The glorious sweet wines of the Tokaj region are unique, recognised as among the best – if not the best – in the world. Louis XIV of France described Tokaji Aszú as the ‘wine of kings, king of wines’, and the region’s reputation dates back to at least the 16th century.
The wines are not just a historical footnote, however. Today, Dr Péter Molnár, president of the wine council of Tokaj and general manager at Patricius, confirms: ‘Tokaji Aszú is much more than just a sweet wine – it is a global reference for elegant balance, drinkability and living acidity. It needs to come out of its hiding place in the box marked “dessert wine” and show that it’s a joy with other cuisines, including spicy Asian flavours, too.’
A noble tradition
The uniqueness of Tokaji (Tokaji is the wine, Tokaj the region) comes from a combination of the grapes, climate and place. In Tokaj, the rivers Bodrog and Tisza converge, creating densely foggy mornings and the humidity that allows Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, to thrive.
Sunny, breezy afternoons shrivel the berries (which must be picked one by one) so much that they can’t simply be pressed for juice as in most sweet wine regions. If you try, you get a trickle of thick syrup so sweet it barely ferments, making a wine called Eszencia – best tasted on a spoon, if you are lucky enough to get the chance. Patricius has an amazing Eszencia from 2000.
And so Tokaji’s complicated winemaking evolved. Traditionally, crushed aszú (the Hungarian name for shrivelled, nobly rotten grapes) measured in a wooden bucket called a puttony were added to young wine to soak and ferment – a technique first documented in 1571. Historically, Tokaji sweetness was measured by how many puttonyos were added to the base wine,contained in a small Gönci barrel.
The process has now been modernised. Most producers use fermenting juice to soak the aszú berries for a few hours to a few days, then finish the fermentation and ageing in oak barrels (often sourced from the Zemplén forest on the same hills as the vineyards). The brown, toffee-like liquids of the previous era are long gone. Today’s golden-amber wines have no oxidation and a much shorter oak-ageing period (the legal minimum is 18 months), focusing on gorgeous quince, apricot and honey flavours and fine noble-rot complexity. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to make Aszú wines every year – the weather has to be just right, with foggy mornings, sunny afternoons and not too much autumn rain (sadly, 2020 was a washout for most producers).
While Tokaji Aszú’s sweetness is no longer measured by buckets, the term ‘puttonyos’ is still used on labels today. By law, Aszú must have at least 120g/L of residual sugar, equivalent to five puttonyos (in 2013, less-sweet wines equivalent to three or four puttonyos were removed from production). Meanwhile, a wine labelled ‘six puttonyos’ must have 150g/L or more – in practice, the exact sugar level varies with winemakers’ personal judgement.
More to offer
Aszú wines are the jewel in Tokaj’s crown, but there are two other significant sweet wines in the region that can offer a route towards Aszú: Szamorodni and late harvest. The former, the name of which is derived from a Polish word meaning ‘as it comes’, is increasingly important. Once called főbor, or ‘prime wine’, Szamorodni has been known since the 16th century. It’s made from whole bunches, with a mix of botrytis-affected and healthy berries, and comes in two styles: édes (sweet) and rare, flor-aged száraz (dry). Château Dereszla’s Experience Szamorodni is a good example of the száraz style.
Szamorodni has gained much more attention since Aszú wines with three and four puttonyos were barred, and since recent legislation permitted a shorter oak-ageing period of six months for Szamorodni, preserving more fruit character and freshness.
For many producers, modern Szamorodni wines are more authentic representations of Tokaj than the other significant style, late harvest, which they see as less serious and more ‘international’. This is because of Szamorodni wines’ long history in the region and the fact that they usually have some aszú character. But for other producers, late harvest is the way forward for accessible sweet wines, as the style is internationally understood. Late-harvest wines may or may not contain aszú grapes and are usually vinified in stainless steel for maximum fruitiness, with sweetness levels at 80g/L-100g/L.
The grapes underlie the success of all Tokaji wines. Furmint delivers the backbone and structure, and the vibrant, steely acidity that provides the hallmark elegant balance and refreshment of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Furmint is also, of course, prone to noble rot. Hárslevelű adds roundness and fruitiness, while fragrance may come from a small percentage of Yellow Muscat (Sárgamuskotály). Kabar, Kövérszőlő and Zéta are the other three varieties permitted, usually used in tiny quantities, if at all.
Tokaj has also been a beneficiary of a very dynamic emerging wine scene. Several high-profile foreign investors arrived in the early 1990s, though more recently, much of Tokaj’s evolution has come from passionate Hungarians – often small family producers committed to showing the new face of this endlessly fascinating region.
Gilby’s Tokaji picks: six of the best
Szepsy, Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2013 97
£170/50cl Top Selection
Utterly gorgeous wine from a superb vintage, from the living legend István Szepsy. If you can, treat yourself to one of his thrilling, long-lived older vintages. The 2013 is beguiling and complex yet elegant, thanks to spine-tingling freshness balancing the sumptuous, silky sweetness and generous notes of mango, dried apricot, orange zest and quince. Drink 2021-2041 Alcohol 9%
Pajzos, Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2013 96
Beautiful, youthful and pure bouquet, then just a lovely balance of luscious sweetness and vibrant acidity. Unusually, Hárslevelű is playing the lead role here, offering succulence and fruit notes of peaches and apricot, and subtle notes of honeysuckle. Furmint adds its fine steely acidity on the long-lasting, fine, silky finish. Still a real baby wine with a long future. Drink 2021-2036 Alc 9%
Disznókő, Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2017 94
A shining golden wine from a great vintage. It shows aromas of peach, exotic fruit, honeysuckle and a twist of spice. The palate is very pure, luscious and silky with hints of apricot and candied peel, and a bright fresh finish, giving beautiful balance. Already drinking nicely but there’s also great ageing potential. Drink 2021-2036 Alc 13%
Royal Tokaji, Tokaji Aszú Puttonyos 2016 92
Such a good introduction to the balance that defines 5 puttonyos, from a pioneer of Tokaji in the new era. Limpid gold, with fine pear and white peach aromas, clean botrytis complexity and flavours of poached pear, sultana, citrus zest. Most notably, it shows the tension of acidity and sweetness that makes this style so elegant. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 11.5%
Juliet Victor, Szamorodni 2017 97
£42.99/50cl Novel Wines
Top-notch, new-wave Szamorodni with similar sweetness to Aszú but made in a fresher, fruitier style. Incredibly inviting with great expression of super-clean noble rot complexity, and aromas of apricot, sultana, mango and rose petal, plus a twist of spice. To taste, it is incredibly luscious and velvety, yet fresh and graceful. Drink 2021-2030 Alc 10.5%
Demetervin, Szamorodni 2013 91
£28.99/50cl Novel Wines
Has a limpid, pale-gold colour, and a nose of fresh yellow plum, spiced pear and exotic fruit notes. It’s a medium- bodied, not-too-sweet style that’s made purely from Furmint, showing lovely zesty acidity to balance the honeyed sweetness. Drink 2021-2028 Alc 12%