As you approach the Tokaj hills from the slightly undulating Hungarian plains to the south-west, you get the sense that this place is OLD. Millions of years have torn and polished those hills into soft peaks that are still dramatic against the background. Bedrock punches through sediments here and there, layering of formations is evident and soil colour and texture change constantly. It feels strong and wild, yet well-groomed; youthfully vigorous, yet old and wise; brooding, yet bright with vibration; it has a heavy presence – a there-ness – that is impossible to ignore. It draws you in, as, indeed, you think, it must have drawn in humans through time immemorial.
And so it is and so it has.
Tokaj, the Place and the History
The Tokaj hills are essentially a string of ancient volcanos, long extinct, but with evidence of 20 million years of volcanic activity. The long volcanic history means that the subsoil is mainly volcanic tuff, with a host of other volcanic or volcanic-derived substances present in the overlying vineyard soils, among which rhyolite, andesite, dacite, bentonite, zeolite, kaolin, opal and obsidian. Over time, the overlying vineyard soils that have been deposited in the area are windblown loess, clays from weathering and what Hungarians call “brown forest soil”, i.e. a humus-rich sedimentary soil. Iron and lime are present in relatively high concentrations in many vineyards. The notion of ancientness with a youthful vibration is geologically justified.
Evidence of human occupation in the Tokaj hills stretches almost as far back as there have been humans in Europe. The presence of obsidian, in particular, means that the hills were a regional centre of quarrying as far back as the late palaeolithic period from about 21,000 years before present. Obsidian from the Tokaj hills has been found as far away as 600 kilometres, with evidence that heavy nodules (not finished blades) have been carried that far. Obsidian is normally a very dark grey rock, but in the Tokaj area you may also find the much rarer green and milky white obsidian types, which surely must have been items of prestige trade over great distances.
So, the production of high quality has been a feature of this unique area for millennia, and it stands to reason that once wine became a thing, the potential of the area was explored. Written evidence of winemaking dates as far back as the 12th century CE, but archaeological evidence would indicate that the domesticated vine has been present in the area as far back as the 3rd century CE, with speculation that it may even have been present as far back as Celtic times, i.e. during the centuries BCE.
However, Tokaj’s road towards vinous stardom likely did not really start until the confluence of two unrelated events. The first event was the invitation by Hungarian kings for Latin peoples (likely Walloons, but possibly Italians) during the 12th and 13th centuries to settle in the area. It is highly likely that the Latin peoples brought with them a relatively advanced knowledge of winemaking. During the same period, and for centuries thereafter, the Ottoman Turkish expansion meant that previously prestigious winemaking areas in the southern part of what is now Hungary came under muslim (and so alcohol-forsaking) rule. The Tokaj area remained outside Turkish rule for the duration, and thus could supply the wine-thirsty Hungarians with much-desired wine.
It is not well-known what types of wine were made, from what grape varieties, until the 17th century. Around 1620, a newly-arrived French (Walloon) winemaker by the name of Duvont arrived at the invitation of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and over the years Duvont developed the method for which Tokaj became (and remains) world-famous, namely that of making sweet, botrytized Aszú wine. Essentially, the unique location of the Tokaj area, at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, coupled with mainly south-facing slopes along the hills, means that every autumn high humidity dominates in the morning, but gets burnt away by the sun during the day, thus providing a reliably perfect natural environment for the development of so-called noble rot. The first Aszú wine is normally attributed to Laczkó Máté Szepsi, who is supposed to have made the first such wine in 1630, but the first mention of Aszú wine predates this by some 59 years. At any rate, using the structured method developed by Duvont, and benefitting from the very particular environment, Tokaj became the first area in the world to deliberately and continually produce botrytized sweet wines, and in short order the Tokaj wines became world famous.
With booming exports, notably to Poland and Russia, counterfeit wine was unavoidable, and so in 1757 legislation was introduced to safeguard genuine Tokaj wine, with delimitation of the area and rules for making the wine. Tokaj was only the second area in the world to be legislated for in this manner, Chianti and Carmignano in Tuscany having been circumscribed by a bando in 1716. Work to document an already existing notion of vineyard classification began around 1730 and was largely finalized during the 1760’ies / 1770’ies. Tokaj Aszú then enjoyed a heady golden age until the end of the 18th century.
