Many wines vie for the title of noblest, most aristocratic of them all, yet few can stake as compelling a claim to be considered thus as Tokaji, the fabled sweet nectar produced in the foothills of the Zemplén mountains in north east Hungary.
Stories are legion about how it was coveted by European royalty and the Russian ‘Greats’, Peter and Catherine, even kept a detachment of Cossacks there to safeguard the wine’s journey to their cellars.
With such a rich backstory it was fitting that the Tokaj region (Tokaji is the wine) should be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2002, yet the world at large was lucky that it still existed. The post-second world war Communist era was not kind to Tokaj, the drab administrative hand that fell across eastern Europe was completely at variance with its regal antecedents. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a wine style that could have been more out of step with the Communist ethos than Tokaji. For over four decades quantity was prized above quality: vines were planted on the flat rather than the harder-to-work hillsides, planting density was decreased, production was increased, with everything blended together to produce a soulless, shadowy version of the real thing that was little better than alcoholic sugar water.
In time, this period will come to be considered simply as another chapter in a long story and thankfully the most recent chapter is in direct contrast to what went before. Since the fall of Communism, huge outside investment and the return to private ownership of many of the vineyards has led to a rebound in quality, as the painstaking practices of old were reinstated. Very briefly, Tokaji is made from nobly rotten grapes affected by botrytis cinerea and it was the first wine to be made thus, pre-dating Sauternes by about 200 years. Furmint is the principal grape variety, with a significant proportion of Hárslevelú also used. The botrytized grapes, called aszú, are harvested along with unaffected berries, but kept separate; the former oozing the juice used for Eszencia (see box), the latter fermented more conventionally.
The aszú berries are then mixed with must or fermented wine for a further fermentation, the sweetness depending on how many puttonyos, or 25-kilo hods are added per barrel of wine. The resulting viscous, golden wine doesn’t have the same liquorice quality as Sauternes, there is more ‘spark’ on the palate thanks to the spicy, caramelised orange note that is an essential flavour component in Tokaji. It pairs beautifully with foie gras and blue cheese but a small glass, slightly chilled, can easily serve as a dessert in itself.
Eszencia is the ultimate expression of Tokaji and it is debatable as to whether it can actually be called a wine at all. As the name suggests it is indeed essence – made from the juice that dribbles from the aszú grapes, pressed only under their own weight. Twenty-five kilos will yield about one litre of juice, which then begins a snail-like fermentation over three or fours years to yield a wine of about three per cent alcohol. It is syrupy and dense and virtually ageless; its lifespan is measured in centuries rather than mere years or even decades. Thanks to its rarity it has been credited with possessing all sorts of miraculous curative properties, though few have been in a position to verify such claims.
THREE TO TRY
Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú 2009
The Royal Tokaji Company dates from 1990 and one of its co-founders is the celebrated wine writer Hugh Johnson, who once wrote of Tokaji: “Of all the essences of the grapes it is the most velvety, oily, peach-like and penetrating. Its fragrance lingers in the mouth like incense.” This wine accords easily with that description. It is luscious yet balanced, with abundant orange peel and mild spice flavours, a gentle note of caramel, and a tangy zip of acid to complete the picture.
Château Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2009
Records of winemaking at Dereszla date back as far as the early 15th century, with the château itself being founded in the 18th. It benefitted from a complete overhaul and restoration in 2000 and today it owns 40 hectares as well as having another 100 under management. This wine shimmers gold in the glass and gives off scents of ripe soft fruits and orange zest. The palate is textured and smooth and the flavour unfolds like a rolling wave, honeyed and full but not cloying.
Disznókó Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2008
Since 1992 Disznókó has been owned by AXA Millésimes, the wine division of the French insurance giant that also owns Château Pichon-Longueville in Bordeaux, Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy and Quinta da Noval in the Douro Valley. Massive investment, including an eye-catching tractor shed that doubles as a concert venue, has resulted in exemplary wines. Freshness and richness combine here in a satin-textured wine replete with oodles of ripe fruit and firmer spicy notes.