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If you’d ask which wine regions in the world are currently most undervalued, Jerez is definitely in my top five. Sherries are not your average quaffable or ‘easy’ wines, and their reputation as a Sunday aperitif for well-coiffed grannies unfortunately lingers. Yet there is so much more to sherry than the weeks-old, basic-quality finos we learnt to avoid in many pubs and restaurants.
Anno 2023, Jerez’ producers are increasingly focusing on quality rather than quantity, and we get to discover an exciting diversity of styles and opportunities to explore their food-pairing potential.

Copa Jerez 2023

The versatility and food-friendliness of sherry wines were confirmed once more a few weeks ago, in what has become the heyday of sherry-focused gastronomy: the Copa Jerez. After Fabian Bail and Paul-Henri Cuvelier of restaurant Paul de Pierre took home the three main prizes in 2021 (Best Chef, Best Sommelier and Best Pairings overall), I can only imagine the courage it must have taken to register for this year’s Belgian preselection. But fortunately those brave souls did show up, and among them, Chef Arnout Desmedt and Sommelier Gianluca Di Taranto of A Cook & GDT were selected to represent Belgium for the 20th anniversary edition of the Copa Jerez.

2021 met de drie hoofdprijzen naar huis kwamen (Beste Chef, Beste Sommelier and Beste Pairings), kan ik me voorstellen dat het veel moed vergde van de nieuwe lichting om zich in te schrijven voor de Belgische preselectie van dit jaar. Maar gelukkig durfden verschillende dapperen het aan, en onder hen werden Chef Arnout Desmedt en Sommelier Gianluca Di Taranto van A Cook & GDT geselecteerd om België te vertegenwoordigen op de 20ste editie van de Copa Jerez. De magie die we proefden bij de Belgische finale, hebben ze in Jerez ook kunnen overbrengen aan de indrukwekkende vijfkoppige jury, met Jancis Robinson (Master of Wine & wijn journalist), Almudena Alberca (Master of Wine & wijnmaker), Melania Bellesini (sommelier van The Fat Duck***), Pascaline Lepeltier (schrijfster & Beste Sommelier van Frankrijk 2018) en Josep Roca (sommelier & mede-eigenaar van El Celler de Can Roca***).

They worked their magic in Jerez too, resenting stunning dishes and pairings, which landed them a second place overall, and as the cherry on top, Gianluca won the coveted ‘Juli Soler Award for Best Sommelier’ award. The impressive five-member jury was Jancis Robinson (Master of Wine, wine writer and critic), Almudena Alberca (Master of Wine and winemaker), Melania Bellesini (sommelier at The Fat Duck***), Pascaline Lepeltier (writer and Best Sommelier in France 2018) and Josep Roca (sommelier and co-owner of El Celler de Can Roca***).

Their artichokes starter, paired with Bodegas Valdespino’s Fino Inocente, was inspired; followed by a gutsy plant-based main course, titled ‘winter vegetable rice’, matched with Equipo Navazos’ scrumptious Manzanilla Pasada La Bota 103. To end with a playful take on Crêpe Suzette (without the crêpe, with Cox apples ánd served in an orange), which they served with the excellent Cream Tradición VOS by Bodegas Tradición.

Jerez – blending old and new

To develop a deeper understanding of any wine region, its people and its products, you need not only savour the local food and drinks, but also walk the vineyards, sniff the air, feel the soils under your feet and the weather conditions on your skin. Fortunately this trip also offered the opportunity to do just that.

Seeing the grey-green dust-covered vines helped me understand why clarifying the must before fermentation is essential here. Hearing and feeling the albariza soils crunch under my feet, baked to a crust by relentless sunshine, gave clues about how vines survive the dry summers here, but also why aserpia troughs are dug between the vine rows after harvest to make the most of the autumn and winter rains.

Equally, strolling between the endless rows of casks in the cathedral-like bodegas, soaking up the bordering-on-spiritual atmosphere, permeated with yeasty, nutty, curry-like smells and misty cellar dust, made it sink in what a unique heritage is being preserved here.

