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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

We are writing at the beginning of 2020, not a speck in the air. The Millennium had just turned 20. The vines that were planted in 2000 are now mature . The millennials who want to dive into wine professionally are now ready to taste the real work “on the field”.
We traveled the world without any worries. From Ningxia to Napa, from Zaragosa to the extreme south of South Africa. Tastings were regularly organised for the general public, sometimes for a select group. The working week for most sommeliers was in many cases mainly the weekend.
The stock of wine had to be monitored everywhere. The accountant or the financial manager kept telling us that we had better be careful. But business was going well, the guests also ordered nice bottles. Now and then the choice was made on a budget, usually when it was for their own account.
We made plans for the coming weeks, months and even years. Which wine region did we want to discover on the spot? When would we head to our favourite winemaker or region again? We would want to revisit our meanwhile friends and like-minded people. And to taste and evaluate recent vintages and new wines. Very often, one or more “older” wines were tasted, in order to demonstrate how beautifully the wine can mature.

Lockdown 2020

March 18, 2020, Belgium goes into lockdown. Fortunately, the sun shines a lot. It would take three weeks.
Quite frankly, we had the impression that most of us didn’t mind at the time. Sommelier challenge groups were set up. On social media, it was widely shared which wine we were tasting again. Personally, I took the time to go through some old and new wine books a little more thoroughly. The evenings were warm and long, above all we had no obligations. The ideal moment to catch your breath in an instructive way.
But the weeks turned into months and everything had already been polished and polished a second time. The container with empty bottles to take to the glass container often turned out to be quite full. Here too we noticed that we were not the only ones. People found that they still enjoyed a glass of wine regularly and with pleasure. What a luck!
The first webinars were organised, some more professional than others. As befits a sommelier and the wine world in general, we are inventive, creative and professional enough to adapt. Not only the Belgian sommeliers, but also colleagues from all over the world did something in their own way online or on social media. All with the same goal: to pass on the passion and love for wine.
So and there is the trigger point of this sanitary crisis. After the first lockdown we luckily had a few summer months where we could perform the beautiful job full of surrender. It was extremely busy in most cases. The people almost all drank nice bottles, even if it was on their own account. They had left again and despite the many rules, everything went beyond expectations.
But most of us wouldn’t survive a second lockdown, yet it was inevitable and it was like that again at the end of October. They said it wouldn’t take very long. Unfortunately, we are now more than five months later and a clear perspective is still not available. Everyone has a certain date in mind, but nobody knows for sure when we can really get back to work. Which when, is a matter of time.

Time to taste and deepen our knowledge

In the meantime everyone had the time to think carefully, and many people came to the realisation that there is also a life besides that great job. I heard two clear tendencies from several like-minded people. On the one hand the group of passionate stress-seeking catering fanatics, on the other hand the rational and honest employee or employer who can now also appreciate life in a different way.
I saw sommeliers immersing themselves and deepening their already broad knowledge even further. There were Toppers in the trade who did winter pruning in Flemish vineyards. Others tasted more wines from our own regions than before. Internationally acclaimed colleagues were more easily accessible online (zoom, Teams,..) than before. Winemakers from all over the world made very instructive films about climate, terroir, new techniques, classical methods,…

The future of the sommelier

The profession as a sommelier was already a bottleneck profession. I’m afraid it won’t get any better after this crisis. But hopefully we are moving towards a brighter future. Why a bright future I hear you ask?
When everything can more or less go back to normal, more than likely, improved working conditions will be taken into account. This had been going on for a while, in an important part of the hospitality industry. But it will now have to be accelerated. The government will play an important role in this. If they do not do this rigorously, the sector will bear the consequences of this crisis for many years to come.
It will be no less than 9 months that we as a sector were technically unemployed. The compensation you got was really just a small cloth for the bleeding. Because (almost) everyone I spoke to is eager to pamper their guests again. To provide fun combinations of text and explanation, to introduce new and old discoveries. To launch or confirm tendencies and trends. To submerge the guests in a responsible way in a delicious and honest wine bath. To use the right glassware, the right temperature, the right choice. To do what we love to do: provide people with that little bit extra, the perfect wine experience.
Because no App, no webinar, no virtual wine tour or tasting can even come close to the original. Enjoy a nice bottle at a restaurant, together with friends, family, acquaintances or business associates. Be impressed by the right choice and passionate explanation of the sommelier.
However, in the future we will be able to travel from Ningxia to Napa, from Zaragosa to South Africa in a few seconds. I still wish to use ALL my senses when we talk about wine. Feel, smell, see, taste and hear what the sommelier has to tell us. Because it is precisely the latter that is the extra added value that people are happy to spend some money for. There has been a lot of time to learn and hopefully the right lessons will be learned. But mainly because sommeliers are positive people, who want to take good care of the guests.
Finally, tools and systems have also been developed in recent months that can support the profession even better. The most important thing will be that, just like with a good wine, the right balance is found between all elements. Then you can be sure that we still have a very bright future ahead of us.

Contributing author : Kris Lismont, DipWSET