Variations on Tokaj – the categories of tokaji wines

This article on tokaji wines is to launch The Sweet Chronicle, a new section of www.BorVilág.com, entirely dedicated to classic sweet wines. The focus will be on wines produced in Tokaj (Hungary), Rust (Austria), Sauternes & Barsac (France) and the Rhine regions (Germany) with occasional reports from other parts of the world.

Tokaj is the single most famed wine region in Hungary. It is tucked in the North-Eastern corner of the country, south of the Zemplén Hills and bordered by the Bodrog River and the Great Hungarian Plain in the south. This combination of geographical variety equips the 5,500-ha large Tokaj-Hegyalja region, or Tokaj-Foothills in English, with a unique disposition to developing botrytis cinerea, noble rot, when the weather conditions are right in the autumn. Mostly dry and sunny Indian summers with extended morning fog are key factors contributing to the development of the fungus, which attacks the berries of the grapes making them shrivelled and concentrated. Main varieties include Furmint, Hárslevelű, Yellow Muscat, Kövérszőlő [fat grape], Zéte (Furmint x Bouvier), Góhér [experimental variety as of yet] and Kabar.

The reputation of Tokaj had been earned by the sweet aszú wines. They had originally been produced as a result of a belated harvest due to the Turkish invasion of Hungary in the 16th century, legends holds it. Later the aszú wines became known as the ‘king of wines and wine of the kings’ because the royal courts of Europe held them in high esteem and paid a dear price for them.

Times change and whilst both the region of Tokaj and tokaji, the wine, have evolved a great deal, today’s consumers and the trade find it difficult to grasp these wines. I put this down to the fact that the wines of Tokaj are not talked about enough and there is not sufficient clarity despite the fact that producers do their best to communicate and show their wines to the world.

On Saturday, 16th April I participated in a tasting at Patricius Winery, where the categories of tokaji were presented. I am going to provide my own insights here along with the tasting notes.

The difficulty of understanding the complexity of tokaji stems from a number of sources one being that now there are a number of different wines produced in the region. I am going to call these different wines as categories, which include dry (up to 9 g/l residual sugar), semi-dry (9 – 18 g/l residual sugar) and semi-sweet (18-45 g/l residual sugar), late harvest (késői szüret in Hungarian, as often seen on labels), szamorodni, aszú, esszencia (a very confusing word, as sometimes it is spelt with sz, other times with ssz or ss) and aszú-eszencia.

Category is to draw a distinction between style and terroir, another two factors responsible for the complex nature of tokaji. Style, on these pages, stands for either the differences between house styles or old versus new schools of wine-making, whilst terroir will simply signify the differences derived from geographical and site location factors.

Dry wines have been firmly established in Tokaj and gained an important role due to their cash-earning ability soon after harvest. These wines are normally made from Furmint and/or Hárslevelű, two indigenous Hungarian varieties, though there is some Yellow Muscat produced too. Gently pressed, then fermented bone dry either in barrels or stainless steel, they have a crisp acidity and either a more restrained or floral flavour profile dependent on the varieties used with Hárslevelű and Yellow Muscat being the vibrant ones. If the wines come from sites of volcanic subsoil, they display a mineral profile, whilst those from loess soil are soft and silky. Dry tokaji wines tend to be mostly Furmint, which can lend itself to barrel fermentation and/or ageing thereby giving the wine an extra layer of complexity in both flavour and textural terms.

Patricius Tokaji Dry Furmint 2009 (12.5%)
Light lemon with thin watery rim. Medium intensity, cleanliness, freshness and ripe fleshy fruits of apple, pears and scented with acacia. Dry, crisp acids, fleshy fruits, yet a leanness and quite mineral finish. Very good structure and concentration, medium long finish. 16.1

Bott Pince Tokaji Furmit – Határi dűlő 2009 (14.5%)
Light lemon, generous watery rim. Medium intense nose with quince, acacia and pear, yet a coolness radiates. Dry, fresh, with quite a pointy alcohol and fleshy fruits of pear, quince, quite a bit of acacia and almost buttery flavours on the back-palate. Medium finish. 15.8

Tokaj Kikelet Pince, Hárslevelű 2009 (13.4%)
Lemon with greenish hue. Intense, floral nose of rose petals, lilies with white stone fruits. Dry, fresh, quite mineral, yet some floral delicacy and medium concentration, plus finish. 15.7

Semi-dry or off-dry wines are produced from very ripe grape, which will be harvested earlier than those destined for late harvest wines. As a result, they have some sweetness (9 – 18 g/l), but without the complexity of botrytis or dried fruits and therefore are fresh and fruity in nature. A more approachable category. If the sugar content is more than 18 g/l, it will be semi-sweet according to wine legislation.

