One of the classic sweet wines of the world, Tokaji has been produced in Hungary since the 1600s (pronounced ‘Toe-kai’). The vineyards where the Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat de Lunel (aka Muskatoly) grapes central to this wine style are grown were the first to be classified in Europe in 1700.
Today Hungary is poised to be one of the world’s ‘new’ (to consumers) producers of some of the best wines around, but the irony is that grapes have been grown and wines have been made there since Roman times.
Tokaji was mentioned in records dating back to the 1400s and there was recognition of Tokaji Aszu and rules were written down about botrytis and hoeing of the vineyards in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Tokaji is so famous, it’s actually mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem.
Since 1989 when Hungary started opening up to the West, the country has undergone a complete renaissance in terms of wine. There’s been a great deal of interest in its wines as well from Western winemakers and companies – this one being a perfect case in point.
The Royal Tokaji Wine Company is 107 ha of vineyards often referred to as one of the country’s defining wineries for this particular style of wine. It’s owned by Britain’s Hugh Johnson, famous wine writer known by cork dorks the world over for his prolific masterpieces – and especially for The World Atlas of Wine.
Located north east of Budapest, Royal Tokaji is located in Tokaj where the Carpathian Mountains shield the area and the Tisza and Bodrog Rivers meet. This creates a perfect mesoclimate for the botrytis cinerea fungus that affects the grapes central to this wine. The cool and foggy mornings followed by long and warm afternoons allow the ‘aszu’ berries to become infected with the ‘noble rot’ and for the acids and sugars to become concentrated.
The soils here are primarily volcanic clays on the slopes and loess/clay on the foothills. There is some sand as well. The volcanic soils are called ‘tuff’ and give the wines great minerality.
There are many styles of sweet wines made around the world that use botrytised grapes, but Tokaji is different because of the vinification style. A base wine is made with the Furmint grapes and then the carefully hand harvested aszu berries are measured by ‘hods’ or ‘puttonyos’ into a ‘gonc’ (barrel). One ‘hod’ is 27 litres of aszu berries and a ‘gonc’ is a 136 litre barrel.
The berries are macerated into the base wine which has to be of the same vintage as the aszu berries. After 24-36 hours the wine is pressed off and left to ferment for a very long time. The wines must age at least 2 years in oak and one in bottle. This wine is 5 puttonyos on a scale of 6 which means it has 120 g/l of residual sugar.
There’s an even sweeter version of this wine called Aszu Essencia which is made of the free run juice of handpicked pure botrytised berries. It’s extremely rare and can have over 450 g/l of residual sugar. It must be aged a minimum of 5 years in cask and take years to ferment to a 4-5% abv level.
This wine is clear and bright, deep gold and has viscous legs. The nose is clean and developing with medium plus intensity and aromas of honeycomb, plump yellow raisins, dried apricots, orange marmalade, mandarin and candied ginger.
The palate is sweet with juicy and high acidity, medium minus alcohol, medium plus body and medium plus intensity. The flavours include burnt orange peel, cooked lemon, orange marmalade, ripe apricots and dried mandarin slices, honey and gingerbread with a long and lingering finish.
This is WSET ‘Outstanding’ – a wine that can be kept for years with its sharp acidity and fruit concentration. It has exceptional length and intensity which when enjoyed with the Benton Brothers’ Old Amsterdam (Holland) acquires even greater complexity of flavour. Its sweet profile also matches beautifully with baclava.