And Jerez is evolving, with an increasing number of quality-focused producers, and interesting developments in the production of unfortified wines.

Unfortified wines as such are not a new phenomenon in Jerez; they are part of the region’s history. Traditionally there were the so-called ‘vinos de pasto’ or ‘wines of the grasslands’, referring to the typical food wines of the region, intended for local consumption. There also are many historic references to unfortified sherry-like wines, which achieved a high alcohol percentage due to late harvesting and/or the soleo or asoleo process of sun-drying the grapes, before fortifying became more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries to stabilise the wines for their long sea voyages to foreign markets. In D.O. Montilla-Moriles, creating sherry-like wines without fortification is still common, and if you haven’t tried an unfortified Fino from PX grapes yet, I highly recommend it.

Closer to Jerez, unfortified sherries have also been gaining traction these past 15 years, and this is reflected in the new regulations for the D.O. Jerez. Since October 2022, sherry wines no longer have to be fortified, providing they reach the minimum required alcohol percentage (15% for Fino and Manzanilla). The other rules, i.a. undergoing biological ageing under flor and maturation for a minimum of two years, of course still apply.

Interesting to note also is that in those new regulations, a number of traditional grape varieties such as Beba, Perruno and Vigiriega, have been included for sherry production, and the Zona de Crianza or area of maturation has been expanded to match the area of production. This means that sherry wines now no longer have to be matured in the ‘Sherry Triangle’ of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Bodegas in surrounding towns, such as Chipiona and Chiclana, can now mature, market and sell their own sherries directly as D.O. Jerez.

These are interesting developments for sure, but how it will play out is impossible to predict at this stage. One thing is certain: the Consejo Regulador and the sherry producers will have their work cut out for them: guiding sherry into a new era, navigating new and changing markets and consumer preferences, exploring the food-pairing potential of the different sherry styles with diverse cuisines from all over the globe, and all this while raising and upholding quality standards. And they will need to come up with a fitting name for the increasingly popular ‘regular’, unfortified wines category in Jerez, which has much higher quality ambitions and gastronomic potential than its current, unofficial name tag ‘vino de pasto’ indicates. If you’d have any suggestions, do let them know …

Meanwhile, as the days turn cold and dark again, few comforts are more soothing to the soul than curling up on the sofa with a glass of your favourite sherry in hand.
Salud, to a great autumn and a heart- and belly-warming winter!

Continued from parts 1 & 2

For the final section of the paper, WSET wanted us to look at the relationship consumers have with sustainability: does sustainability benefit the consumer, and to what extent does it influence their behaviour?

Does sustainability benefit the consumer?

True sustainability certainly should benefit consumers, as it balances the interests of people, planet and profit. It affects the air each of us breathes; the water – and wine – we drink; the life we live and the resources available to live it, for us as well as our descendants.

Economic growth has brought many benefits, from reducing poverty to improving human rights and access to education, healthcare, water and sanitation. However, what London-based sustainability researchers Paul Ekins & Dimitri Zenghelis call the ‘grow now, clean up later’ mindset, has long ignored externalities. As they put it rather dramatically: ‘this approach has brought human societies to the brink of catastrophe, putting at serious risk all these benefits and, indeed, the continuance of human civilisation itself’.

We can safely assume that measures that allow us to continue human civilisation, business, trade and food and wine production, benefit consumers in the long run. In the short term, however, prices may go up to reflect the full cost of a product. To be economically sustainable, pricing needs to include those expenses that were previously passed on to other parties or future generations. Although price increases may not feel like a benefit to consumers, fair pricing provides the basis for continued, sustainable production and consumption.

Another – less obvious – benefit is that sustainability success stories give us hope. In these times of negative news, improvements in environmental, social and economic indicators motivate us to go on. One of my favourite scientists in our solar system, professor Hans Rosling, called this ‘factfulness: understanding as a source of mental peace’. He warned against losing hope: ‘when people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work.’ 

Does sustainability influence consumer behaviour?

Research by consumer research organisation Wine Intelligence reveals that wine consumers care about personalisation, experience, convenience and sustainability. Sustainably produced wines align with ‘ethical consumerism’ and consumers perceive them as innovative, trendy, and offering health benefits.

