Liquid Gold – Tokaji Aszu dessert wine

Liquid Gold

Tokaji Aszú is a sweet botrytised wine from northeastern Hungary, prized by connoisseurs around the world. Elizabeth Gabay reports

Known as the “king of wines and the wine of kings”, the botrytised sweet, golden wines of Tokaj have for many centuries been sought after by Europe’s aristocracy and royalty. Located today in the region straddling the border between northeastern Hungary and southeastern Slovakia, close to the border with Ukraine, Tokaj is regarded as one of the oldest, wine appellations delimited by Royal Decree in 1737.

While much of Hungary is covered by the Great Plain, part of the Pannonian Basin — an area originally covered by a giant inland sea — the region was once a bubbling mass of volcanoes. A chain of volcanic hills across northern Hungary includes the massive remains of Europe’s largest volcano at Banska Stiavnica in southern Slovakia, once also home to one of Europe’s largest gold mines.

The hills themselves have hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, originally carved out between the 15th and 17th centuries as protection against the invading Ottoman armies

The volcanic hills of Tokaj (there are around 400 extinct volcanoes locally) are ancient and complex, with top soils of red clay, loess and weathered pumice. The hills themselves have hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, originally carved out between the 15th and 17th centuries as protection against the invading Ottoman armies. Thanks to their damp atmosphere and constant temperatures, the tunnels were soon used for storing barrels of wine. The cellars are covered in a soft velvety mould called Cladosporium cellare that feeds on the alcohol evaporating from cask and bottle. The high humidity, often near 95%, is perfect for long-term ageing.

Most of the 5000ha of vineyards are located on steep hills, interspersed with forests, largely facing the southeast plain across which the Bodrog and Tisza rivers cross, meeting at the town of Tokaj in the south of the region. The Tisza flows from the Ukraine across Hungary to the Danube river in Serbia. The area is prone to early mists and occasional flooding, creating the vital humidity which encourages noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea) and the essential Aszu grapes.

The vineyards are predominantly planted with Furmint, Hárslevelu, Muscat à Petits Grains (Sárga Muskotály in Hungarian) and various other varieties in 418 different crus, 52 of which are classified as first class. Since 2013, the different wine styles have been simplified into four categories. The highly acidic Furmint, similar to Riesling in style, is the dominant variety followed by floral Hárslevelu and aromatic Muscat à petits grains.

Indigenous grapes used in the production of Tokaj, left to right, Furmint, Hárslevelu and Sárga Muskotály (Muscat à Petits Grains)

The grapes for Tokaj are usually soaked in a dry base wine or fermenting must in varying proportions, leading to different puttonyos or sweetness levels. Sweet Tokaj can be made with different amounts of botrytised grapes resulting in a range of different classifications.

NON-BOTRYTISED WINES

Still, dry wines are today 70% of Tokaj production. Furmint’s high acidity, long linear minerality, fresh apple and saline fruit, often bearing a resemblance to Riesling or Assyrtiko is highly valued for both dry and sweet wines. Dry wines have been made since the early 1990s with a major turning point in 2000, a vintage that had limited botrytis affected grapes. Winemakers Istvan Szepsy and Zoltan Demeter chose to make a single vineyard dry Furmint which was received with high acclaim. Dry sparkling and late harvest sweet wines are also produced. Producers such as István Balassa have shown how the different nuances in the terroir of each parcel impacts the flavour of Furmint.

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Szent Tamás 2021, István Balassa: Charming ripe pear and apple fruit with long, fresh minerality, high acidity (7.2gm/lt) and a pure saline length, from a first-class cru.

SEMI-BOTRYTISED WINES

Szamorodni, means “as it comes” (referring to the varying amount of botrytised berries included). The wine can be dry or sweet with up to 100gm/lt sugar) and can be aged under flor with a minimum of six months in oak. The style was dying out until French winemaker Samuel Tinon moved to the area and championed high quality szamorodni wines. The new TR estate has a single vineyard called Palota and a parcel on Szent Tamás planted with old vines.

2019 TR Szamorodni: 151gm/lt sugar and 6gm/lt acidity (but not enough botrytis to be an aszú wine) with 10% Hárslevelu added to the blend. Eighteen months in oak has imparted delicate notes of smoky toast with rich dried peach, apricot and guava fruit with spice, black tea and marmalade.

Grapes shrivel and turn into aszu berries when infected with noble rot or botrytis cinerea

HIGH PERCENTAGE OF BOTRYTIS
Sweet Aszú wines are graded as 5 or 6 puttonyos — again referring to the amount of aszú berries in the wine. These shrivelled berries are soaked in the fermenting must or young wine before fermentation continues. The wines are aged for a minimum of 18 months in barrels. The minimum residual sugar for the 5 puttonyos wine is 120gm/lt and 150gm/lt for 6 puttonyos.

Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2019, Chateau Dereszla: 30% Hárslevelu, 147gm/lt sugar, 7.7g/lt acidity and two years in barrel. Lower sugar and higher acidity than TR’s Szamorodni. The apricot fruit and yellow peach fruit is fresh, and the acidity vibrant and very much in control of the rich sweetness. The slightly higher percentage of Hárslevelu contributes to the delicate freshness.

Aszú 6 Puttonyos Nagyszolo 1er Cru 2017, Tokaj-Hétszolo Organic Vineyard: A rare example of 100% Hárslevelu aged in barrels for 2½ years, with 154g/l sugar. Rich aromas of honey, ginger and typical Hárslevelu florals. The intense honeyed richness creates a rich luscious wine with a lighter, more ephemeral delicacy.

Extremely rare Eszencia wines are made from 100% aszú berries, with a minimum of 450gm/lt sugar and are barely fermented

Eszencia wine: Due to its high sugar content, Eszencia ferments very slowly and resembles a thin honey rather than wine

Relique Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2019, Kvaszinger Winery: 100% Furmint with higher sugar at 190gm/lt and 8gm/lt acidity with minimum ageing in barrel. The fruit is stunningly intense with peach tea and lapsang souchong aromatics, sun-kissed apricots, and concentrated ripe richness. Fresh citrus acidity and a delicate tannic grip.

Royal Tokaji By Appointment Aszú 6 Puttonyos Furmint 2013, Royal Tokaji Winery: 100% Furmint from a great vintage. The aszu berries were macerated for two days and aged in barrel for two years. 180gm/lt sugar and 10.7gm/lt acidity. Intensely rich peach marmalade, dried apricots, ripe bruised pears, ground pepper, black tea, layered nuances, firm structure, defined by long white lemon acidity cutting through the richness.

100% BOTRYTIS
These extremely rare Eszencia wines are made from 100% aszú berries, with a minimum of 450gm/lt sugar and are barely fermented. Comprising concentrated grape sugar, they are served with a small china spoon.

Climate change has marginally reduced both acidity and sugar levels (note the higher levels in the 2013 Royal Tokaj), which, combined with more modern, reductive winemaking, has resulted in increasingly fresh and vibrant sweet wines which can age for decades, taking on concentrated richness. They are made in small volumes, making them rare gems, with 80% of production is exported to discerning customers around the world.