might expect, the wine is a treat, and prices reflect it. It is commonly found in .375ml (half size) bottles. Prices typically start around $30 for a 3-puttonyos wine, and increase with the sweetness.
But a little goes a long way – just a few ounces are all you need to sip slowly and savor. One bottle will easily serve as a dessert wine for six or eight people, and leftovers keep well.
And, what the heck. I always end up serving it with an apple dessert AND Stilton… just to be sure I didn't miss anything.