Traditional Hungarian winemakers need gray mold, or botrytis, to make sweet wines known as Tokaji Aszú. This essential fungus grows in moist river valleys and thrives on necrotrophy, meaning it kills the cells of its living host and eats the dead matter. Farmers call botrytis “noble rot,” because it turns grapes into concentrated, juicy, raisin-like entities. But it’s not the shriveled, moldy fruit that connoisseurs admire; it’s the wine they produce.
In the case of the Hungary, Tokaji Aszú wines boast a wide range of alluring flavors, including stone fruit, cinnamon, honey, ginger, and saffron. And in this category of already highly-coveted elixirs, one form stands above the rest: Tokaji Eszencia. To make this luxuriously sweet wine, producers place their best grapes in a cask, allow them to ferment for several years with no additional pressure (thereby limiting the mingling of pure juice with stems or skins), and collect the resulting liquid. An amber, syrup-like mixture, Eszcenia will contain around 2 to 5 percent alcohol. Why such a low figure? It’s so incredibly sweet that the yeasts can barely make a dent.
Eszencia is likened to liquid caramel, with hints of flowers, honey, prunes, quince, black tea, and molasses. Drinkers enjoy the thick syrup in tablespoons, a maneuver that only seems conservative when forgetting that Eszencia is four times sweeter than Coke.