Saturday, December 30, 2023

Tokaji, a Sweet Finish

If sparkling wine is for ringing in the new year, then dessert wine is for wrapping up the current one. For 2023, my sweet finish of choice is Tokaji. Tokaji is made with grapes that are infected with noble rot. Noble rot is caused by a beneficial fungus, Botrytis cinerea. Famous dessert wines made from botrytized grapes include the French Sauternes and German Trockenbeerenauslese. However, Tokaji is a botrytized wine of another level and is known as the king of wines and the wine of kings. Here are a few things you want to know about Tokaji.

Tokaji by Takato Marui
How do you pronounce Tokaji?

No matter what Google tells you, Tokaji is not pronounced toe-kah-jee. The dragged out pronunciation is toe-kah-yee, but most wine connoisseurs simply shorten it toe-kai

Where is Tokaji from?

Tokaji comes from the Tokaj wine region that is actually shared by two countries; Hungary and Slovakia. In Hungary, the region is called Tokaji borvidék while in Slovakia, it is called Vinohradnícka oblast’ Tokaj.
Licencnazmluvac.87-11-3899/2015	© Igor Vizner 201
Tokaj Wine Region adapted from Igor Vizner’s map
The majority of the wine region, which consists of 28 communes and 5,500 hectares, resides within Hungary. The Slovakian side of the wine region is a fraction of its Hungarian counterpart with 7 communes and over 900 hectares of vineyards. Under the current EU legislation, the name Tokaj (and other variations of the spelling) has been given the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status and may be used by either country. As of March 2007, French and Italian producers who had previously used Tokay or Tocai on their wine labels are no longer allowed to do so.

What kind of grapes go into a Tokaji?

As mentioned, grapes used to make a Tokaji are infected with Botrytis cinerea. The grey fungus infects ripe grapes in misty mornings and punctures the skins. As the temperature rises in the afternoons, water evaporates through the ruptured skin. Over time, the loss of water concentrates the sugar content in the partially raisined grapes.

Noble rot by John Yesberg
As for grape varieties, whether in Hungary or Slovakia, the three main ones are Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Sárgamuskotály (or Yellow Muscat). Furmint is the most dominant grape. Other grapes allowed in a Tokaji are Zéta, Kövészőlő, and Kabar. This is not to be confused with grape varieties that are or were named Tokay or Tocai. In the EU, these grapes are now required to use different names. For instance, Tocai Friulano in Italy is renamed to Sauvignonasse, and Tokay d’Alsace has gone with its international name, Pinot gris.

Are there different types of Tokaji?

Yes, there are different types of Tokaji wine, but the two most famous ones are Aszú and Eszencia.
Aszú means dried in Hungarian. The grapes are individually picked, collected in large vats, and mashed into a paste or aszú dough. Must (unfermented grape juice) or wine is poured on the aszú dough and stirred periodically for 24-48 hours. The juice is then racked (or transferred without the solid debris) into wooden vats to complete fermentation and maturation. 

Tokaji Aszú by Naotake Murayama
What’s new with Aszú? Previously, the sugar content of an aszú was measured in puttonyos, ranging from 3 to 6 puttonyos (or 60 to 150 grams of sugar per liter). Puttonyos were based on the use of 22-23 kg basket of the botrytized grapes, known as a puttony. Since 2013, Hungarian wine law has declassified wines with 3 or 4 puttonyos from the Aszú designation. These are now labeled as Late Harvest. Aszús today are required to have at least 120 grams of sugar per liter, previously known as 5 and 6 puttonyos.

Eszencia, one of the most expensive dessert wines in the world, is made from the free run of aszú grapes after harvest. Free run refers to the juice that is extracted using gravity and the weight of the grapes alone. This juice may be added to aszú wine to ferment or just ferments on its own. Eszencia takes at least four years to ferment into a thick syrupy wine. Called the nectar, Eszencia is enjoyed in small sips using specially made glass spoons. Watch British wine journalist, Jamie Goode, taste different vintages of Eszencia in the YouTube below.

To be classified as an Eszencia, the wine needs to have over 450 grams of sugar per liter. In some years, Eszencia may even exceed 900 grams of sugar per liter. Because of the high sugar content, the alcohol level rarely rises above 5%. Eszencia is known to cellar for 200 years.

Why is Tokaji famous?

Tokaji gained popularity among European royalties since the 18th Century. In 1703, Prince Francis Rákóczi II of Transylvania gifted King Louis XIV of France Tokaji from his estate. During a feast in Versailles where Tokaji was served, the menu read, C’est le roi des vins, et le vin des rois (translated to “It is the king of wines, and the wine of kings). The list of Tokaji fans among monarchs included Louis XV, Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Josef, Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, and others. In fact, prior to the end of World War I, the best Eszencia was not sold but exclusively reserved for the Imperial cellars of the Habsburg monarchy.

King Louis XIV, a Tokaji fan
Tokaji wine was also the among first to be receive appellation classification. Vineyard classification started in 1730 based on soil, sun exposure, and the potential to develop noble rot. In 1757, a closed production district in Tokaj was established. The Tokaji classification predated that of port and even Bordeaux wine.

What is my take on Tokaji?

After enjoying Tokaji in restaurants on several occasions, my husband bought me a bottle of 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú for Christmas. We coravin’ed a serving for each of us, and here are our tasting notes.

2017 Royal Tojaki 5 Puttonyos Aszú 

Remarkably pale amber in color, the Aszú smells of a blend of honeycomb and straw. On the palate, it is Meyer lemon-esque with a tinge of bread crust. It is sweet but not cloyingly so. It is rich, unctuous and well-balanced with high acidity. The finish goes on and on, coating the mouth and delighting the palate.

If there is a wine that provides a sweet finish to a year, this 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú makes a fine choice. If you do see a Tokaji in a restaurant (and it doesn’t come by often), try it. It’s an exceptional sweet finish to a meal too.