Then, disaster struck, not once, but four times. First, Poland was divided in 1795, and customs duties were introduced, meaning a very significant reduction of Tokaj’s most important export market. Then, in 1885, phylloxera struck and laid the vineyards to waste. And then, post-WWI, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon saw Hungary cede a very significant part of its previous territory, basically more than halving Tokaj’s domestic market. To add insult to injury, post-WWII, communism’s deliberate and all-encompassing focus on quantity over quality meant a steep decline in the quality of Tokaj wine. Horror stories are told about simple, sweet wine being imported from Romania and relabeled as Tokaj in vintages where the area could not live up to its planned volumes.
During the 1990’ies, Hungary finally emerged from under the communist yoke, new investment poured in, and among the first investments were projects in the Tokaj area. In short order, sweet Tokaj of superb quality began to be made again, only to encounter a world market that had increasingly fallen out of love with sweet wines.
One would think that the great people of Tokaj, having faced so many defeats by forces beyond their control, would be about to give up and start farming (excellent) potatoes. But no such thing. There is something in the strength and vitality of those hills that bids them continue to explore the quality potential. So, since the late-1990’ies / early-2000’s, an initially small, but now large, group of excellent producers has started making dry white wines. They all still say that they are in the early phases of experimentation, and that much is yet to be learnt, but, on the evidence of my recent visit there, there is now a very wide quality front, with dry white wines of absolutely world-beating, scintillating quality being made. The mind boggles at how great these wines will become if this is only an initial stage of development.
The glorious history of the Tokaj area, in conjunction with the equally glorious current situation, has meant that the UNESCO has accorded it the status of World Heritage Site. Much deserved, if you ask me.
Tokaj, the Vineyards
Now, I do know that the concepts of terroir and minerality are controversial, for related reasons. Firstly, scientists will tell you that the vine does not necessarily pick up any aromatic precursors – that subsequently are transformed into what we can smell and taste in wine – from the soil. The precursors, they tell us, are a result of photosynthesis in the leaves. So, apparently, the aromatic characteristics of a wine are independent of the mineral composition of the soil the vine stands in, with the soil and the aspect of the vineyard having the primary function of drainage (or not) and nutrition. Besides, they tell us, minerals are generally inert (i.e. not volatile) and/or below the sensory threshold of humans, so we can’t really smell or taste them anyway. On this background, some are of the opinion that terroir and minerality concepts as commonly used in wine are wrong and should be discontinued.
I am not one to argue with science, but would like to emphasize that the term “minerality” was never meant to be a descriptor of an actual compound found in wine, and which had been transferred from the soil to the vine. Nor was the term “terroir”, despite the obviousness of its name, ever meant to state that it is the soil that is the main contributor to a wine’s character. Rather, “minerality” denotes those sensory characteristics that one might associate with compounds that are generally sensed when you find yourself in a mineral context or in the presence of something that is of mineral extraction. A good example is the “minerality” of a great Riesling. We often say that a great Riesling is very minerally, by which many mean the very obvious, hydrocarbon-like scent molecules that we do sense and describe as “petroleum”. Hydrocarbons are produced from rock formations, and if you ever come close to a rock formation that contains hydrocarbons (slate being one), you will note a distinct hydrocarbon smell. Further, “terroir” should be taken to mean the ensemble of soil, aspect, drainage, climate, vineyard management practices, winemaking practices etc. that conspire to give certain wine types from a certain area a typical frame of smell and taste.
Why this intro, you might ask? Well, once you arrive in the Tokaj area, you will note that the area is divided into a myriad vineyard parcels, all of which have different names. Much like in Burgundy, but later in development, centuries of experience have come together to delineate these parcels in the Tokaj area. And upon tasting the wines from the various parcels, it is immediately apparent that there are clear and recognizable “terroir” differences between the individual parcels. It is also immediately clear that the wines of Tokaj are hugely minerally, and also that the type of minerality differs from site to site.
