Hungary has many delicious wines, but none as great Tokaji aszú. From its pedigreed history and deep traditions, to the sheer amount of labor that goes into harvesting the grapes (one by one, by hand) and then producing the wine, it is not only Hungary’s great wine, but one of the world’s most iconic wines. The rich golden colored wine is an absolutely luscious wealth of flavors and texture.
This year I got to experience the aszú harvest for myself. Along with a group from Egytőről—the initiative bringing several wine bars and producers together to create their own wine to be enjoyed solely at the participating venues—we helped winemaker László Szilágyi, owner of Gizella Pince, harvest some of his aszú berries.
In Tokaj the grapes are harvested several times, to make wines of varying levels of sweetness. If the noble rot has developed there will be an aszú harvest in which the berries are selected by hand, one by one, by experienced pickers in a process that’s repeated several times.
Aszú is the Hungarian word for when the grapes are attacked by the botrytis fungus and become dark, dried, shriveled berries. This fungus pierces the skin of the grapes, allowing the water from the berries to evaporate. This concentrates the sugar, the acids, and the flavor.
This can be good only if it appears when the berries are already ripe and if the weather is right, which means some rain, misty mornings, and sunny autumn afternoons are needed.
This vintage, 2018, is a difficult year for aszú producers. There was too much sun and dryness, and not enough humidity. The grapes developed a thicker skin because of the sun, so the botrytis fungus had to work harder to pierce the skin of the grapes, or even appear.
Laszló explained the aszú harvest to us like this: “the really shriveled berries have to be pinched out of the cluster, one by one. You have to be very gentle not to damage the other berries or the rest of the cluster because pickers will be again going through the vineyard in a few days (or weeks) searching for more aszú berries from the same clusters.”
It is said that a good picker can gather some 10 kilos of aszú berries in a day. That makes about half of a wooden “puttony” bucket. You need between 5 or 6 puttonys to make a barrel of aszú (which is 136 liters, or about 250 bottles).
Experiencing an aszú harvest has been on my bucket list for awhile. I put my heart and soul into the aszú berry picking for several reasons. For one, I wanted to experience for myself the amount of work that is needed to produce this wine. But before I get too emotional, let’s talk about how the experience was!
Aszú picking is better, harder, more tiring, stickier, more humbling, and more incredible that I thought it would be. When you realize the amount of work, planning, luck, and money loss that deciding to produce this wine style carries, you can understand why this is undoubtedly (in my mind, at least) the best sweet wine in the world!
I can’t imagine another place in this modern world where this ridiculous amount of work is done to produce a beverage. As you are picking the berries, I learned, before you pinch out the berry, you have to check whether it is dry enough to be considered for use in an aszú. This means that you have to gently squeeze each berry while it is still on the cluster, and if some juice drips from it, then it isn’t ready yet.
Some of those still-juicy berries will inevitably still get mixed into the harvested batch. So there will be another berry selection at the winery to ensure that each and every grape that goes into the wine is perfectly dried and shriveled enough to go into the aszú.
In two-and-a-half hours of picking, I gathered about two or three handfuls of aszú berries … just enough to make about a glass of Tokaji aszú!
I went away from the vineyard feeling humbled and fortunate.
Humbled because this extraordinary wine doesn’t just depend on us humans. It depends on the weather and on mother nature. Let’s put it this way: you may be the best winemaker of the region with the best equipment, but if you don’t have botrytis in your vineyards, you simply can’t make the wine.
It’s also just a happy reminder of the nature of life: just do your best and wait for the rest to happen.
And I felt fortunate because almost every day working at The Tasting Table I get to taste (and drink) this outstanding and unique beverage. And I get to introduce it to those who have not yet experienced it. Luxury lifestyle, right?
(The above video was made by the Confrérie de Tokaj)
Want to taste Tokaji aszú? Visit The Tasting Table Budapest. Order from our menu, or book one of our daily tastings: Wine, Cheese, & Charcuterie Tasting and Essentials of Hungarian Wine Tasting). We also have a collection of old and rare aszú served by Coravin.