All wine lovers, all humans, love to get their money’s worth. There are producers, regions, vintages, styles and countries with whom value is synonymous. I have long believed that, typically, you are more likely to find good value in whites than reds. Regions that are underappreciated, lets say the Hunter Valley in NSW, offer up bargains by the boot-full. Think of the Semillons of Tyrrell’s and Thomas to name a few. The Thomas single vineyards OC and Fordwich can be bought for under $25. Unique, grand, extraordinarily long-lived and stylistically, unmatched anywhere in the world.
Sweet wines, of any description, are another example. One of the advantages of dessert wine styles is their inherent ability to age, thanks to the the high levels of sugar and, ideally, balancing acidity. Inventory is an issue for anyone who sells wine for, no matter how grand, their product is perishable. At least with the sweeties you have time on your side. Indeed, the best examples will outlive us all and there is therefore no mad rush to sell them. Their deliciousness and value for money, relative to other wine styles, compels me to always add them to my own personal cellar. Which brings me to Tokaji.
The origins of Tokaji
Tokaji wine is from the Hungarian region of Tokaj-Hegyalja, and is named after the town of Tokaj. It is believed the sweet wine as we know it was first produced as early as 1630, long before the botrytis affected wines of Germany or Sauternes in France. In this, they had an initial advantage, and became favourites amongst Russian, German and other Eastern European monarchs.
Tokaj was the first wine region to become geographically delimited in 1737. The records of this classification do not survive, but the second official classification of 1772, comprising 28 villages and a distinct quality classification of vineyards, does. Here the vineyards are broken up into Great First Growth, First Growth, Second Growth and Third Growth. Considering the success of other wine regions and the utilisation of classification for marketing and pricing purposes, I am surprised that Tokaji doesn’t make greater use of it.
Tokaji, like any great wine region, has natural and geographical difficulties which have be turned to their advantage for wine production. Tokaji resides in the north-east of the country, the Zemplen Mountain range towering above the region, bringing with it cold air and winter snows. Two rivers come together here, the Tisza and Bodrog. With the combination of cool air, water, warmer air off the Great Plains and the trapping quality of the peaks, mists bathe the region, encouraging the all important Botrytis to produce its destructive magic. Botrytis cinerea is a fungus which pierces the skin of the grape, allowing the moisture in the grape to evaporate, concentrating the juice and sugars.
The main varietals of Tokaji are Furmint, Harslevelu and Sargamuskotaly. Each varietal brings to the blend their own unique qualities. Traditionally, grape varietals were planted, picked and fermented together. It makes me wonder that this approach would have certainly made less consistent wine, but the trade-off must be the miracle wines. Wines whose greatness was to some extent random, and with X-factor magic.
There are a variety of localised factors that affect the style and taste of Tokaji. The soils in the north of the region tend to be sandier and cooler, hence lighter and finer styles. Further south, the vineyards are not sloped and produce wines that are fuller and richer. Vineyards closest to the river have a greater incidence of botrytis and are more likely to carry a higher Puttonyos. The soils on low lying areas and by the river are heavier, contributing to a more generous style. Some producers will have the name of the vineyard on their label, such as Mezes Maly, along with the vintage and style of the wine.
Puttonyos to Essencia – a measure of sweetness
The wines of Tokaji share something in common with their German counterparts. German wine classification also measures its wines by sweetness, the lightest being Kabinett and the sweetest being Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). Tokaji measures its wines in puttonyos. 3 puttonyo has 60gms of sugar per litre, 4 – 90g/l, 5 – 120 g/l, and 6 – 150 g/l. There are also some late harvest styles, some affected by botrytis, others not. There is certainly no uniformity of style with these wines, but they are often similar in weight and sweetness to German Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese wines. Late-harvest Tokaji can be every bit as remarkable as a puttonyos wine, but they are lighter and fresher in style. Indeed, the lighter styles are perfect table wines, matching well with rich dinners such as roast chicken, or with cheese or charcuterie.
Rarer still, and sweetest of them all, is Essencia. I have heard from Frenchmen, more than once, that Essencia is not a real wine but an ‘essence’. This is of course absurd. Essencia can take many years to ferment to an alcohol level of 2-3%, due to the immense concentration of sugar. I have tasted an Essencia with over 700g/l – syrupy and luscious, but with a golden reef of acidity and, miraculously, abundantly fresh. The law states a minimum sugar requirement of 450g/l, and this level of concentration, or thereabouts, is more common. Essencia is only made from the free run juice, so no press wine. The container used to carry picked grapes is called puttony, with a holding capacity of 25kgs. One puttony will usually yield about a bottle of Essencia, or 500ml. More often than not, Essencia is blended back into other wines to aid with concentration. It has to be said that the wine is very expensive, and difficult to sell, so many producers do not release any.
Global warming and drier seasons are making it more difficult to produce sweet Tokaji. Whereas once six years out of ten would yield ideal conditions for puttonyos wines, three years of each decade is the new normal. Dry Tokaji can be made from any variety, but the most common is Furmint. The whole gamut of winemaking can be used, hence the diversity of styles. Furmint is a tricky grape, having thick skins, high acidity and natural concentration. For me, they share similarities with Chenin Blanc and Riesling, but whereas you might expect orchard fruits, with dry furmint, apricots are the order of the day. They can also have a lusciousness akin to chardonnay, but hopefully, with the sort of citric intensity that sets it apart. Dry furmint, in other words, is not an oddity. The flavours and textures are all familiar, but its the total taste and feel of the wine that makes it unique.
Unique flavours to savour
In terms of flavours, Tokaji has possibly more descriptors than any other wine in the world. Honey, beeswax, all citrus, spices, flowers, exotic fruits, cut grass, cream, apples, caramel and cherry. I could go on and on. They are wines often drunk on their own – with so much presence and personality, dessert isn’t a requirement. The richest wines are an experience, which in my view should be consumed in isolation. Of food that is. Late harvest wines and the lower puttonyos wines are ideal with fruit desserts, sponge cake, sticky date pudding, blue cheese, fois gras and spicy food.
The price of the higher puttonyos and Essencia is ridiculously cheap. If you think of almost any of the other great wines of Europe, you will find their inspiration everywhere. But not Tokaj. Every great wine region loves to point out what makes them unique, and therefore requiring further investigation. Of all the great wine traditions, Tokaji stands alone in having no imitators, and its greatness is limited to just over 100 producers. Bordeaux has 8500, not to mention the tens of thousands of other producers all over the world who look to Bordeaux as their model and benchmark. Buy Tokaji and astonish yourself and your friends, and ask yourself why you haven’t tried them before.