However, consumption behaviour is not entirely consistent with these positive associations; a phenomenon known as the green attitude-behaviour gap or green purchasing inconsistency. According to White et al.: ‘a frustrating paradox remains at the heart of green business: few consumers who report positive attitudes toward eco-friendly products and services follow through with their wallets’.

In one of the Institute of Masters of Wine’s seminars, wine researcher Juan Park explains this by how our brain uses innate pain and reward systems for purchasing decisions. When consumers consider a purchase, their brain weighs what they get out of it, against what it will cost them. If the perceived rewards outweigh the pain, they are likely to buy. Among wine consumers queried by Wine Intelligence, 55% worry about climate. Yet only 40% were willing to endure more ‘pain’ for sustainable wines, in the form of paying more or giving up convenience. However, when a product aligned with their self-image and beliefs, or it was associated with higher standards and quality (= higher rewards), consumers were more likely to buy. Wine label terms such as ‘natural wine’, ‘organic’, ‘environmentally-friendly’, ‘sustainably-produced’, ‘preservative-free’ or ‘fair-trade’ increased consumers’ willingness to buy; while claims which confused them, such as ‘sulphite-free’, ‘carbon-neutral’, ‘biodynamic’, ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’, had the opposite effect.

All this suggests consumers care about and are influenced by sustainability, providing they understand the rewards. An Italian study confirmed that responses to sustainability claims are heterogenous, but overall, labels addressing environmental aspects increase sales. In addition, consumers are willing to pay a premium for wines produced by companies that respect fair working conditions.

Positive effects of sustainability on consumption behaviour are demonstrated across consumer segments, and most of all with millennials, provided sustainability claims are well defined and prominently displayed. A recent study among South-African consumers showed that especially younger individuals with higher incomes, higher education levels and better knowledge of eco-certification were willing to pay a higher price for sustainably produced and fair-trade wines. For low-income consumers, however, higher prices form a barrier, irrespective of their attitudes towards environmentalism.

To summarise and conclude…

When wine businesses want to improve their environmental, social or economic sustainability, it is essential they make an in-depth analysis of the current situation, which highlights where gains can be achieved. In decisions to lower a winery’s environmental impact, the full lifecycle of technologies and measures should be considered. Furthermore, by raising awareness, improving working conditions and involving employees in all sections of the winery, more hands and minds will be working towards achieving the sustainability objectives. And finally, marketing and communication matter. Clear and prominently conveyed sustainability efforts increase a wine’s attractiveness to consumers, boost employee engagement and strengthen the overall brand image and impact. Spread the word to your customers!

Thank you Kristel !
This article is based on the July 2022 D6 paper Kristel Balcaen DipWSET submitted. Read it here.
Kristel passed this paper with distinction, a mark that few achieve for this unit within the WSET Diploma course.

Continued from part 1.

In July’s D6 paper, we were also asked to examine how wine producers can improve their social sustainability through employee relationships. Another interesting angle to truly sustainable development, and one we may not automatically consider when we hear the word ‘sustainability’.

Social sustainability deals with the identification and management of business impacts on people, both positive and negative. What companies do, directly or indirectly affects their employees, workers in the wider value chain, their customers and the local community they are embedded in.

How to improve social sustainability for wine industry employees is a complicated question, in part because social sustainability has many faces. Wine is produced on all continents but Antarctica, and circumstances in different countries, regions and layers of society are highly divergent. In areas with stable, mature economies and reliable social protection in place, the focus tends to be on wellbeing, actions to improve work-life balance and on mitigating the effects of peak-season overtime. Meanwhile, in regions where working conditions for full-time, seasonal or migrant workers are still largely unregulated, sustainability needs to address basic human rights, health and safety first.

