The wines of the Hungarian region of Tokaj, or as they say it “toe-kay,” are a window into the past. For one, the word for wine in Hungarian, Bor, isn’t derived from the latin word for wine (vinum). This suggests that the area has a winemaking history that grew independently of, –and perhaps before– Roman expansion. There have also been discoveries unearthed of prehistoric forests in northeastern Hungary (close to Tokaj) that reveal Devonian era vines, the precursors to the modern grape vine. Regardless of these two intriguing finds, it’s the sweet wines of Tokaj that provide the most compelling story of Hungary’s role in the modern history of wine.
The Story of Tokaji Wine
Tokaji was once one of the most important wines in the world. It was coveted by royal customers including Hungarian noblemen, Ferenc Rákóczi II, Peter the Great, King Louis XIV, Catherine the Great and even Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (who received some payments in the form of wine). The most desirable of these elixirs (and the most expensive) was that of Tokaji Eszencia, a liquid goo that contains as much sweetness as straight syrup. It’s so intense that Eszencia is typically enjoyed from a tablespoon and, because of the high sugar content, will age 200+ years.
In Bordeaux, the weather along the Garonne River is dank enough to produce the same noble rot essential to the wines of Sauternes. In Germany, the Mosel River provides the same conditions that affect Riesling grapes that are now part of the classification of German Riesling. And, in Alsace, France and Friuli, Italy producers even donned the words “Tokay” or “Tokai” on their labels to capture buyers. This confusion lead to the classification of the vineyards of Tokaj in 1730, which lead to a noble decree, made in 1757, to establish the closed production district of Tokaj.
How it’s made
The production of Tokaji Aszú and Eszencia is dependent on the development of a necrotrophic fruit fungus called gray mold, or botrytis. The mold develops on the berries in moist conditions (such as in foggy river valleys) and then dries when the sun comes out. This process of rotting and drying causes the grapes to shrivel and become sweet. Additional flavor compounds also develop from the botrytis berries that are often described as ginger, saffron and beeswax. In Hungary, the grapes affected with this mold are called Aszú berries, and they are carefully separated from the rest of the grapes to be used in Tokaji production.
TIP: To receive the Tokaji designation a wine can only contain the 6 native varieties: Furmint (“foor-meent”), Hárslevelü (“harsh-level-lou”), Kabar (“kah-bar”), Kövérszölö (“kuh-vaer-sue-lou”), Zéta (“zay-tuh”), and Sárgamuskotály (“shar-guh-moose-koh-tie”) (aka Muscat Blanc).
This is where things start to get interesting with the traditions of Hungarian Tokaji production. The Aszú berries were collected in large baskets called puttony and added in measured amounts to barrels of non-botrytis grape must. Then, the wines were produced and labeled based on how many Aszú baskets were added to the must. Thus, the system of labeling wines with ~3–6 puttonyos was developed. Finally, the wine of Eszencia is a wine made entirely of Aszú berries. The grape must is so sweet, it’s practically syrup, making it very difficult for yeasts to ferment the sugars into alcohol. It takes several years (usually 4 to 5 years) to fully ferment Eszencia (which is a similar length of time to that of the Italian sweet wine: Vin Santo.) Even with this long period of fermentation, Eszencia wines rarely ferment to over 3% ABV.
A new era unfolds
Béres Winery redesigned their labels across their entire line of Tokaj wines. From left to right Omlás Furmint (a dry single-varietal wine from Omlás vineyard), Lőcse Furmint (a dry single-varietal wine from Lőcse vineyard), Naparany (a named wine blend that includes the Muscat variety), Diókút Hárslevelü (a single varietal wine from Diókút vineyard), Magita (a named blend late-harvest sweet wine), Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos, Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, Száraz Szamorodni (a dry style Szamorodni) and Tokaji Eszencia.
Today, several things have changed with the labeling and production of wines from Tokaj. Since 2013, the term puttonyos has been technically abolished for Aszú wines (as we don’t use baskets to measure sugar levels anymore) and wines labeled as Tokaji Aszú are required to have a minimum of 120 grams/liter of sugar. Producers may still use the phrase “6 Puttonyos” to signify an Aszú wine with 150+ grams/liter of sugar, but the rest (wines between 120–150 grams/liter of sugar) will simply be labeled as Tokaji Aszú. Of course, you may see wines still labeled with 3 and 4 puttonyos for marketing reasons, but these do not meet the minimum sweetness requirement to be Tokaji Aszú.
Eszencia is now a segment of wine on its own (no more Tokaji Aszú Eszencia), with a minimum sweetness level of 450 grams/liter (this is, by the way, 4x as much as a can of coke).
Finally, there is an entire new subset of wines emerging from the Tokaj region that are dry. Dry single-varietal Furmint (“foor-meent”) and Hárslevelü (“harsh-level-lou”) have already made waves in the European markets and continue to gain interest. These wines usually have a touch of residual sugar (usually around 7.5 g/L) but this is simply to counteract the intensely high natural acidity. Wines are often aged in oak (in the local Hungarian oak), but it only adds subtle body and texture to the lean, mineral profile of the wines.
The reason we haven’t seen a lot of Hungarian wines (despite their former fame) has a lot to do with what happened during the communist regime. State-run wineries had little reason to focus on quality, and quality stayed low until the region began to privatize in 1990. Fortunately, with a strong winemaking tradition, we should hope to see great things from Tokaj and the other 21 regions of Hungary.
A fun overview of Hungary’s tumultuous history
Notes on the new classification from a great resource to learn more about the region: www.tokajtoday.com
Special thanks to Gergely Somogyi from www.tokajtoday.com for detailed corrections.
Eszencia “rarely ferments to over 3% ABV.” –Gergely Somogyi, Editor www.tokajtoday.com
Hungarian Wikipedia on Szamorodni