The concept that wines smell and taste differently from site to site is not a new one. The ancient Greeks developed a notion of that, and the ancient Romans followed up on that. The monks of Burgundy refined the concept during centuries of painstaking work and experience in the vineyards there. And so, Tokaj is not the first area to have a delineation of terroirs, but it is certainly among the first regions to have a highly detailed and well-documented conception and legal definition of them.
As mentioned above, the work to fully document the classification of vineyards in the Tokaj area was finalized during the 1760’ies / 1770’ies. At the time, some 11,149 hectares of vineyard were delineated and classified into three quality levels, with 76 vineyards classified as first class (of which two, Szarvas and Mézes Mály, were given the status of Great First Class), 59 as second class and 38 as third class. Currently, some 5,500 hectares of Tokaj vineyard exist in Hungary, with some 900 hectares in the Slovakian portion of Tokaj.
It is still being discussed, with quite some emotion, whether the primary basis for the classification was outright quality potential for any type of wine, or whether the classification only relates to the potential for producing high-quality Aszú (sweet) wine. Most sources I have consulted state that it is the sweet wine potential that was originally rated, but I wonder whether, in accepting that statement, we are not guilty of the general tendency to think that people in days gone by were more stupid, less sophisticated and less sensorially gifted than we are today. Taking a hint from the monks of Burgundy, we can certainly see that they developed an extremely acute and detailed sensory knowledge, and I am convinced that this depth of sensory experience and sophistication would also have existed among the people of the Tokaj region. After all, these people would have worked the vineyards for centuries. So, while on the surface there might be reason to say that it was the sweet wine potential that was rated, I think it likely that a general conception of high sensory quality would have been at least a part of the evaluation, too. While based on only brief – and therefore highly fallible – exposure on the ground, I developed a clear notion that when you taste the dry wines from first class vineyards they do indeed have greater depth, power and expressivity than wines from lesser vineyards. So, if anything, the original classification seems to have stood the test of time, despite changes in wine fashion. That, for me, is the hallmark of a well-thought-out classification.
The name for “vineyard” in Tokaj is Dülö, so, for example, “Szarvas vineyard” is “Szarvas Dülö”. You are only allowed to use the Dülö nomination for vineyards that are officially classified as such, so whenever you come across it, you can be assured that the vineyard named is actually a classified one. There is a tendency to only put first class vineyards on the label, but nothing is to stop you from naming the other classes on labels.
The vineyard soils in Tokaj are extremely varied, so it is difficult to come up with general indications of what types of soil are found where in the area. However, if you arm yourself with a map of the Hungarian part of the Tokaj area and follow me, let me try to make a fool of myself by attempting a very generalized rule about topsoils anyway. In general, then, you will find few volcanic traces in the vineyards of the south-eastern part of the area, on or around the mighty Tokaj hill. Instead, the topsoil here is loess, sometimes to considerable depth. As you move westward and slightly northward, from Tarcal to Mád, the volcanic component of the topsoil becomes more marked, to the point of finding actual obsidian and other volcanic rock outcroppings in certain Mád vineyards. The picture is highly heterogeneous, because there are many different ages of volcanism, and because sedimentation over time has also contributed, unevenly, to topsoils. Moving north and east from Mád, towards and beyond Olaszliszka and Erdöbénye, you will find traces of volcanism in the higher-lying vineyards, but on the lower parts towards the Bodrog river the topsoils become more sedimentary, with few volcanic compounds. Again, very generally, the character of the wines changes from loess / sedimentary soils to the more volcanic-derived soils, with the former giving broader, rounder, bigger, more spicy wines and the latter providing slimmer, tighter, more focused and more overtly minerally wines. All of this with a huge grain of salt, please.
