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Culture & Religion

Champagne for Valentine’s Day? Amateur!

Editors’ Note: It’s too late to heed Mark Card’s advice (below) for Valentine’s 2012. But you’ve got a whole year to save up for two bottles of Tokaji Eszencia for Valentine’s 2013 . . .

Valentine’s day. You want special AND different. I have the answer.

Be prepared.

But you’re not ready – yet.  You have work to do.

Cancel the reservations.  Cook dinner at home.

Beg your florist to stop the arrangement. You’ll need all your money, but it’ll be worth it.

Forget the chocolate, It’s nice but blah blah blah.

Return the Champagne.  Sure, it’s romantic, indulgent and expensive, but it’s also tired.

Besides, you’re about to buy the wine that Champagne dreams it can be when it grows up:

Tokaji Eszencia.


Tokaji Eszencia is the stuff of legend.

Bram Stoker (you know, the creator of this romantic vampire craze?) himself sang high praises for Tokaji Eszencia.  Ludwig von Beethoven probably sipped on it as he wrote symphonies.  Goethe mentions it in Faust.  It fueled Voltaire’s philosophy.

I’ll summarize the history by stating just one observable fact:  this wine is so storied, it has its own Latin motto, given to it  by none other than Louis XIV, the Sun King himself.  Upon handing a glass of it to Madame de Pompadour,  he called it:  Vinum regnum, Rex vinorum, or the “wine of kings and the king of wines.”

The World’s Most Romantic Wine

As the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot illustrates, love triangles are the best romances. Tokaji Eszencia is no exception.  In this case, however, it’s a grape triangle: Muscat, Hárselevlü, and Furmint.  There are other grapes allowed, just as in romance, but these three are the main characters.  Muscat gives the wine fragrance and spicy notes, Hárselevlü yielding sweetness, tropical fruit, honey, ginger and orange peel, and Furmint balances with charged acidity. 

Like the best romances, Tokaji involves perfect timing.  The grapes must be infected with botrytis cinerea, a beneficial fungus that consumes the water in the grapes, leaving the sugar and acid in higher concentrations.  Just the right amount of moisture must fall on the grapes, very late in the ripening process.  If there’s not enough moisture, no botrytis at all and no Tokaji. Too much moisture means the grapes will rot on the vine, useless to the Tokaji winemakers.  Winemakers wait, patiently, for the ideal conditions.  Then, they ravage the vineyards.

As Princess Buttercup waited patiently for Westley, her farmboy, so too must we wait for Tokaji Eszencia.  The botrytis affected grapes are hand picked and then placed into columns, where the weight of the grapes alone crushes them.  This is the gentlest of pressings, resulting in a nectar called free-run juice.  This juice is then mixed with a dry white wine and loaded into wooden barrels for fermentation.  The juice is so high in sugar content that it may take years to develop even the slightest alcohol.  The Eszencia of antiquity were rumored to have fermented 100 years and still only have 6% alcohol!

And finally, love is immortal.  For all intents and purposes, so are some Tokajis!  Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate estimate the 2000 vintage Royal Tokaji Essencia will be drinkable from now until the year 3000!  And NO, that’s NOT a typographical error, though he does admit that he’s exaggerating – slightly (  If you bought more than one bottle of this stuff, your descendants could toast your memory with it  for 10 generations.

Buying it

True love is also hard to find, and you’ll find that’s the case with Tokaji Eszencia.  It’s not your ordinary wine, but true love is painfully hard to find, so you’re coming out ahead by just looking for a bottle of this

The original Tokaji Eszencia wines died along with Stalin, who legend has it, sent a special attachment of commandos to rescue them from the Nazis before the Red Army rolled through Hungary on its way to Berlin.  Some of these wines were 300-500 years old. They’re gone now, but winemakers in the Tokaji region are creating their own versions of it.  Here’s how you make sure you have the genuine Eszencia.

First, it comes from nowhere but Hungary. Not Australia or Italy.

Be sure you see the word Tokaji (not Tokay or Tocai) on the label. Toakji is the region where the wine is produced. The bottle must say “Eszencia” or “Essencia” for it to be the real article.  The word “Puttonyo” shouldn’t be on the label, either.  That’s a different level of quality – still good wines, but not Eszencia

Oh yeah, I forgot one of the elements romance –  great love stories also teach that love has costs – emotional, spiritual, physical and in this case, economic.

You can tell genuine Eszencia by the price.  It generally comes in a half liter (500ml) bottle or a half bottle (375 ml), and will cost you anywhere from $250-$500.

It’s still probably less than the dinner, flowers and chocolate and that tired old bottle of Salon Champagne you were planning on before you read this.  And your amour will never forget the experience.

Drinking it

As far as I’m concerned, there are only three proper ways to enjoy this wine.

If you have to pair it with something, a simple cheese that you love.  Doesn’t really matter what it is, as Tokaji Eszencia has both ethereal sweetness AND electrifying acidity, so you can pair it with triple-cream cheeses like Délice de Bourgogne, blue cheeses, like Dolce Latte Gorgonzola or gamy, pungent goat cheeses like Crottin de Chavignol.  But make sure you only serve one cheese.

Another acceptable way to drink this wine is alone.  Chilled, but not cold, and preferably in a glass specially designed for dessert wines.  The aromas are intense, complex and myriad, but you need a special glass to magnify, amplify and delineate them.  The Italians call this kind of wine vini di meditazione, or meditation wines, wines you sit and ponder, along with the origin of the Universe and the fundamental nature of Humanity.

The only other suitable way to drink Tokaji Eszencia is to pour it directly onto your loved one’s body part of choice.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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