Working conditions and workers’ rights

To illustrate this chasm: a 2020 study in Austria and Germany identified job satisfaction criteria among wine sector employees, such as remuneration, career opportunities, recognition by colleagues and managers, quality of the wines and alignment with the company’s philosophy.
In contrast, a 2021 OXFAM report revealed large-scale exploitation of immigrant workers in areas of Spain, Italy, France, Bulgaria, South America, New Zealand and South Africa, with issues ranging from excessive working hours, below-minimum wages and lack of insurance, to forced labour, abysmal housing conditions and severe health and safety hazards. International investigations even linked certain seasonal-labour agencies to organised crime groups involved in human trafficking.

But even in businesses where workers’ basic rights are fulfilled, improvements can be made. In its sustainable winery checklist, the US Pacific Northwest’s certification body LIVE states criteria for community impact, workers’ health, safety, education and benefits, from staff training and policy participation to adequate meal periods, rest breaks and availability of hygiene, sanitation and first-aid facilities. Remuneration for members must exceed legal minimum wages, with paid overtime and vacation, healthcare and retirement benefits. Equally, in South Africa, the IPW sustainability guidelines include staff training, health and safety measures.


Wineries can also launch own initiatives for a socially sustainable workplace. John Williams of Frog’s Leap in Rutherford, for example, invested in year-round employment and benefits for their immigrant workers. He involves employees in decision-making and continues to lower the spread between the lowest and highest-paid jobs. O’Neill Vintners & Distillers offer university scholarships and internships to advance the representation of black, indigenous and people of colour and ensure a well-rounded, diverse workforce. In 2011 Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton created a sheltered workshop for disabled employees, several of which secured permanent contracts at their Champagne houses since. In Bordeaux, Château Montrose developed ergonomic tools for its workers, while Château Anthonic increases employability by teaching vineyard skills to low-skilled young workers.


Social sustainability can also be improved by contributing to the local community, forging bonds with people, organisations and businesses in the region. Companies can recruit, source services or goods locally and support regional tourism and initiatives. When wine producers work constructively within their community, it raises the brand’s image and strengthens their employees’ positive feelings about the workplace. This in turn boosts employee retention, engagement, motivation, productivity and customer service.

Measures to mitigate negative impact on the community and enhancing environmental sustainability further improve employee relationships. As marketing expert Helen Wells asserts:

Better brand, happier staff. Being perceived as a green company is great for your brand image, and can make staff recruitment and retention easier. People want to work for companies that are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.


Finally, I want to stress the value of ‘enlightened management’ in employee relationships. For a business to be socially sustainable, it should not be run in fear, mistrust and micromanagement. Hiring the right persons for the job, rewarding them fairly, providing meaningful involvement and growth and training opportunities, are the ways forward. If this is actively and consistently put into practice, even staff who leave the business are likely to remain brand advocates. They can also become trusted contacts or business partners in their new capacity, which results in a strong, sustainable social network.

An example of a wine producer with such a strong socially-centred philosophy is Wirra Wirra in South Australia’s McLaren Vale. On their way to the entrance, staff and customers, referred to as the ‘Wirra Wirra tribe’, pass an installation with the words of the iconic Greg Trott, who revived the winery in the 1960s:

Never give misery an even break, nor bad wine a second sip.
You must be serious about quality, dedicated to your task in life, especially winemaking, but this should all be fun.

Continued in part 3.
This article is based on the July 2022 D6 paper Kristel submitted. Read it here.
Kristel passed this paper with distinction, a mark that few achieve for this unit within the WSET Diploma course.

The latest D6 paper focussed on sustainability in wine – environmental, economic and social. Topics close to my heart and worth looking at with a critical eye. The journey took me beyond popular green-energy-centred environmentalism, back to a more basic definition of ‘sustainable’: maintaining present behaviour without harming future generations’ chances at functionality, wealth and wellbeing.

Sustainability is hot, inspiring new processes, products and technologies. But these solutions also consume energy and resources to come about: people’s time and attention, electricity, materials, chemicals and water for production and cleaning operations. Additionally, new technologies tend to make older equipment redundant, resulting in functional hardware being discarded to end up as waste in incinerators or landfill.

Sustainable technologies should therefore not be produced and implemented thoughtlessly. In a truly sustainable wine industry, decisions need to be based on independent research, analysis and measurable data. Good intentions and a feel-good factor are important motivators and should therefore not be overlooked. Nevertheless, key actions should be guided by scientific fact and take the full lifecycle and energy balance into account.