The people of the Tokaj area have been working vineyards and vines for centuries, and that is very apparent when in the area. The vineyards are for the most part extremely well-kept, orderly and neat-looking. Because so many wine styles are possible, and desired, viticulture is, of necessity, very detailed and painstaking. These people know how to do quality vineyard work, which is also borne out by the very low yields obtained. The low yields are not just a function of a significant percentage of the grapes being subjected to noble rot and ending up in Aszú wine, but also simply because the Furmint variety, in particular, is very sensitive to yields, producing insipid wine if left to provide high yields. Further, because noble rot is wanted, there is actually little spraying going on, as that would prevent botrytis from attacking the grapes, so even if few producers are working organically, few fungicides, herbicides etc. are used.
My short stay in the Tokaj area really does not allow me to speak with much authority about individual vineyard character and differences between individual vineyards, but it was very clear from my tastings that, very much like in Burgundy, even vineyards that are immediately adjacent to each other can exhibit markedly different characters, to the point of there being individual subplots within larger vineyards with different characters. It was also quite clear that the Tokaj area’s terroirs are very strong, and will assert themselves over, or punch through, any choice of grape varieties grown in them.
It so happened that several of the producers that I visited had holdings in the mighty Királyi (“King”) vineyard near Mád, and that allowed me to begin forming an idea about the terroir of that specific place. Királyi is a steep, terraced, south-west-facing vineyard with mainly volcanic-derived soils. Being difficult to work, it was more or less abandoned during the communist era, but has been the object of massive clearing and replanting from the 1990’ies onwards. While specific winemaking choices did mean that the wines were not identical between the producers, looking back over my tasting notes, I feel that the character of the Királyi vineyard as it comes through in the wines is strongly dominated by its volcanic character. This primarily meant a powerful, dark, “ashy” mineral character across nose and palate. Supporting and consistent notes were a leafy / green / soft herbal touch and a spicy note reminiscent of anise. Structure was broad-shouldered, but elegant, with racy acidity and great intensity, irrespective of the choice of grape varieties. The Királyi wines were consistently exhilarating, testament to a great terroir.
Tokaj, the Grape Varieties
Historically, many different grape varieties were grown to make the Tokaj white wines. Over the years, Furmint was gradually singled out as the main grape variety, with Hárslevelü a firm runner-up, but until the advent of phylloxera during the 1880’ies vineyards were still planted promiscuously to many different varieties. In the aftermath of phylloxera, new plantings were “rationalized”, and a much smaller selection of varieties was preferred. Several previously well-regarded varieties were lost.
Today, Tokaj can only be legally made from 6 varieties: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Sárgamuskotály, Köverszölö, Kabar and Zeta. Brief descriptions of the varieties follow.
The undisputed king of Tokaj vineyards, making up some 60% of all plantings. When it arrived in Tokaj is uncertain, with some claiming 12th or 13th century, but first written mention is in the 17th century.
Its origin is unknown, but it is genetically likely to be the offspring of Gouais Blanc, making it a sibling of Chardonnay and Riesling, among others.
Furmint is a late ripener that maintains high acidity even when very ripe. Coupled with its high extract and thin skin, which makes it susceptible to botrytis, this makes it ideal for making perfectly balanced, non-cloying, powerful sweet wines. However, it is now also coming along strongly as a high-quality variety for dry white wines.
This is a fairly neutral, non-aromatic variety, which makes it a great conduit for terroir expression. While the basic aromatic characteristics of the variety are in the apple-peach spectrum, with hints of green herbs and always strong minerality, the broad range of expression that the wines take is first and foremost a terroir phenomenon. Picking timing and winemaking choices, including whether oak is employed, do make a substantial difference, but the place always comes through strongly in Furmint.
Hárslevelü (Feuille de Tilleul, Lindenblättriger)
Literally “Linden Leaf”, because of the shape of its leaves, Hárslevelü is an offspring of Furmint. It makes up about 30% of plantings in the Tokaj area.
This may be a native of the Tokaj area, with first written mention during the 18th century.
Like Furmint, it ripens quite late, maintains high acidity and has much extract. While the skins are thicker, it is still quite susceptible to botrytis.
