Tokaj: the wine of kings, the king of wines
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
- It is not the intention here to delve deeply into the history of Tokaj. For a detailed analysis of the region’s history, key families and personalities, and the development of its wine styles, refer to Miles Lambert-Góc’s formidable book (Tokaji wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition).
I do want to highlight some key episodes here.
- Historical sources indicate that wine-growing in this region was already established in 900, the year in which the Magyars arrived from the south of Russia.
- It was not until much later, around 1600, did Tokaj rise to the top with its aszú wines. Legend has it that the harvest was delayed by the war with the Ottomans. As the harvest did not start until well into October, the noble botrytis had had plenty of time to do its work. Aszú then conquered the nobility of Europe, but remained – as it does today – only a small part of the production Tokaj, the icing on the cake.
- Tokaj can also claim one of the first vineyard classification systems in history. This system was laid out on a beautiful historical map in the 18th century. It is interesting that the best vineyards on that map still produce the best wines today: Disznókő, Szerelmi, Hétszőlő, Betsek, Szent Tamás, Oremus, Király, Nyulászó and Bányász, to name but a few.
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