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July 12, 2018

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Stinky durian and wine? It can be a noble match

Isacs is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital ( and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via

Let’s look at the pungent but delicious world of durian. The island of Borneo is generally accepted as the original geographic origin and center of diversity of the genus durio.

There are actually 30 species of durio in Southeast Asia although only nine are edible. The durian is a nutty sweet fruit and the outer portion is a thickly thorny husk with the meat inside covering a large seed. Asians consider this to be the king of tropical fruits because of its distinctive size, odor and husk, but the name comes from the Malay word duri, or thorn.

More neutrally scented and flavored fruits are relatively easy to pair with wines. Durian is altogether a different matter.

The magic of wine is that mere fermented grape juice can express itself with a wide spectrum of aromatic and flavor sensations including dozens of fruits.

There’s a scientific reason why. Wine gains aromas and flavors from three major areas: the winemaking process, the grapes themselves and the climate.

All three profoundly influence the complex aromatic and flavor sensations of wine. The biggest contributor to the aromas and flavors in a wine is the fermentation process.

When grapes ferment, yeast eats the sugar content of the grapes and turns it into alcohol. During this process, over 200 complex chemical compounds, or esters, are formed and it is these esters that bequeath such an amazing diversity of aromas and flavors.

Some of these esters have similar molecular forms to popular fruits like apples, pears, lemons and berries and therefore when we experience these esters in wine they deliciously resemble fruits. Sometimes one style of sweet wine even offers tertiary flavors of durian.

When matching durian alone or dishes featuring this stinky fruit, it’s a good idea to consider how over the centuries Europeans have learned to pair their stinky foods with wine.

A good reference point is stinky cheeses.

Whether you’re in England munching on Stilton, in France relishing Roquefort or in Italy savoring Gorgonzola, your preferred wine usually has a rather high level of sweetness.

The sweetness in the wine effectively offsets the pungent flavors and balances the palate. Ideally the sweet wines you enjoy with fermented tofu should also feature good acidity as this will cleanse your mouth.

This time-honored guideline of matching sweet yet fresh wines with stinky cheeses also works well with more pungent forms of fermented bean curd including the incomparably delicious stinky bean curd.

One of the world’s greatest sweet wines has all the requisite attributes to make fermented tofu even more appetizing.


Tokaji is a style of sweet wine from the Tokay wine region in northeastern Hungary. Although Sauternes is arguably the world’s most famous noble rot sweet wine, the winemakers of Tokay learned the secrets of making superb Botrytis Cinerea Tokaji sweet wines centuries before their contemporaries in Bordeaux.

An assortment of long-hidden bottles of Tokaji wines dating back to 1571 was recently discovered in Hungary. In 1730 the region became the world’s first classified appellation for making wine, predating the classification of Port by decades and over 120 years before Bordeaux was classified.

The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, famously stated that the sweet wines of Tokaj were “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” — the wine of kings and the king of wines. In Hungary they are even mentioned in the national anthem.

The principal grape in Tokaji wines is Furmint, a late-ripening variety that’s prone to noble rot. By law, Furmint must comprise at least 60 percent of Tokaji and may be blended with five other varieties.

In descending roles of importance, the authorized blending grapes are Harslevelu, Sarga Muskotaly, Koverszolo, Zeta and Kabar.

In late spring and summer, the Furmint grape develops thick skins and as they ripen the skins become thinner, allowing the sun to evaporate much of the water within and concentrating the sugars of the grape.

In the same conditions, other varieties often ripen to the point of bursting, but the Furmint uniquely develops a second skin that seals the inner juices from the progressive rot until it’s time for harvest.

The two most praised styles of Tokaji sweet wines are Aszu and Eszencia.

Aszu wines are rated according to residual sugar or sweetness from one to six puttonyos. In particular, the concentrated five and six puttonyos wines provide a sublime sweet drinking experience with seductive honeyed apricot, pineapple and lychee flavors with spicy ginger and nutmeg notes.

As with Sauternes, the acidity in Tokaji provides balance and prevents a palate-killing sweetness overload.

The Tokaji Eszencia wines are unique. Even sweeter than six puttonyos Aszu wines, these wines are harvested as late as December or even January and are made from the free run juice of the botrytised grapes.

These are among the world’s sweetest wines and are lower in alcohol than Aszu wines but they still have a healthy acidic backbone. Eszencia wines are replete with syrupy honey and candied fruit flavors. Tokaji producers to look for in Shanghai include Oremus, Andrassy, Chateau Megyer, Chateau Imperial, Hetszolo and Royal Tokaji.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties: Furmint must comprise 60 percent of the Tokaji blend with the local grapes Harslevelu, Sarga Muskotaly, Koverszolo, Zeta and Kabar also authorized.

Key term: Puttonyos is a term that refers to the level of sweetness in Tokaji wines.


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