Hárslevelü is a semi-aromatic variety, with fruitiness in the quince-ripe peach-apricot spectrum and delightful floral (particularly elderflower), citrus, spice and green herbs aromatics. Although this makes for a more directly grape-derived personality, based on my tastings it still changes quite significantly from vineyard to vineyard, with one site enhancing, for example, a broad and powerful palate, another site floral and citrusy aromas, and a third site leafy green notes.
Sárgamuskotàly (Yellow Muscat, Muscat Lunel)
Muscat Lunel is, of course, a well-known variety that you may find in many places around the world. It is well-known for its exuberant aromatics. Together with a majority of Furmint and a good splash of Hárslevelü, Sárgamuskotály forms the classic trinity that makes up many Tokaji Aszú wines, to which it lends its powerful floral and citrusy aromatics and tendency to high sugar levels.
Quite a number of producers are now also using it to make varietal dry wines, which from the Tokaj terroir tend to be quite light, with good acidity and bright aromatics.
Köverszölö (Grasa de Cotnari, Resertraube)
This is the Romanian grape Grasa de Cotnari (“fat one from Cotnari”). It is a decidedly minor variety in the grape mix in Tokaj, but is quite distinctive with its ripe peachy fruitiness, warm/sweet/woody spiciness and touch of citrus. Very little is being made as varietally pure wine, but on the evidence of my tastings can be quite interesting.
Kabar (Hárslevelü x Bouvier)
This is one of two recent crossings that have been introduced into the Tokaj vineyards, probably for agronomical reasons. It ripens early, with high acidity and high sugar, and so one can see how this might provide “insurance” against vintages where later-ripening varieties may fare less well. I did not taste any varietally pure Kabar, so cannot with any certainty deduce a character, but working from subtraction in wines containing some Kabar, it would seem that it has broad fruitiness and some oriental spiciness to add.
Zéta (Furmint x Bouvier)
The other crossing, seemingly also introduced for agronomical reasons. This also ripens early, and its main attraction would seem to be this, as well as it being prone to botrytis. I did not taste any wines that would allow me to deduce a character for Zéta.
There are still a few plantings in the Tokaj area of some of the pre-phylloxera varieties. Two such, which are not (yet) allowed to carry the Tokaj denomination, but which are attracting some interest on quality grounds, are Lisztesféhér and Gohér. I had the good fortune of being able to taste a pure Lisztesféhér wine, and so can report at least what that tasted like. See my tasting notes for the Paulay Borház winery in an upcoming blog post.
What with climate change in full swing, perhaps a useful way of ensuring the continued production and high quality in the Tokaj area could be to investigate the old varieties and see if some of those might provide good “insurance” against warmer temperatures, greater rainfall or whatever other ills might befall.
Tokaj, the Wines
“Tokaj” was once as much a winemaking method and a resultant wine-type classification as it was a place. Being the first consistently produced botrytized sweet wine, it attracted great fame and – inevitably – imitation. So, Tokaj, or any variation of spelling such as Tocai and Tokay, quickly came to stand for sweet wines produced elsewhere (such as Australia’s erstwhile fortified Tokay, produced from Muscadelle, and now mostly called Topaque), as well as for grape varieties with which one could produce interesting sweet wines. Examples of the latter, now banned, are Tocai Friulano (now Friulano) and Tokay Pinot Gris (now Pinot Gris).
After having joined the European Union, Hungary went on the warpath and essentially managed to ban all of the diverse Tokaj-Tocai-Tokay names. As far as I am concerned, this was not entirely uncontroversial, mainly because some of the other names could not meaningfully be confused with the real Tokaj wine, while having well-established, centuries-old reputations for themselves, but the end result was strong protection for the place name Tokaj, and since place is king in my wine world, that is not a bad thing after all.
The legislation surrounding Tokaj wines has been significantly updated and EU-streamlined. While a good measure of simplification was achieved, notably by getting rid of the Puttonyos levels (see below) for the sweet Aszú wines, a bewildering array of wines is still possible. The following is an attempt at a short (!) overview of the various wine categories being made in the area today and carrying the Tokaj denomination.
First, though, an important note: Tokaj, while being a place name, can be used only for white wines. There is a tiny bit of red wine being made in the area, but it is not allowed to carry the Tokaj name.
