The glory that is Tokaj

The magnificent white wines of the Tokaj region of Hungary are made mainly from three grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu and Yellow Muscat.

The grapes: About two thirds of the region’s 5,300 total hectares of vines are planted with Furmint. Harslevelu has about 20 percent of plantings and Sargamuskotaly (Yellow Muscat) represents about 10 per cent.

Harslevelu is genetically related to Furmint. Sargamuskotaly is part of the broad Muscat family and has a distinctive floral aroma.

One of the best harselevu I tasted was a 2015 from Kikelet Winery, made by Stéphanie Berecz. Even after I washed my glass with water I could still taste this wonderful wine. More here.

Furmint: The Furmint grape is native to the Tokaj region and was first mentioned in official documents in 1611.

The bulk of the world’s Furmint plantings are in Tokaj but the grape is also grown in the Somlo and Lake Balaton areas of Hungary, and it has migrated to Austria, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Furmint is highly adaptable and makes a range of wine styles. In Tokaj it has traditionally been best known for naturally sweet wines such as Szamorodni (made with whole bunches) and botrytised wines known as aszú (“aszú” is the Hungarian word for what the French call “noble rot”).

Changing styles: In recent years winemakers have also produced dry whites and sparkling styles. Sommelier Gergely Somogyi said these new styles were the result of decreasing interest in sweet wines and thus the need to find new markets. The first sparkling wines made with the grape appeared about a dozen years ago.

The choice of the time to harvest controls the style of wine. Picking at high sugar levels at full ripeness produces a rich and concentrated style in sweet wines and high alcohol levels in dry wines. Sometimes those levels can be too high in dry wines, meaning they taste too hot.

Picking at high levels of acidity at full ripeness produces balanced sweet wines with lashings of flavour. But with dry wines the result can be harsh acidity. Acidity can mean longevity because the acidity helps the ageing process.

A video about the October 2022 aszú harvest in Tokaj.

When young, Furmint offers aromas of pear and green apple which matures to a bouquet of honey and the petrol aromas associated with old Rieslings. In the mouth young Furmint tastes of apple and/or citrus like grapefruit and lemon. Older wines taste of ripe pear and apple, with honey and nuts appearing in much older wines.

The Tokaj region grows excellent fruit like pears and apples. A feature of wine regions that produce good fruit is a tendency to offer those same aromas in the grapes. I remember on a visit to the Central Otago region of New Zealand noting that the region grew cherries before the Pinot Noir vines replaced the fruit trees, and how the young reds smelled of cherries.

The terroir of Tokaj includes a lot of volcanic rocks which enhance the texture of the wines and provides a mineral or saline flavour in dry wines. The region has a continental climate. Early-morning mists in autumn produce humidity which promotes the noble rot process.

It happens because the Tisza and Bodrog rivers meet in Tokaj. Their waters have slightly different temperatures so mist develops, followed by sunny afternoons that create the perfect environment for botrytis to occur.

Peter Molnar PhD, president of the Council of Tokaj wine communities, said the region was blessed with the right ingredients for great wine. “God was in a good mood when he created the Tokaj region.”

The region’s wide range of wine-making processes produces many different wine styles. Entry-level estate dry wines are made in steel tanks with commercial yeasts and tend to be available on the market young.

Sparkling wines: Hungary’s sparkling wines are made via the “methode traditional” created in France’s Champagne region, using the three grapes mentioned above. Wines receive a minimum of nine months of bottle ageing and spend a minimum of 90 days on lees. These rules were introduced in 2012 when people started to make sparkling wines in the region.

Regus Camus, chief winemaker of the Piper-Heidsieck house in Champagne, presided over a tasting of sparkling wines at the Sauska Winery in late October 2022. They are shown here.

All wines were well made and fresh with zesty acidity. Indeed, high acidity is a feature of the region’s sparkling wines. Most of the wines were made from 100 per cent Furmint or with this grape the dominant percentage.

Given that most winemakers are new to this style of wine, especially compared with the centuries the Champenois have had to perfect the method, it is difficult to assess the potential for longevity. One point to note is the lack of tertiary flavours of the older wines that we usually associate with autolysis, the process which usually gives wines richness and creaminess as well as aromas of bread, toast or brioche.

Perhaps Furmint-focused sparklers need more time to develop, because the 2016 Demeter Zoltan showed some promise. But it was difficult to detect more than the citrus aromas among the young wines. Vintages tasted ranged from 2020 to 2016.

Some of the wines had almost no residual sugar, which emphasised the acid zing. Regus Camus said sparklers needed some residual sugar to balance the acidity.

But it is the sweet wines that are the crowning glory of the Tokaj region. Below see a row of magnificent wines. Read some of my earlier articles to learn more about the winemaking process.

This trip to Tokaj involved a chance to taste some older vintages – a wonderful experience of going back in time.

When the Grand Tokay 1964 was made the Beatles released their first album in the US, Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion, and Dr Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The wine was like tasting toffee and caramel with a balsamic undercurrent, yet it retained elegant acidity. It was what some people would call a meditation wine.

Laszlo Meszaros, managing director of Disznoko winery, said aszú wine was special because of the balance between sweetness and acidity.

Ripka Gergely,  author of the Tokaj Guide, said it was easy to distinguish vintages because “every vintage is unique, with distinctive flavours”. Perhaps three vintages a decade could be considered great, he said.

A highlight was an aszú from 1956. Erzsebet Farkas, export manager at Grand Tokay, said 1956 was a painful year both because of the political events and the fact the harvest was picked late. “People actually picked when it was snowing.”