The paper’s first question dealt with water and energy in the winery. Agriculture, including viticulture, is the largest water consumer worldwide, accounting for 69% of water withdrawals. Producing a tonne of grapes and turning it into wine requires on average 870,000 litres of water. In the winery, each tonne generates 3000 to 4000 litres of wastewater, mainly from washing operations during grape reception, pressing, fermentation and cleaning equipment and bottles. Winemaking is energy intensive too, with heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, compressed air and processing power as the biggest culprits.

Because wine businesses differ in size, location, ethos and resources, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Wineries need to evaluate what works for them, based on a long-term strategy and an integrated approach to cleaner, less wasteful production. This starts with measuring water and energy use, identifying where most expenditure occurs and where leaks and wastage can be addressed.


Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand has championed water conservation for many years. 92% of their members already measure and record water usage and 71% have leak detection programmes. Analysing data like this can reveal ‘low-hanging fruit’ solutions: cheap, easy to implement, yet making a difference in wineries of all sizes. Wine conglomerate E. & J. Gallo, for example, started by measuring hose flow rates and involving employees via ‘water walks’, increasing awareness of water expenditure throughout the winery. They conserved water straightaway by switching hose nozzles, cleaning with pressure and steam instead of open hoses, pre-rinsing barrels with used water and installing drain covers to avoid grapes clogging up pipes.

Other solutions involve larger investments: underground tanks to collect rainwater, UV-light bottling lines or wastewater plants to filter and treat water before reuse. In California, O’Neill Vintners and Distillers even built installations where worms convert wastewater into an eco-friendly soil-improving substance, and Cakebread Cellars landscaped their parking lot with drought-tolerant native plants, permeable pavers and bioswales to collect stormwater.

Because of the substantial costs embedded in water transport, heating and treatments, water-saving solutions also help conserve energy.


Sustainable energy use in wineries should focus on two aspects: energy conservation throughout the winery and renewable energies. Here too businesses should map and measure expenditure and consider low-hanging fruit measures before making expensive investments.

Studies in office buildings showed energy savings up to 41% from simple measures like window blinds, adjusting thermostats and switching lights and equipment off when leaving. Energy cost can also be considered in employee travel, everyday transport and selecting marketing materials.

Producers can favour eco-friendly packaging, such as recycled wine boxes or lighter bottles, which save energy in production and/or transport. Bag-in-box, aluminium cans or bottles, kegged wines on tap and wine bottles made from recycled paperboard have much lower lifecycle impact than single-use glass. Or wineries can participate in bottle reuse projects.

For winery buildings, experts recommend comprehensive energy management, centred around energy-efficient passive construction, insulation, refrigeration, renewable energy and – still problematic – energy storage. Options depend on the winery’s environment, size and resources. A few examples:

For their remaining energy needs, wineries can favour renewable sources. However, to be truly sustainable, they should factor in the material, environmental and energy costs of harnessing and transporting energy, and avoid outsourcing environmental costs to developing countries.

Despite concerns about visual aspects, impact on wildlife and microclimates, wind energy is one of the cleanest energies. Wind turbines come in different sizes, suitable for a range of wineries, but location is key for optimal performance, favouring open plains, hilltops, mountain gaps or bodies of water.

Solar and photovoltaic panels are generally suitable for wineries, since most are in medium to high solar radiation areas and there is a seasonal match between peak energy consumption and higher radiation times. But it is intermittent, depending on sunshine, and therefore often complemented with other technologies. In California, for example, Trinchero Family Estates and Stone Edge Farm combine solar energy with fuel cells: electrochemical energy-conversion devices working on hydrogen. Alternatively, Montepulciano’s Salcheto blends photovoltaic, geothermal and biomass solutions. The latter, where grape stems, pomace and lees are converted into biofuels, also addresses waste disposal issues.

Many measures are not feasible – nor desirable – for all wineries. However, sustainability can be factored into choosing suppliers and services, as more sustainable solutions become increasingly available.