Pézsgö (sparkling wines)
Since the main Tokaj grape varieties of Furmint and Hárslevelü both have very healthy acidity levels, and given that the world is moving away from sweet wines and over towards sparkling wines, the idea of producing sparkling wines in the Tokaj area is a logical one. So, recently, quite a number of producers has started experimenting with sparkling wines, both using Charmat and classic (as in Champagne) methods.
Given that this is still in its infancy, one would expect this to be a bit of a hit-and-miss category, but I found that the examples I tasted were rather good. The terroir and the varieties lend themselves well to being transformed into sparkling wine, while maintaining a good sense of terroir, and this is a category to watch for the future.
Száraz (dry wine)
It seems incredible, but dry wine from Tokaj is basically an emergency category that has arisen out of the difficulty of selling the sweet wines the area has been famous for for centuries. Incredible, because the dry wines of Tokaj these days is a highly accomplished category producing some of the most interesting white wines in the world. Getting to such a level normally requires generations of work and experience, but the combination of a powerful terroir and centuries of experience growing grapes has meant that the people of Tokaj have reached a very high level in very short time.
Now, Furmint and Hárslevelü both have rather high acidity, so in making dry wines many producers deliberately keep a bit of residual sweetness to balance out the acidity. This is very much along the same lines as what German producers might do for Riesling, which, of course, is another high-acidity variety. I find that I am often in opposition to a too-deliberate use of residual sweetness in wines to make them palatable to a greater audience. I think that the sweetness often masks a sense of place, and also muddles the wine, making it less transparent, more confused and possibly also lends them a shorter bottle life. Essentially, I think that for the most part this is a method used by large, industrial producers making wines to certain schemes and price points. However, I must also admit that there are many great Rieslings being made with a hint of residual sweetness, and throughout my tastings of dry Tokaj wines I did not at any point come across a wine that I thought had too much of it. Having said that, I must also admit that I am a great lover of high acidity in wines, and I, for one, would not mind in the least if producers started fermenting their dry wines to complete dryness. The wines might become a tad more austere in youth, but I think would probably repay it in the long run.
At any rate, the final expression of the dry wines of Tokaj is a result of a highly complex interplay of viticulture and winemaking choices, balancing between canopy management vs. picking times vs. acidity vs. sugar levels vs. phenolic ripeness vs. residual sweetness vs. full fermentation vs. oak vs. stainless steel vs. lees contact etc. etc. What with normal vintage variation and climate change, this is not a simple, one-size-fits-all equation, and the discussion around the choices cannot and should not be reduced to just one of the factors.
In terms of the dry wines, many producers have a two-tier system, with one or more entry-level, estate (“birtok”) wines, for instance one Furmint, one Hárslevelü and one Sárgamuskotály, and several single-vineyard (Dülö) wines. The Dülö wines are normally only made from Furmint and/or Hárslevelü, but the other varieties can appear in minor roles. The estate wines will often be made for earlier consumption, but one should not mistake them for simple quaffing wines for that reason. Many of them are supremely elegant, stylish and intense, with nerve and great personality. Dülö wines may eclipse them for sheer power and terroir expression, but they can certainly be great wines in their own right.
The use of oak barrels for fermenting and ageing wines is quite widespread in Tokaj. This has several reasons, one being that the famous oak forests in Zemplén are just around the corner, another that oak ageing for the sweet wines has centuries of tradition in the area, and yet another could be that producers wish to give their wines the extra oomph and longevity that can be the result of oak barrel ageing. While I had read that oak ageing was sometimes clumsily and heavy-handedly done in the early years of dry wine experimentation, during my tastings I did not come across a single Tokaj wine that had been ruined by excessive oak treatment. This is yet another testament to how far the producers of Tokay have come in such short time with their dry wines.
The great power, acidity, body and extract of dry Tokaj wines made from Furmint, in particular, ought to lend them great longevity, on a par with great Riesling and great Chardonnay. While the producers still say that they don’t know if this is the case, because serious dry wines have only been made for such short time, I have no doubt that this is the case.
