Boston Wine Expo '99
Tokaji Seminar

given by Hugh Johnson

At the 1999 Boston Wine Expo, Hugh Johnson, noted wine writer and part-owner of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, hosted a seminar and horizontal tasting of the 1993 Royal Tokaji wines. As might be expected, given that the speaker was such a well-known wine writer with an obvious interest in the subject, Johnson's seminar was both entertaining and informative. He is obviously quite well-informed on the subject of Tokaji (pronounced toe-KI, where the second syllable rhymes with "pie"); however, when evaluating his comments, one should remember that his interest is at least partly financial.

In fact, Johnson addressed that very point at the beginning of the presentation, noting that he had believed that "the critic should not be the active do-er." However, his interest in the region obviously outweighed any misgivings. When he was considering becoming actively involved in the region, he noted that "Of all the great wines of the world, only one had disappeared: Tokaji." While the accuracy of that statement is debatable (and certainly depends on how far back in history one chooses to go), the chance to restore the heritage of Tokaji undoubtedly played a major role in motivating him to invest.

Tokaji 101

Johnson's seminar included a good basic introduction to Tokaji Aszu (pronounced approximately like AH-szoo), a wine with a long, rich tradition. According to Johnson, the first official recognition of Tokaji was in 1650; however, he has seen bottles which date from 1606 in the cellar of a merchant in Hungary. Tokaji Aszu has a reputation for being extremely long-lived, and was at one time regarded as one of the world's greatest wines, known as "the wine of kings and the king of wines" (though a few other wines have laid claim to this title over the years). By the 18th century, Tokaji was the subject of the world's oldest known vineyard classification, predating the famous Bordeaux Classification of 1855 by quite a few years; this classification is explained in more detail in the "Philosophy of Royal Tokaji" section below. The wine is made in the Tokajhegyalja ("Tokaji hills") region of northeastern Hungary, primarily from the Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes, with Yellow Muscat (a local mutation of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, known locally as Muskotaly) sometimes present as a minor component. In addition, other sources list the Oremus grape as playing a minor role in the region. 100% Muscat Tokaji is supposedly sometimes made in small quantities, but I haven't seen any for sale yet in the USA.

Tokaji Aszu is made by first picking grapes at normal sugar levels. These grapes are fermented into a bone-dry "base wine" which is then mixed with grapes (called Aszu) picked at very high sugar levels. The Aszu grapes are often affected by botrytis cinerea, or "noble rot", a fungus which shrivels the berries by allowing water to evaporate, leaving only very concentrated and very sweet juice. In addition to concentrating the sugars, acids and other components of the juice, botrytis also contributes a characteristic flavor which is often described as "honeyed". The wine then undergoes a second fermentation, but only for a short time, and remains sweet. Interestingly, according to Johnson, most producers use a base wine from the vintage prior to the one on the label. For example, a 1993 Tokaji Aszu will probably contain base wine from 1992, and Aszu grapes from 1993. A few producers use base wine from the same year, but Johnson claims that the traditional method of using wines from two years gives better quality. Of course, as part-owner of a company which uses that method, he may be biased. Johnson also mentioned that this traditional method may conflict with new European wine laws regulating the definition of vintage wines.

The sugar levels in Tokaji Aszu are denoted by the number of "Puttonyos" (puttonyo is pronounced roughly as "put-ON-yo", and puttonyos are often just refered to as "putts" -- which is pronounced like "puts" -- for short). A puttonyo is a traditional container which holds approximately 20 liters (or 20-25 kg, according to some sources) of the sugary Aszu grapes. Traditionally, the dry base wine was stored in a 136 liter Gönc cask, and the baskets of Aszu grapes were added to this cask. Thus, the number of puttonyos on the bottle indicated the number of containers of Aszu grapes per 136 liter cask; a higher number of puttonyos means a sweeter, and also usually a more expensive, wine. Nowadays, the measurement is done by determination of sugar levels, rather than by volumes, but the puttonyos system is still used on the labels. Tokaji Aszu wines are available in levels from 3 to 6 puttonyos, although in the USA, 5 and 6 puttonyos wines seem to be the most common.

The Essence of Aszu

There are also some wines with even higher sugar levels than 6 puttonyos. Unfortunately, the terms used to describe them are somewhat confusing: Tokaji Aszu Essencia, and Tokaji Essencia (or Essence). Many people do not make a clear distinction when writing or speaking about these wines, so it can be difficult to know which one they mean. Tokaji Aszu Essencia is even higher in sugar than 6 puttonyos wines, and is basically made from the pressed Aszu grapes, with little or no base wine. Tokaji Essencia is made only from free-run juice (the juice which oozes out of grapes without pressing them) from Aszu grapes, and can be extremely concentrated in sugar, even more than Tokaji Aszu Essencia.

Tokaji Essencia is hardly ever made, and is not easily found. Besides the fact that only very small quantities can be made from a large number of grapes (there isn't much free run juice from dried, shriveled berries), Tokaji Essencia takes a very long time to ferment due to the high sugar levels. Although sugar is a good food source for yeast, when the levels get too high, the yeast do not thrive. As a result, special yeast must often be used for high-sugar wines, and the fermentation can take many years, even though the alcohol levels remain quite low. Johnson reports that the Royal Tokaji Wine Company has an Essencia in its cellars with a sugar content of 800 g/l, and that due to this exceedingly high level, it has not fermented since harvest. Needless to say, making Tokaji Essencia is an expensive and time-consuming operation, so you are unlikely to find many on the shelves of your local wine shop. It is, however, possible to find Tokaji Aszu Essencia, as several producers make this type of wine.