Continued in part 2.
This article is based on the July 2022 D6 paper Kristel submitted. Read it here.
Kristel passed this paper with distinction, a mark that few achieve for this unit within the WSET Diploma course.

WineWise DipWSET graduate Stijn Verleyen shares his knowledge about special, lesser-known or forgotten wines and distillates with us. Tribute to ‘Tokaj’: the wine of kings, the king of wines.

“Vinum regum, rex vinorum” – this is reportedly how Louis XIV reacted when he tasted the aszú wine from Tokaj. Indeed, Tokaji Aszu was for a long time highly renowned in the royal courts of Europe and beyond.
I had the pleasure of doing a personal and in-depth visit to the region at the end of 2019 hosted by Royal Tokaj. In this contribution, I provide a brief overview of historical antecedents and look at past and present winemaking practices. We end with an overview of the trends and perspectives for this region whose potential for the production of top quality wine is now undisputed.

Tokaj’s geografical assets

The Tokaj region – in full Tokaj-Hegyalja (Hegyalja means “at the foot of the mountain”) – is located in north-eastern Hungary, a two-hour drive from Budapest. The Zemplén hills at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains do not only offer a beautiful landscape. They are also an ideal terroir for viticulture. Bacchus amat colles, as the Romans knew. The hills protect against cool northern influences and provide a multitude of unique plots and microclimates for the growers to play with.

The Tokaj region is essentially a collection of extinct volcanoes. These give rise to the distinctive soil type: rhyolitic tuffeau, with crystalline soil types such as opal and obsidian. Sedimentary soils such as loess are also present (for example, on Mount Tokaj), as are areas of limestone that recall the Pannonian Sea that once covered these regions.

Another important factor that makes the production of quality wine possible are the rivers. Just outside the town of Tokaj, the small Bodrog River flows into the larger Tisza, one of the main tributaries of the mighty Danube. As with the Ciron and the Garonne in Sauternes, the contrast in temperature between the two rivers creates autumn mists that rise from the marshlands around the river. This haze covers the vineyards and promotes the development of botrytis cinerea, the noble fungus indispensable to Tokaj’s prized aszú wines. 

The early history of Tokaj

Communisme and renaissance

It is impossible to discuss Tokaj’s history without mentioning the “dark ages” of communism. The broad outlines are well known: collectivisation and emphasis on quantity rather than quality (the steepest slopes, impossible to mechanise, were given up in the 1950s). However, these changes were never as profound in Tokaj as in other places in the Eastern Bloc: private ownership never completely disappeared and local vinification techniques were maintained.

It is certainly true that Tokaj produced and shipped a lot of mediocre wine to the East at that time. But the bulk of good aszú wines still found their way to the West, keeping the flame of Tokaj burning.

The end of communism heralded the beginning of Tokaj’s renaissance. The well-known wine writer Hugh Johnson convinced some investors to establish the Royal Tokaj Winery in 1990. The ambition was to bring international fame back to this once famous wine region.

Others followed suit: Axa millésimes bought Disznókő in 1992, while Spanish icon winery Vega Sicilia started Oremus in 1993. Dereszla is owned by Patrick d’Aulan of Château Sansonnet in St-Émilion. And these are certainly not the only examples.

Today, Tokaj is firmly back on the map, at least among wine lovers. Of course for its aszú wines, but also for the dry Furmint, a grape that is demonstrably on a par with Riesling and Chenin.

Grape varieties in Tokaj

Apart from Furmint, there are other grape varieties in Tokaj. The other two classics are Hárslevelű (“linden leaf”) and Sárga Muskotály (also known as muscat blanc à petits grains). Kabar (a cross between Hárslevelű and Bouvier) and Zéta (Bouvier x Furmint, known locally as Oremus) complete the list.

Furmint is without doubt the star of the show. There are several clones in production. Some are more suitable for aszú (compact bunches that facilitate the spread of botrytis), others for dry wines (looser bunches, small berries). Furmint is very sensitive to terroir fluctuations and often has a strong mineral backbone. The grape has a high, refreshing and natural acidity that also brings such a beautiful balance to sweet wines. Furmint expresses itself beautifully on the volcanic terroir of Tokaj, which lends tension and energy to the wines. 