Kései Szüret (Late Harvest)
Late Harvest is a relatively new category of Tokaj wine, which started to surface during the 1990’ies. The wines are made from selected, late-harvested, but not necessarily botrytized grapes. As there are no ageing requirements for this category, it is a bit of a playground for the producers, but most of them use the category for making quite fresh, easily drinkable sweet wines that they can market within a year or two of the harvest.
It might be too much to describe Szamorodni as a schizophrenic category of wine, but it certainly can turn out in several ways.
The name is derived from a Polish word that means something like “as it was born” or “as it came”, which reflects that Szamorodni is made from whole bunches of grapes (not individually selected berries), some of which will be botrytized. It used to be called Föbor (“main wine”), which may refer to it being the category once made in greatest volume, as opposed to Aszú wines, but changed its name to the Polish word as a result of Poland being the largest export market for Tokaj wines.
Szamorodni comes in two overall categories: sweet and dry. The sweet (Edes) category is by far the more frequently made wine; it requires 6 months of barrel ageing and a minimum of 12% alcohol. The dry (Száraz) category is one of the world’s utterly unique wines, being a botrytized wine fermented to dryness and then aged for a minimum of 6 months in barrel under a layer of flor, like Sherry; unfortunately, little of this is made anymore, but it if you come across it, try it, because it will never be less than interesting, and may even be utterly great.
“Aszú” means something like “dried” or “shriveled” and refers to berries that have been attacked by botrytis and have shriveled to almost raisins. The berries are picked late and individually and are then ground into a paste, called “Aszú dough”, which is then macerated with a base wine for up to two days. The resulting must is fermented, and then aged in traditional 136-litre Gönci oak barrels for a minimum of 18 months, with a total required ageing of two years before it can be marketed.
The sweetness of Aszú wines used to be stated by way of Puttonyos. Puttonyos were the traditional harvesting containers for Aszú berries, and the number of Puttonyos stated would be the number of Puttonyos that went into one Gönci barrel. This would then give a rough estimate of how sweet the wine would be, because the highly-concentrated Aszú berries would add considerable sugar. Puttonyos as the legal sweetness indicator has been discontinued (although, confusingly, producers are still allowed to state Puttonyos on labels), and a simpler, more rational minimum level of 120 grammes of residual sugar in the wine is now the limit for when a Tokaj wine may be called Aszú (corresponding to 5 Puttonyos under the old system). Many Aszú wines go considerably higher than that.
Aszú has historically had a couple of derivative wines, Fordítás and Máslás. The latter, being a fermentation of base wine on the lees of Aszú wine, has been outlawed, while the former, which is a reuse of the Aszú dough after the first soaking in base wine, remains in use, although is not common anymore.
Tokaji Aszú is truly one of the world’s great sweet wines. When it is at its best, it is a wine of unrivalled complexity, balance and intensity. Its origin in the very special terroir of Tokaj gives it an incredible range of aromas and flavours, and the acidity, sweetness and concentration make it one of the most longevous wines on Earth. You cannot call yourself a winelover and not have tried it at least once.
“Essence” really is what it says. It is the result of the free-run, treacly juice from Aszú berries, without the addition of any base wine. The minuscule quantities of Eszencia juice is put in demijohns and fermented, often for years. Because of the osmotic pressure from the sugary juice, which can have 800 grams per litre of sugar, and sometimes more, fermentation is extremely slow and interrupted. Since the alcohol level never reaches beyond 3-4 degrees, Eszencia cannot be called wine.
As you might imagine, Eszencia is in short supply, and very expensive. Few ever get to experience it. I have had the great luck to have tried it in a couple of occasions, and can report that it is an overwhelming experience. The incredible sweetness not only makes the drink very viscous, but in combination with incredible acidity also gives it a searingly powerful attack in the mouth. I can’t say that I have ever been left with the impression of great complexity, because the sugar is so overwhelming, but for a liquid that has barely fermented, nor would I expect that.
The people of Tokaj have been using Eszencia for centuries as a tonic and cure-all, doled out by the teaspoonful, and it remains in use as a sort of preventive dietary supplement.