But they say time heals all wounds. With time this wine has evolved into glory. It has the colour of treacle and aromas of coffee, toffee and nuts with echoes of mushrooms. The acidity still sings and zings, and it still tastes fresh.

What is also remarkable is how the wine evolves in the glass. A second tasting perhaps 15 minutes later offered flavours of zesty bitter almond mixed with figs and nuts. Erzsebet Farkas said the reason the grapes were harvested late was because of the story that everybody rushed to Budapest for the revolution.

I’m not sure if it’s true, but It’s a nice story. Historians will tell you that the Hungarian revolution of 1956 took place between October 23 and November 10 and was a countrywide protest against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic (1949–1989) and domestic policies imposed by the Soviet Union.

Even more magic was to come with the Grand Tokaj 1947 Esszencia. It was like syrup, a mass of black molasses mixed with mint and menthol, still alive because of the fine backbone of acidity. Think rich Christmas pudding from childhood without the silver coins.

It’s worth noting the number of berries needed to make aszú and esszencia wines. It takes 2.5kg of berries to make one 500ml bottle of Tokaj aszú. But you need 25kg of berries to make one litre of esszencia. It is usually served by the spoonful.

The Grand Tokaj estate makes 5 million bottles a year – 30% sweet and 70% dry. Export manager Erzsebet Farkas said this ratio reflected a growing trend where people preferred dry wines. The company exports 70% of its production. Their biggest markets are the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany.

The estate has a huge collection of old vintages which they sell to auction houses, housed in what is believed to be the biggest unground cellar in Europe.

Another magnificent older aszú tasted was a 1999 from the Lenkey estate. See the photograph below. It tasted of balsamic and mushrooms along with ripe apricots, wrapped in dark honey.

Peter Molnar PhD, president of the Council of Tokaj wine communities, said that old wines were exceptional but also available to people who came to visit. The level of hospitality I experienced was memorable, and I’m happy to echo Peter’s thoughts.

Measure of sweetness: The traditional way to measure sweetness was based on the number of buckets of aszú berries called puttony (in Hungarian the plural is puttonyos) added to each barrel of wine. Two buckets are shown next to a 136 litre Göncz” barrel.

Laszlo Meszaros said today the classification was based on residual sugar and all aszú must be at least five puttonyos or 120g/L of residual sugar. Six Puttonyos must be at least 150g/L.

Four hundred years ago sweet wine was a luxury, Meszaros said. Now anyone can enjoy this luxury.

Viticulture history in Tokaj: Hungarians are known to have made wine as early as the end of the ninth century. In 1241 King Bela the fourth revitalised the wine trade by introducing foreign winemakers. By the mid sixteenth century Turkish armies occupied the south of Hungary and restricted winemaking, which meant northern regions such as Tokaj became more important.

The first written document about the sweet wines of Tokaj was found among the files of the Garay family in May 1571. In 1613 the region introduced strict regulations about winemaking and documents from 1641 onwards codified the process of manual picking of single berries to make botrytised or aszú wine.

In 1737 King Charles the sixth designated Tokaj as the world’s first demarcated wine region and established rules for viticulture and winemaking. It allowed the 22 villages of Tokaj to use the “Tokaji” name. Those rules were updated in 1798.

Before WW2 Hungary was the fourth largest grape producer in the world and during the Soviet occupation after the war winemaking concentrated on bulk wines for East Bloc nations.

Big changes occurred after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Since then Hungarian winemakers have aimed to make wine based on terroir and their understanding of meso-climates.

Asked why wines in Tokaj were relatively inexpensive Zoltan Kovacs, managing director of Royal Tokaji, said the rebirth after the Berlin Wall fell had taken time. “We are an old wine region that restarted itself 30 years ago,” he said. “It takes time for prices to increase.”

In 2002 Tokaj received World Heritage status in the “cultural landscape” category. Today almost 5,000 grape growers from the region’s 27 villages are licensed to use the Tokaji name.

At right is an image of what is considered one of the great Tokaj aszú of the past two generations, made by Géza Lenkey.

St Tamas single vineyard wines: The hill of St Tamas (Szent Tamas) near the village of Mad is one of the most beautiful areas in Tokaj. It consists of 16.5 hectares of vines that are generally considered some of the best sites for grape growing in the region.

A characteristic of the terroir is an iron-oxide soil with a reddish tinge. The soil also contains bentonite, a form of clay which helps hold water during hot and dry summers and is an excellent source of minerals for vines.

The area is surrounded by low hills, the result of volcanic activity about 12 to 15 million years ago. The nearby Great Hungarian Plain provides ideal weather conditions for ripening of grapes in autumn.

Vines are 50 to 60 years old. A feature of St Tamas wines is the fact they are usually bottled in magnum (equivalent to two 750ml bottles). An indication of the quality of the area is the fact that it costs £120,000 to buy one hectare if and when it becomes available.

Some final thoughts: Hajnalka Szabo from the Fuleky estate points out their web site has recipes to pair with aszú. Some of them are delicious, as are the estate’s wines.

Watch the movie The Golden Liquid about Tokaj aszú.

The website is a useful place to find Hungarian wines and food.

Caroline Gilby MW has written a comprehensive article about the longevity of Tokaj wines and good food pairings in the 17 August 2021 edition of Decanter magazine.

More information:

Make sure you visit the Hercegkút World Heritage cellars. This symbol of the Tokaj region features cellars built from 1750. They are magic examples of rustic architecture. The village has 200 cellars but only 660 people.

Acknowledgement/disclaimer: Thank you to Wines of Hungary UK who provided air fares, meals and accommodation on my trip to Tokaj in October 2022.

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