Great variety of wine styles and winemaking

One of the most fascinating aspects of Tokaj is the wide variety of wine styles: from sparkling wines, bone-dry white wines, to off-dry, late harvest, full aszú and finally eszencia.

For dry white wines, vinification is fairly classical. Winemaking conditions improved considerably with the influx of investment in the post-communist era. Temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel is now standard, sometimes (but by no means always) followed by maturation in barrels. Often MLF is blocked to emphasise freshness (Royal Tokaj does this for most of its dry wines). The best wines have serious ageing potential with honeyed and nutty notes emerging over time.

An important recent trend is the emergence of sparkling wines according to the traditional method. Furmint clearly has what it takes to make good bubbles: high acidity and not too aromatic, so suitable for absorbing aromas from ageing in the lees. Some producers, such as Dereszla, have even made it the cornerstone of their production. Others outsource the technical aspects of sparkling wine production and just produce the basic wines (usually from drier vineyards, oriented to the north or east, where botrytis is rare).

The picture becomes more complicated when we move into the realm of non-dry and sweet wines. Off-dry could be the style of wine that wins over Tokaj to a wider and younger audience, for whom dry white wines might be a bit harsh. The vinification in this case simply consists of stopping the fermentation with about 10 grams of residual sugar in the wine. Then there is the late harvest category where the wines are already considerably sweeter.

Aszú remains the showpiece

The showpieces are, of course, the aszú wines. I will not go into all the intricate details. The basic principle is to add a paste of botrytised grapes to either must, fermenting wine or finished wine. This paste weighs about 80% less than the same quantity of non-botrytis affected grapes. This explains its high price: a kilo of first-class aszú berries will cost you around 8 euros.

The ‘puttonyos’ system originally referred to the number of ‘baskets’ (or ‘puttonyos’) of aszú paste used. In modern times, the indication corresponds to the residual sugar content: 3 puttonyos (the basic category) indicates at least 60 g/l, 6 puttonyos at least 150 g/l. In practice, of course, the products respect the minimum values, but many wines have a RS content that would justify bottling in a higher category. The labels have thus become “wine style” indications rather than strict measures of sugar content (like the German Prädikate, one could say).

In 2013, the system was reformed and imposed a minimum of 120g/l for aszú wines. However, producers are still allowed to list lower categories on the label (which Oremus does for its 3 puttonyos, for example).

The former aszú eszencia, which denoted the sweetest style in the range, was also abolished to avoid confusion with the actual eszencia, the free-flowing juice of botrytised berries. Needless to say, it is produced in small quantities and is an extremely fascinating wine with baffling analytical values (500+ grams of sugar combined with over 15 grams of total acidity are no exception).

Besides the historical style of forditas (second pressing of the aszu berries), the category of szamorodni (literally “as it grows”) also deserves a special mention. This exists in both dry (sarasz) and sweet (edesz) styles. Often, the wines are flor-affected (depending on the vintage) and exhibit distinct aldehyde aromas akin to sherry and vin jaune. The grapes for these wines are a mixture of normal healthy grapes, shrivelled grapes and grapes with botrytis. You can find wines of amazing depth and complexity here.

What does the future hold for Tokaj?

Dry and off-dry white wines will remain Tokaj’s main stronghold. The market for sweet wines will probably not return to its former strength any time soon.

Furmint certainly has the potential to showcase the full breadth of Tokaj’s terroirs. I had the opportunity to taste some world-class examples that show a real sense of place. It will also be worth keeping an eye on a possible breakthrough in sparkling wines.

On the other hand, premiumisation in the sweet categories likely offers potential. There is little doubt that Tokaj still deserves its place among the iconic sweet wines of the world.

The bad news for wine lovers is that aszú is rapidly becoming more expensive. But if you take into account the stellar quality of the best wines, combined with the careful vinification process and small harvests, they still offer good value for money. In any case, I will continue to stock up on these wines!

Guest author : Stijn Verleyen, DipWSET