The end of the Soviet Union restored this superlative noble rot wine to its former glory.
Birth and rise of Tokaji
Wine growing in this Eastern part of Hungary dates back to the 13th century. Monks from the order of St Paul set up cloisters and a vineyard here called Oremus (‘let us pray’). But the style we know today did not emerge until 1620. An advance by the Turkish army is said to have prevented harvesting and the grapes rotted. László Maté Szepsi, a Calvinist preacher, nevertheless ordered that the grapes be picked, even at this very late stage. The results were tremendous – a sweet wine with aromas of quince, beeswax and bitter orange was born.
From then on, the world’s most prominent figures would fall in love with it and bestow fame upon it. In 1703, Louis XIV hosted a great banquet at Versailles in honour of Ferenc Rákóczi, the prince of Transylvania exiled to France. The menu renamed the wine from the village of Tokaji ‘Tokay’ – the way it was pronounced in French – and presented it as ‘the king of wines, and the wine of kings’. Louis XV would use the same phrase when serving it to his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Apparently the wine had some interesting virtues because Augustus II, the king of Poland, filled an entire cellar with it in his palace in Dresden to seduce his female conquests.
Lazare de Schwendi reportedly wanted to bring back some vines to Alsace in 1565, but selected the wrong plant, explaining why Alsace Pinot Gris was for many years known as ‘Alsace Tokay’ or ‘Tokay Pinot Gris’ before Hungary’s membership of the European Union forced authorities to sort the situation out. Appellations must be respected and the grape variety used for the Hungarian wine, Furmint, is totally different to Pinot Gris.
The origins of the prodigy
Tokaji is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Bodrog and the Tiszacour – Stokaj means confluence. The climate is continental but winter is late in coming. Sometimes – roughly 3 to 4 years in ten – the combination of factors is right. The autumn mist rises off the rivers in the morning and climbs up the slopes of the region’s uplands. The region itself stretches over 87 km and slightly overlaps present-day Slovakia (4%). In the middle of the day, the sun shines through the mist and over-ripens the grapes. The conditions are ideal for promoting the onset of noble rot on the Furmint grapes which are very sensitive to it; five other, less widespread grapes are sometimes also used. The affected grapes then become ‘Aszu’ and are harvested by hand. They produce very sweet and highly acidic juice as the fungus that causes the rot – botrytis cinerea – sucks out some of the water in the juice, concentrating the sugar and acidity. The juice is then mixed with other juice from grapes not affected by noble rot.
The wines are then slowly fermented and matured in old wooden barrels housed in cool (11°C) and extremely damp cellars (90% humidity). The walls are covered with another fungus – cladosporium cellare – which feeds on the wine evaporating from the casks and ultimately makes its way into them. The wine develops its aromas in this oxidative atmosphere before being matured in bottles.
From sweetness to syrup
Depending on the number of baskets of ‘Aszu’ grapes added to the classic wine (Puttonyos), sugar concentration varies in the resultant wines. But as the traditional wicker baskets have all but disappeared, the Puttonyos were officially dropped in 2013. However, for some very old vintages that are still available – the wines have an extremely long lifespan – knowing the correlation between sweetness and Puttonyos can be helpful.
Under 120g/litre of sugar (5 Puttonyos), the wine is not ‘Aszu’.
Over 120g/litre of sugar (5 or 6 Puttonyos), the wine is ‘Aszu’.
From 180 to 450g/litre, Hungary in the Soviet era referred to the wine as ‘Aszu Eszencia’ (300g/l is the equivalent of 10 Puttonyos). However, as this designation was mistaken for the next one up, it was abolished after the 2009 vintage. Over 450g/litre, the wine is ‘Essencia’. At this level, only the cake from the Aszu grapes is used. It is not really wine because fermentation stops when the first alcohol emerges (‘wine’ must have an ABV of at least 7%). Records of around 900g/litre have been registered – by way of a comparison, fizzy drinks contain around 115g/litre and Sauternes 150 to 250 g/litre.
The higher the concentration, the slower the fermentation – lasting many years. The concentrated wines are typically kept for 3 years in casks then three in bottles, at least.
The Hungarians claim to be the first to have used noble rot, a claim contested by Sauternes producers, amongst others. But the Tokaji classification (the ‘i’ on the end means ‘coming from’), seems to be one of the first ever. Since the first half of the 18th century, vineyards have been demarcated and classified as three levels of growths. Seventy-six are in the top tier, where the steepest inclines face south and are sensitive to mist.
They should be drunk chilled, at 12°C, and in small quantities – an open bottle will keep for 2 months in the refrigerator. You can even transfer what’s left in the bottle to a smaller container to prolong its lifespan once the bottle has been opened.
Serving then depends on the concentration. For straightforward ‘Aszu’ wines, foie gras – which is also produced in significant quantities in Hungary – makes a good pairing, as do very mature goat’s cheeses. But when sugar content is higher, mature Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola make marvellous partners. Essencia, on the other hand, should be savoured for itself.
Written by Alain Echalier