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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

WineWise DipWSET graduate Thijs Akkerman shares his knowledge about special, lesser-known or forgotten wines and distillates with us. This time, the spotlight is on Lambrusco.

The unstoppable rise of Prosecco.

Prosecco, the festive sparkling wine from the north of Italy, has been on the rise for years. For the past six years, more prosecco than champagne was sold. Yet the wine makers in the hills between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene have not rested on their laurels. Traditional production methods like the fermentazione sui lieviti are rediscovered and for more sophisticated bottles the metodo classico is chosen more and more often. In addition, forty-three vineyards (“crus”) have now been identified, and the designation of origin Prosecco DOC Rosé has been created.

Lambrusco, so much potential and diversity

Barely 200 kilometres to the south, the Po Valley produces a sparkling wine that is becoming increasingly popular. Lambrusco, like Prosecco, suffered from a poor image for a long time, but in the last few years it has been on the rise. Although its popularity cannot yet be compared to that of Prosecco, the most famous red sparkling wine in the world has at least as much potential. Especially the diversity is an important trump card: from frizzante to spumante and from very dry to slightly sweet. Not to mention the white and rosé varieties.

Lambrusco and gastronomy

Many people still think of lambrusco as the two-litre bottles on the bottom shelf of supermarkets, filled with a sweet bubbly wine that you can get drunk on the cheap. I too, bought these bottles in an enoteca with classmates during my high school trip to Rome in 1996 and then hung tipsy around the Fontana dei quattro fiumi in Piazza Navona until the police came to sweep the square.
But good lambrusco is a great aperitif and gastronomically versatile. The rosé variety, for example, goes very well with the local salumi such as mortadellaprosciutto di Parmacoppa di Parmasalame Felinoculatello di Zibello and salame strolghino. The combination with (matured) Parmigiano Reggiano is also classic. The red version is an excellent accompaniment to stuffed pastas such as tortellini in brodolasagnazampone and bollito misto. The refreshing cherry fruit, the pleasant acidity, the usually modest mousse and the unique pink foam head provide an invigorating contrast to the rich meats, cheeses and sauces.

Lambrusco, grape variety or wine?

• Lambrusco descends from wild vines
The confusing thing is that lambrusco is both the name of several related grape varieties and the wine made from them. There are more than 60 known varieties of lambrusco throughout Italy, particularly in Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. Lambrusco” (the Etruscans spoke of “lambrusca”) means something among “wild grape” and research confirms that the entire lambrusco family indeed descends from wild vines.
• Lambrusco di sorbara, the most noble variety
The prodigy of the family is the lambrusco di sorbara. It is the most noble variety, named after the village of the same name in Emilia-Romagna. It is mainly planted in the plains around the city of Modena, known for Ferrari and aceto balsamico. It is the main variety in Lambrusco di Surbara DOC and is also widely used in Lambrusco Mantovano DOC. The wines of this grape are often pink in colour, smell like ripe cherries and have a fresh acidity and not too much tannin. Traditionally, they are drunk young as an aperitif, with or without cold cuts and cheeses.
• Lambrusco grasparossa, ideal with local dishes
Lambrusco grasparossa grows on the slopes around the village of Castelvetro, just south of Modena. The wines of this variety are deep and dark in colour. They usually have more tannin and a higher alcohol percentage. They are an excellent match with local dishes.
• Lambrusco viadanese, to be drunk on the spot
Lambrusco viadanese is mainly planted around the fiddlers’ town of Cremona and Mantova, the birthplace of Italian opera. Locally, it is also called lambrusco grappello ruberti. It is widely used for Lambrusco Mantovana DOC, which is mainly drunk locally.
• Lambrusco maestri and lambrusco salamino
Other noteworthy relatives are lambrusco maestri and lambrusco salamino. The former gives a large yield and, at best, somewhat rustic wines. The bunches of the latter somewhat resemble a sausage, hence its name. It is the most widely planted variety and gives the most full-bodied and aromatic lambruscos. It is therefore often used in a blend, but also makes up at least 90% of a Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce DOC.

Origin of the Lambrusco

The wines that bear the name “lambrusco” are, as mentioned, produced in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. On the label, in addition to the general IGT Emilia, you can find nine DOCs. These designations of origin are all located between Modena and Parma in Emilia-Romagna and Mantova in Lombardy. Reggiano is the most generic DOC, Sorbara the most prominent. The remaining seven are Grasaparossa di Castelvetro, Modena, Salamino di Santa Croce, Mantovano, Colli di Parma, Colli di Scandiano e Canossa and Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa Montericco rosato.
• Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC must contain at least 60% lambrusco sorbara, supplemented by a maximum of 40% lambrusco salamino. Nowadays, some top producers use only sorbara. As said, this is an ideal aperitif wine.
• Lambrusco Grasparossa del Castelvetro DOC is the smallest designation of origin. The rules prescribe a minimum of 85% Lambrusco Grasparossa. The wines are darker in colour, with more tannins. For this reason, they are an excellent match with the local dishes.
• Lambrusco Mantovano DOC is the only lambrusco that does not come from Emilia-Romagna, but from Lombardy. Both lambrusco maestri, lambrusco marani and lambrusco salamino and lambrusco viadanese may be used. They are usually very good wines, but unfortunately they are mainly drunk locally and rarely exported.
Like most prosecco producers, many winemakers in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy make several types of lambrusco. The variation is mainly in the production method.

Production methods

Since the 1970s, most Lambrusco has been produced using the metodo martinotti (or, as the French say, méthode charmat). The second fermentation does not take place in the bottle, but in a closed tank. This relatively cheap method is mainly used for export under the umbrella of IGT Emilia.
In 2010, Cantina della Volta’s winemaker Christian Bellei was the first local winemaker to rediscover the metodo classico. In recent years, more and more producers, with Paltrinieri as the driving force, have returned to the metodo ancestrale. This method results in a lightly sparkling wine with often some sediment. The wine is bottled before all residual sugar has been fermented. The fermentation continues in the bottle, where the released carbon dioxide cannot escape. No dosage is added. Whatever method is chosen, the current trend is towards secco (maximum 15 grams of residual sugar per litre of wine) rather than sweet.

Discovering and tasting

Because Lambrusco can be used so widely in gastronomy, it is very interesting for specialist wine shops and sommeliers.
For example, it is advisable to include a Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC (aperitif) and a Lambrusco Grasparossa del Castelvetro DOC (meal accompaniment) in the assortment of one producer.
Lambruscos made by the metodo ancestrale are now in great demand worldwide among lovers of natural wines and Pét-Nats. Moreover, like many Italian wines, lambrusco meets the growing demand for indigenous grape varieties.
A good place to get to know lambrusco better is Enoteca Lambruscheria in Modena, which has dozens of specimens on the menu.
If budget allows, dinner can then be enjoyed at Massimo Bottura’s three-star restaurant Osteria Francescana. Bottura is a great lover of lambrusco and serves some fine examples.
Interesting winemakers to visit next are Christian Bellei of Cantina della Volta, as mentioned before, the one who rediscovered the metodo classico for lambrusco, and Paltrinieri, pioneer of ‘crus’ and champion of the metodo ancestrale.
Many winemakers, by the way, have a loft for their aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena DOP, which is made from grape must and matured in small wooden barrels according to the solera system. It says a lot about the culinary richness of the region. That is also the challenge: you can go there, but how do you get back?

Contributing author : Thijs Akkerman DipWSET