Tokaji: Making history
The sweet wine that has come to define Hungary
Wednesday 05 January 2022
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“I was able to produce the greatest wines I could imagine.”
Dr Endre Demeter, Demetervin
It is late autumn in northeastern Hungary. The gently undulating landscape is lined with rows of gold over rich brown fields. A thick blanket of mist shrouds the patchwork valleys. This is not Tolkien’s Middle Earth, although it feels as magical. These are the vineyards of Tokaji, birthplace of the world’s most venerable sweet wine.
The Oldest Sweet Wines in the World
The first written reference to the golden liquid known as Tokaji Aszú date to 1571. Tokaji’s microclimate has shaped its character. When the grapes are ripe, cold, misty mornings are followed by warm, sunny days, creating the perfect setting for Botrytis cinerea - the Noble Rot - to develop. A naturally occurring fungus, it can cause a devastating grey mould. But in ideal conditions botrytis withers the berries instead. Their super-sweet concentrated juice makes amazing dessert wine.
The botrytised berries are carefully hand-harvested over a number of weeks. Six types of grape are allowed to be used, chosen for their high acidity and susceptibility to the ravages of botrytis. The most common grape is Furmint, full of tree fruit flavours that develop into sticky dried apricot and marzipan as it ages.
A paste made from the shrivelled grapes, called Aszú dough, is macerated in a dry base wine then pressed and fermented. This gives intense sweetness but also retains the natural acidity, keeping the wines in perfect balance. The sweetness of the wine is measured by residual sugar these days, but until 2014 it was measured in “Puttonyos”. This measurement was named after the 25kg baskets used to hold the grapes at harvest.
Aszú is then aged for at least 18 months in oak barrels, stored in subterranean brick vaults. Some medieval undercrofts were built with hidden entrances to protect their contents from invaders. Thick layers of black mould encrust all surfaces. It serves an important purpose, purifying the air and stabilising the humidity of these ancient cellars where the wine sleeps.
The flavour profile of Tokaji Aszú cannot be easily summarised because the wines are complex, with layers of very diverse flavour that varies according to where the grapes were grown and how the wines were made. They are always full of fresh fruit and florality. Winemakers like Istvan Balassa, owner of Balassa Winery and vineyard manager for Grand Tokaj, talks about aspiring for an “apricot bomb”. But don’t be surprised if older wines also carry walnut, toffee and herbal aromas - or even truffle, smoked meat, and coffee notes.
Vintage of the Century
There has never been a better time to try these wines. Experts suggest the latest release, the 2017 vintage, is the finest of the last decade, or perhaps even the last century.
The best wines are made when a number of factors come together in a single growing season. The grapes grow, ripen and are harvested in the best possible conditions. Dr Endre Demeter, an organic viticulturalist at Demetervin, calls it “simple science, not magic”. But the flavours created can be truly magical. Endre describes how 2017 had the best meteorological data since records began 110 years ago. “The sun was shining and the rain was dripping in the perfect amounts. No matter how many vintages I have left, it was the vintage of my lifetime.”
László Mészáros, the director of Disznókő, explains how this excellent year affects the flavour. “Some of the older vintages can be a little bit austere when they are young. 2017 has the advantage of being very open and very pleasant from the beginning, whilst having a lot of depth and concentration. This finesse and the rich flavours make it a very accessible vintage to taste.”
Types of Wine
Istvan Balassa calls Tokaj “the most complicated wine region in the world.” In less than 5500 hectares, István estimates there are around 1000 different terroirs, shaped over time by volcanic activity in the region. Single vineyard wines are made to emphasise the unique characteristics of the geology and the land.
Alongside the complexities of Aszú, a cornucopia of other wines are being made. The grapes for dry sparkling and still wines are picked earliest, when their characteristic acidity is at its peak. Dry still Furmint is an important part of any Tokaji winery’s commercial portfolio as they are easier and quicker to harvest and produce. They returned to the global market after the Iron Curtain fell in the early 1990s. These wines have apple-pear flavours, strong acidity and minerality.
Late harvest Szamorodni is another unique wine, made with whole bunches of grapes that are partially botrytized. They can be sweet, or fermented to dryness under a layer of flor yeast, similar to how sherry is made. Complex flavours of tobacco, nuts, and dried apricots are not unusual.
Istvan Balassa used the great grapes of 2017 to experiment with the style. He made seven single-vineyard Szamorodni wines to see if they would taste distinguishable. He was pleased that they “show the terroirs very deeply” and that this small-batch trial had a commercial market.
Finally, a free-run juice of Aszú berries called Eszencia is sometimes made. This syrupy liquid is used to temper the concentration of Aszú wines, so very little comes to market. Its sugar content is so high that it takes years to ferment to its final ABV of 2% to 6%. The rich nectar is served on glass spoons and has a drinking window of centuries, not years.
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