Tokaj Nobilis, Tokaji Furmint, Barakonyi Vineyard 2009 (14.5%)
Light lemon with a green hue. Restrained nose with rich limestone and mineral tones, white grapefruit and lime. Off-dry, very fresh, lemon and lime, with a gentle floral tone. Silky, smooth and elegant. Lovely structure, minerality, long finish. 16.3

Late Harvest wines are made from grapes that had a long hang-time sufficient for some impact of the noble rot. The level of sweetness and concentration, however, put these wines most definitely into a different category than the lighter semi-sweet or the richer aszú wines.

Béres Vineyards and Winery Magita Cuvée 2008 (12%)
Light golden with lemon rim. Medium intense, very soft botrytis, creamy and buttery tones on peaches and apricots, with camomile and honey. Sweet with medium intense acids, creamy and fleshy peach, bright and prickly botrytis, medium concentration and finish. 15.8

Barta Pince, Furmint – Muskotály Late Harvest 2008 (12%)
Pale white gold, generous watery rim. Highly fragrant nose with floral tones of rose, lilies, camomile and also a bit of mint along fleshy ripe peach and pears. Sweet, fresh, very silky and elegant, fresh honey. Excellent complexity and concentration. 16.4

Szamorodni is quite a traditional category of tokaji and is somewhat similar to late harvest wines in as much that they are made from partly botrytised grapes, which are macerated for a short period before pressing. Szamorodni must is then fermented either dry or sweet and must be barrel aged for at least a year. If dry, they usually get oxidative barrel ageing, which lends the wine sherry like aromas: flory and yeasty notes. If sweet, they tend to have more sugar than late harvest, often around what would equal a 3 puttonyos level of aszú. Dry szamorodni is a wine for gastronomy.

Gróf Degenfeld Tokaji Szamorodni Sweet 2007 (11.8%)
Very light white golden with lemon rim. Medium intense nose, pineapple with honey and rose petals. Tiny botrytis, very gentle. Honey, lemon, pineapple and medium concentration. Vey low level of botrytis, medium length. 15.5

Samuel Tinon Tokaji Dry Szamorodni 2003 (13.75%)
Medium deep golden core, thin watery rim. Lovely intense nose with scents reminiscent of a paolo cortado, flor, yeast and apricot. Dry, lovely freshness with yeasty and doughy aromas, bruised apples, quince and pear. Elegant structure, refreshing and complex. Very good concentration, long finish. 17

Aszú wines are made from botrytised and shrivelled grapes, which are harvested by hand and berry by berry. Once these berries have been harvested, they are added to must, fermenting must or base wine. The choice is that of the winemaker’s, but the decision seems to be dependent on the kind of extraction the winemaker wishes to achieve. Fermentation affects oscillation and, therefore, the strength of extraction, which will lead to different styles of aszú by the end of the day though these are minuscule differences. The amount of aszú berries put into the so-called Gönczi barrels is measured by the puttony, the bucket that you carry the grapes in on your back during harvest. As one puttony equals 27 kgs, it takes 5 portions to reach the same amount of aszú grapes as the wine that you could put into one Gönczi barrel, which is 136 litres. Aszú wines also have a minimum ageing requirement (2 years in Gönczi barrels + 1 year in bottle), which means it is over three years that an investor will see a return on these wines.

Disznókő Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2007 (12.5%)
Light golden with lemon rim. Quite subdued nose with peach, apricot and tangerine peel. Quite a bit of refined botrytis. Sweet, fresh, silky, medium amount of botrytis, fleshy peach and lovely tangerine. Medium finish. 16.8

Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2006 (11%)
Medium deep gold with some lemon rim. Medium intense nose with orange peel, apricot and cloves along with honey. Candid sugar and some wide fleshy botrytis. Sweet, fresh, and very concentrated almost jammy apricot. Medium finish. 16.3

Dobogó Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2005 (11%)
Golden, brassy core, with lemon rim. Highly intense, very ripe fruits of peach, apricot with some cloves, honeydew and wildflower honey. Sweet, fresh, very pungent and concentrated botrytis, with lovely candid orange peel, marmalade. Fleshy and voluptuous, long finish. 17.4

Szepsy Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2005 (11.47%)
Brassy, golden core with very thin lemon rim. Highly intense, complex with ripe apricot, peach and floral of rose petals, camomile and a hint of dried mushroom. Sweet, fresh, but quite broad with orange peel and candid tangerine, marmalade. Very lovely sharp, but not too much botrytis. Sweetness, juicy long finish. 17.6

Royal Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos “Mézes Mály” 2003 (8.5%)
Deep golden core almost a bit amber, thin lemon rim. Medium intense, ripe fruity nose of peach, apricot and orange peel, almost a bit toffee and mushrooms Sweet, fresh, very ripe and fleshy fruits, apricot and dried orange peel, marmalade. Botrytis good medium intensity, big body, medium finish. All intensity and generosity. 16.6

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