Tokaji (pronounced tok-eye) is a region of Hungary famous for producing sweet desert wines, labelled ‘Aszú’; Hungarian for ‘dried’. The grapes used to make the wine aren’t dried as such, but they are allowed to raisin on the vine. The raisining process takes advantage of the beneficial side effect of the naturally occurring Botrytis fungus, which punctures grape skins, in turn allowing most of the water to evaporate from the fruit, leaving, you guessed it, a raisin!
These raisins are harvested by hand before being trampled into a paste known as ‘dough’. Must (unfermented grape juice) is poured over the dough, and left to steep for around two days before being transferred to casks or vats, where it’s left to ferment very slowly, usually for several years.
The sweetness of the finished wine is defined by the number of ‘puttony’ of dough used. Labels range from 3 to 6 ‘Puttonyos’, and there's a very high ‘Eszencia’ category (rare and very expensive) for wines with higher sweetness than 6 Puttonyos.
As well as the famous sweet wines the Tokaji region produces highly complex, age-worthy dry white wines. The soil type in the region is predominantly volcanic, and this imparts an interesting mineral character in these fine whites.
In recent years wine makers have started to produce wines in a reductive style (limited exposure to Oxygen during fermentation) which preserves the purity of fruit in the finished wine. Often labelled ‘Late Harvest’ these wines are also sweet.