Philosophy of Tokaji

The recent vintages prior to 1988 were controlled by the old communist system, which rewarded quantity over quality. Growers were paid by the amount of grapes, and wines from many different growers and areas were blended into the same vats. According to Johnson, some of the "proud growers" resorted to hiding their best wines in their cellars, so that they would not suffer the fate of being lost in the middle of an anonymous, mediocre blend. Families were only allowed to farm up to 10 hectares, and many vineyards were divided without concern for terroir or quality.

Since 1988, foreign investors have exerted more control over the production of Tokaji, and quality standards have risen. However, many of the foreign investors were forced to buy large quantities of the inferior older wines which had not yet been sold, so you may still find some inexpensive, lower quality Communist-era Tokaji on the market, as the investors try to recoup some of their expenditures.

Something which Johnson did not stress is the recent change in winemaking techniques. Under the Communist regime, the Tokaji wines were deliberately oxidized by storing for long periods of time in barrels which were not topped up, giving the wines a maderized, or sherry-like, character. This unusual technique created some controversy, since the new foreign investors generally believed that Tokaji would benefit from a more conventional winemaking process. However, some people (often those who were involved in making and administering the standards for Tokaji under the Communists) argued that the oxidation set Tokaji apart from other dessert wines, and should be retained as a requirement for labeling a wine "Tokaji". Their arguments also often appealed to a sense of tradition and national pride, suggesting that the foreigners should respect their ways, instead of imposing generic international ideas. However, the proponents of conventional winemaking have argued that the real tradition of Tokaji was established long before the Communist era, when it was known as one of the world's finest sweet wines and when it was not made in an oxidized style; in their opinion, the Communists are the ones who have defied tradition.

The dispute over oxidation apparently led to the rejection of some wines submitted for approval as Tokaji Aszu as not being "typical" of the region (which can be read as "not oxidized enough"). However, the argument seems to have been settled, at least for now, judging by the new-style, non-oxidized Tokaji Aszu being released by several producers.

Philosophy of Royal Tokaji

According to Johnson, the Royal Tokaji Wine Company is unique, at least for the moment, in that it is the only producer in the region which is focusing on single-vineyard wines. Single vineyard wines have a long history in the region, as Tokaji is the home of the oldest known quality classification for vineyards. A book, which dates back to the 1700's, rating various Tokaji vineyards was found hidden in an old cellar of the Royal Tokaji Wine Co. The book, written entirely in Latin, was found to be the Prince of Transylvania's ranking of vineyards as first, second and third growths. Royal Tokaji bottlings include at least one second growth (Birsalmás), two first growths (Szt. Tamas, which according to Johnson is pronounced roughly "Saint Thomas", and Nyulászó) and the most famous vineyard in Hungary, which was recorded as "first choice for the table of the king" (Mezes Maly). Unfortunately, if you want pronunciations for Nyulászó or Mezes Maly, you'll have to ask a Hungarian, as I didn't write them down, and the Magyar language is a puzzle to me; also, the names likely have accent marks which I did not include, as they were not on the handout provided (according to my sources, you can't trust the spelling or accents on the bottle labels, either, as there are misprints). The tasting which accompanied this seminar was a 1993 horizontal of the single vineyard wines mentioned above, as well as the "Red Label" multi-vineyard blend.

After much contemplation, the Royal Tokaji Wine Company decided to focus on making wines at the 5 puttonyos level. Johnson feels that the 5 puttonyos wines generally have the "best balance", allowing you to "see through the sugar" to the underlying flavors and structure. However, in 1993, which Johnson called "a spectacular vintage -- a dream vintage" with "tons of botrytis", the grapes were so ripe that they "made 6 puttonyos wines without even trying." Of the wines in the tasting, three (Szt. Tamas, Nyulászó and Mezes Maly) had sugar levels which qualified them to be 6 puttonyos wines, according to Johnson. He also said that his company was trying to play down the traditional puttonyos levels on the labels, preferring to emphasize the distinctive vineyard origins of the wines.

Johnson's Philosophy of Tokaji

In describing what he thought of as a good wine of the type, Johnson said that it should have a gold color, darker than most white wines. The color comes from using brown, raisined berries, and not from oxidation. The wine typically exhibits flavors of dried fruits, including figs, quince and apricot. Botrytis should also affect the flavor, lending a honeyed component. Johnson also stressed the importance of the palate-cleansing acidity, which balances the sugar and helps the wine improve with age.

As far as food matches with Tokaji, Johnson said that his favorite, and the most "natural", is foie gras; apparently, Hungary is the second largest producer of this delicacy. The richness of foie gras is widely thought to pair well with Sauternes, so the match seems quite apt.

Johnson, summarizing his feelings about Tokaji, said "It's enormously energizing...a real pick-me up." After tasting the wines, I'll have to agree.

Click here for the tasting notes from this seminar.

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Copyright 1999-2001 Marcel Lachenmann. All rights reserved.