Tokajbor-Bene, Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, Hungary, 2002
Where is Tokaj and what is its special terroir?
Tokaj is the name of the town and the region, which runs for 5o miles northeast to southwest along the southern face of the Carpathian foothills, in northeast Hungary. Tokaji is the name of the wines of the Tokaj region.
The climate is continental, with a short hard winter, early spring and warm summer. Key to the region’s fame for sweet wine is the long, dry and sunny autumn allowing the grapes to ripen into October, November and as late as December. During the autumn the accumulated summer heating of the land draws up early morning mists from the cold waters of the Rivers Bodrog and Tisza, which merge at the town of Tokaj. The sun burns the mists off by mid-morning, as with Sauternes and its environ. This daily repeated process of mist and burn-off encourages the development of noble rot in the surrounding vineyard, which dessicates the berries, concentrating sugars, acids and flavour precursors. This explains the term aszu, pronounced ossu, which means grapes affected by noble rot.
The topsoils are loess, based on volcanic material, over a clay and limestone base.
What varieties are used to create Tokaj Aszu?
Typically aszu wines are made from a blend of 60% furmint, 35% harslevelu, and 5% muscat/other permitted varieties. Furmint provides the acidic structure, with the remainder adding rich aroma and flavour to the blend.
How is Tokay Aszu made?
Aszu grapes are introduced to vats of fermenting must or to a base wine, both made from over-ripe grapes, in puttonyos (units of 25kg of aszu berries) per 136l of must, to achieve the desired sweetness, as below, either as a paste or as whole berries, in both cases provoking fermentation.
- 3 puttonyos – > 60g RS (obsolete from 2014)
- 4 puttonyos – > 90g RS (obsolete from 2014)
- 5 puttonyos – > 120g RS (> 130g RS from 2014)
- 6 puttonyos – > 150g RS
- Esszencia – a special version of Tokaj Aszu, where aszu grapes are loaded into a wooden vat, and the first gravity induced juice run-off, the esszencia is removed before pressing, with 500-600g/l RS, for a long, slow fermentation, by itself. Though Esszencia is marketed, some put it back into the aszu wine.
The paste or whole berries are macerated in the fermenting must for up to 36 hours, the must is then run off the solids and combined with the gently pressed aszu grapes, before sending to barrel for a long slow fermentation (owing to the high RS). When fermentation is ended the wine is racked off the lees and run into Hungarian oak barrels of varying size, depending on the amount of wood contact desired. Aszu wines must be aged for a minimum of 3 years, including 2 in wood. After bottling the wines must rest for a further year before release.
What are the styles?
The number of puttonyos is a labelling term, indicating RS related style, quality, and of course price. The Tokaj Trade Council abolished the 3 and 4 puttonyos categories in 2014, so there is now no lighter style nor relatively low-cost entry-level, leaving the remaining styles of 5 and 6 puttonyos and esszencia.
Overarching these sweetness levels is whether the wine is aged on ullage without topping up, giving an oxidative style with aromas of baked apple and caramel (this was typical under the former Communist regime), or with topping up which is more reductive, giving fresher livelier wines (post-Communist approach).
All aszu wines must pass a tasting panel,
Aszu wines have been made for hundreds of years, but there are more recent developments:
- Late harvest wine – made from grapes with any proportion of noble rot, varietal or in a blend. These are lighter, fresher, fruitier and cheaper than aszu wines. The key factors are a later than normal harvest, and limited barrel ageing to preserve the intensity and freshness of the fruit.
- High quality dry wines are made from: furmint, with a floral, peachy profile, with high acidity, high alcohol and a full body. It suits new wood, developing honeyed, waxy notes; from harslevelu, which is lighter in body, with good acidity, and notes of honey and lime tree blossom; and from muscat de lunel, with its typically intense floral, fruity notes – like the VDNs of the Southern Rhone and Languedoc.
- Szamorodni – means as it comes, where healthy and botrytised grapes are harvested and vinified together, as they grew together in the vineyard. The style can be from dry to sweet, with minimum ageing of 2 years.
Example major producers
This wine: a blend of furmint and harslevelu, natural cork closure, 11% abv, 50cl, Weavers, £18 (2015)
WSET style tasting note
Appearance: clear and bright, of deep intensity amber, showing tears.
Nose: clean on the nose, of pronounced intensity, fully developed, with a light whiff of VA, then botrytised aromas of thick cut dark marmalade, warm thick dark honey, dried mango, mixed dried citrus, dried stone fruits, rich apricot jam, raisin and dried fig, with a hint of hazelnuts.
Palate: a medium sweet wine, with medium (+) acidity, a low-key grip, medium (-) alcohol, a full body from the residual sugar, a velvety texture, pronounced intensity, with flavours of orange marmalade, thick honey, dried stone fruits, dried mango, raisin, sweet tobacco. A long length with a clean palate marmalade finish.
Quality: an outstanding quality wine, with balancing palate cleansing acidity to residual sugar. Intensely flavoured, with lots of concentration and a rich complexity of dried citrus, stone and more exotic fruits, with nuts on the end. A long length with a clean and cleansed finish.
Readiness for drinking/potential for ageing: ready to drink now, not suitable for further ageing, but has the acid structure, and quality by way of concentration, complexity and length, to suggest will keep for a decade or more.