There is a special place in the hearts and glasses of we sweet wine nerds for the wines of Tokaj-Hegyalia in Northeast Hungary, responsible for as historic a wine style as you’ll ever taste, and some of the most intense and without a doubt the longest-lived unfortified wines in existence.
The thrilling combination of burnt-sugar acidity, generous perfume and sometimes tooth-meltingly sweet sugar levels, often combined with fascinating oxidative, aldehydic ‘rancio’ notes have been responsible for the drinking highlights of many a connoisseur’s most memorable glassfuls (the two occasions I tried the fabled Essencia genuinely live on in the imagination!).
Tokaji as we know it came into being, so the story goes, in 1650 when the grape harvest was delayed due to a potential attack by the Turks, which led to many of the inadvertently late-harvested grapes being affected by Botrytis Cinerea, or ‘noble rot’. Unattractive and unappealing to look at, these ‘Aszú’ bunches were picked separately by the locals and added as a paste to the juice (or ‘must’) of the unaffected batches. Despite low hopes for the resulting wines, the wines were a revelation when tasted the following Easter, and thus a unique winemaking style and tradition came into being, rapidly gaining fans in the Royal courts of France and Russia.
So how is Tokaji produced?
The grape growing region encompasses 28 villages, including the village of Tokaj itself (although for non-Hungarians the favourite village is, of course, Mád), whose microclimate is heavily influenced by the shelter of the Carpathian mountains, bringing warmth and enabling a long autumn growing season that often involves picking into late November. As in France with Sauternes production, sizeable rivers, in this case the Bodrog and the Tisza contribute humidity into the equation; heat and humidity being the winning combination to encourage noble rot.
The principle grape varieties here are the late ripening Furmint, universally described by wine writers as ‘fiery’, and the aromatic Hárslevelű , both grown on volcanic and loess soils. A small percentage of Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains contributes softness and perfume.
The word ‘Puttonyos’ on a Tokaji label is a unit of measure, referring to a 25 kilo basket or ‘hod’ used to hold the Aszú grapes, which are then added to the dry base wine – the more added to the wine barrel, the sweeter the eventual finished wine. Measurement used to go from three to six Puttonyos, though early in 2014 Hungary’s Tokaji trade council removed the two drier grades.
After several months of fermentation, wines are matured for three to eight years prior to release, or extended maturation, in evocative, chilly 10 degrees celcius cellars liberally coated with ‘Racodium cellare’ black fungus.
These are the residual sugar levels in grams per litre of Tokaji:
Tranlates to ‘dry, as it was grown’. Contains up to 10 grams of sugar per litre (g/l).
Edes or ‘Sweet’ Szamorodni contains at least 30 grams of sugar per litre.
This is found on pre-1945 bottles only.
A Tokaji with 3 puttonyos indicates between 60 and 90 grams of sugar per litre.
180-450g/l (discontinued in 2009)
Eszencia (or essencia) contains between 450 and 850 grams of sugar per litre. Eszencia is that rarest of beasts, sticky, unctuous free-run juice without any dry base-wine in the mix. It is exactly as billed, hugely concentrated, barely alcoholic (2 to 3 degrees ABV), taking potentially years to ferment as the yeasts battle the sugar. Historically it was considered to be an ‘elixir of life,’ and indeed the whacking great sugar content, of anything up to 850 grams per litre, do indeed make it well-nigh immortal.