* Tokaj is place of tradition, but technology intrudes
* System to predict disease may help harness "noble rot"
* Memory of taste lingers forever, grapepicker says
By Krisztina Than
TOKAJ, Hungary, Oct 29 The Hungarian tradition
of plucking shrivelled grapes, sometimes one-by-one, to make
pricey, sweet white wine dates back centuries, but growers hope
new technology will help them harvest the fruit at its rotten
Tokaji Aszu wine, which retails in Britain for at least 20
pounds ($32) a bottle, is one of a handful of wines around the
world made with fruit affected by "noble rot", induced by the
"Botrytis" fungus that shrivels the grapes and concentrates
One of the big Tokaj estates already uses sensors to measure
humidity, precipitation and moisture on the vine leaves, data
that, along with weather forecasts, can help predict common
grape diseases, calculating the best time to spray the vines.
The same technology may soon be used to determine whether
the grapes could reach the right stage of "noble rot" that is
vital to making the Tokaji Aszu that was favoured by the French
"The Botrytis fungus is an infection as well, one which we
can turn to our advantage here thanks to the microclimatic
conditions," said Gergely Makai, winemaker at the Hetszolo
winery, owned by France's Michel Reybier vineyards.
The "SmartVineyard" system, developed in Hungary, allows
users to access the data on smartphones or laptops.
"We have not tried yet, but we'd like this equipment and
algorithm to help us predict sometime ahead how much chance
there is for aszu grapes, for the Botrytis infection first of
all, and then for it to induce a noble rot."
THE MARKS OF AGE
Although technology is slowly intruding, the Tokaj region in
the northeast of Hungary is a UNESCO World Heritage site and,
like the wine made there, is strongly attached to its
"Those who try the aszu (shrivelled grapes) once, will
always feel that taste in their mouth," says Ilona Takacs, who
will soon turn 70 and has worked in the vineyards for decades.
This year, when a hot summer was followed by a rainy period
and then by warm, sunny days, promises a good harvest. Aszu
grapes are picked by hand and, traditionally, pressed into the
consistency of aszu paste, then fermented with white wine and
aged in oak barrels for several years.
Legend has it that the first time Aszu was made was during
Hungary's Turkish occupation in the 17th century when the
harvest was delayed until the grapes had shrivelled, and the
infection set in.
While climatic conditions above the ground are critical,
they are equally important below the ground in the deep vaulted
cellars where bottles are kept, some for more than 100 years.
In the village of Tolcsva, government-owned cellars still
hold some 280,000 bottles, the oldest of which are from 1895.
The special climate of the cellar - a steady temperature of
10-11 degrees C (50-52 F) and over 90 percent humidity - has
helped preserve them.
Laszlo Gardosi, in charge of the museum wines, says the
oldest Tokaji Aszu he had tasted was from 1906.
"It was perhaps like an old man whose face bears the marks
of age but still carries the elusive beauty that defined him in
his youth," he said of the experience.
($1 = 0.6199 British pounds)
(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by
Michael Roddy and Robin Pomeroy)