Tokaji Aszú by law is sold in a distinctive, traditional bottle shape containing 500 ml. After the advent of dry Tokaj wines, this shape has been developed into an equally distinctive, and rather good-looking, 750 ml dark glass bottle. Further, famous glassmaker Riedel has developed a glass specifically for Furmint. So, all of the paraphernalia around Tokaj wines are also in place.
You must like – or be able to tolerate – powerful acidity and minerality in wines in order to love Tokaj wines. But if you do, these are some of the greatest white wines anywhere in the world.
I went, under my own steam, on a visit to the Hungarian part of Tokaj during end-April 2019. Guided by the extremely useful advice of my friend, the great Hungarian wine journalist Daniel Ercsey, to whom I am most grateful, I visited eight of the best producers of Tokaj wines. I will be putting up separate blog posts about each of those visits, with tasting notes, so here is only a list of those visited:
- Paulay Borház (this is also a B&B in the centre of Tokaj town; I stayed there myself and highly recommend it)
- Samuel Tinon
- Tokaj Nobilis
Tokaj experts are likely to agree that these are generally among the area’s great producers, but might add that a few of the area’s best, most famous and/or largest producers are not on that list. This is mostly deliberate, because my request to Daniel Ercsey for advice mentioned that I wished to visit small, local, family-owned enterprises with a strong dedication to their own vineyards and terroirs. Large enterprises were less relevant, and worldwide fame unimportant. I basically wanted an insider’s tips to where I might find positive surprises. And Daniel delivered in spades.
But since I was in the area anyway, I obviously took the opportunity to taste a few other producers’ wines when dining. So, for completeness’ sake, here are some very basic impressions of those producers:
- István Szepsy: Szepsy is probably the greatest hero of the modern return to quality winemaking in Tokaj. He was the first to develop high-quality dry Tokaj, and his wines are famous and highly sought-after. I tasted a couple of his dry Furmints, and found them excellent. They were quite powerful, balanced by high acidity and scintillating minerality.
- Bott: This is a mid-sized, family-owned winery, well known for high quality. I tasted a handful of dry wines from Bott, and found them to be very good. The house style is relatively soft, with wines that are rounded and very drinkable. If you would like to taste good Tokaj wines, but are unhappy about the frequently searing acidity, this might be your go-to producer (although never expect LOW acidity from Tokaj).
- Zoltán Demeter: Along with István Szepsy, Demeter is one of the first and greatest pioneers of the new era in Tokaj. By all accounts a strong-willed, opinionated and controversial figure, he was also among the first to put great dry Tokaj onto the market. I tasted a dry Furmint and a sweet wine from Demeter. I found the wines very powerful, broad, with almost visceral impact. Spicy, with peachy fruit and dark, brooding volcanic minerality.
The visit I undertook to Tokaj was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, visits to any wine region I have ever been on. The style and quality of the wines I tasted were fantastic, and the level among the producers I visited consistently high. The area still needs to develop further in terms of wine tourism, even if good accommodation and food certainly is available, but it has what it takes to become one of the greatest wine destinations in the world, namely absolute world-class terroirs, the grape varieties to express the terroirs and the intelligent, quality-conscious producers to interpret them.
Tokaj has experienced a golden age, but it is a long time ago. On the strength of the wines I tasted, it is about to experience another golden age. The terroir is just so irrepressibly strong that it will come through, eventually.
In the words of the great pioneer Zoltán Demeter: “We must simply clearly, honestly believe in the magnificence Tokaj-Hegyalja is able to give us with the unique characteristics of its growing site. The experience so far is very encouraging. It seems Tokaj really knows it all.” (Interview in Mandiner.bor portal, March 2016)
Prepare, world, for Tokaj has regrouped and is coming back, with a vengeance!
I am, of course, now also a wine merchant. I do not at the time of writing import any of the producers’ wines, but based on this brief foray into Tokaj, I basically want to import them all. While that would be commercial folly, you should fully expect that I will start importing wines from one or more of the producers in future.