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Holiday Sweets: Sweet Thanksgiving Wine

“The Thanksgiving table just isn’t complete without delicious, sweet wine. Few holidays cry out for sweet wine more than Thanksgiving. The turkey itself almost demands an off-dry white with crisp, balancing acidity. When you get to the classic trio of pies (apple, pecan, and pumpkin), only an intensely sweet wine will do—particularly if you subscribe to the theory that a dessert wine should always be sweeter than the dish it accompanies.

“Tokaji is the granddaddy of all sweet wines. It was around before Sauternes and also predates the modern form of Port. The Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region straddles northeastern Hungary and southeastern Slovakia.

“The vineyards were so well regarded that they were ranked on a quality scale nearly a century before the Bordeaux Classification of 1855. Although dry and semisweet varieties exist, the area is best known for sweet wines made from grapes affected by botrytis cinerea, or ‘noble rot.’ The sweetest among them, sometimes called Aszú Essencia, or simply Essencia, is the most famous of all.

“Royal Tokaji Wine Company vineyards in the Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region – sweet wine for Thanksgiving Royal Tokaji’s Mézes Mály vineyard yields a fruity wine with a sugary finish. Louis XV drank Essencia at the court of Versailles, where he called it ‘The Wine of Kings, and the King of Wines.’ Thomas Jefferson imported it to America, paying the highest price of any wine in his collection. It was extremely popular during the rule of Russia’s Romanov dynasty, and supposedly the finest Essencia was given to the czars on their deathbeds. (All their lives they had to skimp by drinking Cristal, but at the brink of death they were given a glass of Essencia.)

“Sadly, the great sweet wines of Tokaji didn’t survive the transition to modern times any better than the Austro-Hungarian Empire did, which is not surprising. Demand for sweet, expensive wine is the first thing to decline in periods of economic stress and one of the last to recover. After two World Wars and the Great Depression, production of Essencia was at a standstill. At its best, the process is slow and labor-intensive. The grapes must be picked individually at their peak of ripeness, then pounded into a paste and fermented in large wooden casks; the sugar level is so high that fermentation can take as long as five years to complete.

“The good news is that a number of modern producers have brought Essencia back into the spotlight. Probably the best known and most widely available of these is the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, founded in Hungary in 1990 by Hugh Johnson, the famed British wine writer and scholar. The bad news is the wine is far from cheap. A 500-ml bottle of Royal Tokaji Essencia will fetch anywhere from $600 to $800. Royal Tokaji Aszú Essencia is somewhat more reasonable at $300 to $400. Part of the wine’s price is due to its rarity: Only five vintages have been released since 1993, in years when weather conditions were perfect for the formation of botrytis.

“When consuming true Essencia, as opposed to similarly named wines produced elsewhere in the world, you’ll be rewarded with an elixir that is rich and unctuous. It is gloriously sweet and honeyed, with low alcohol and refreshing acidity, and bursting with flavors of citrus, apricots, and exotic tropical fruits. With something that good, who needs a trio of pies?”

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Mark Spivak, November 13, 2015
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Holiday Sweets: Sweet Thanksgiving Wine