Are you a wine lover with a serious sweet tooth? If so, chances are the wines of Tokaj and Sauternes are right up your alley. These two regions both stand out for their exceptional sweet wines, which have become sought-after legends among fine wine connoisseurs around the world. But what are the key similarities and differences between a bottle of Sauternes from France and a Tokaji Aszú from Hungary? And which style is right for you? Let’s take a closer look.
Quick Note: “Tokaj” is the name of the wine region in northeastern Hungary, while “Tokaji” is the wine produced in the Tokaj region.
The Grape Varieties
First things first: the grapes. While sweet Sauternes and Tokaji Aszú wines are both made of a blend of multiple white grape varietals, the two types of wine are made from entirely different grape varieties.
In the Sauternes, the blend is composed of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Sémillon is the main grape variety. Accounting for around 70 percent of the blend, Sémillon adds texture and body to the wine. Its thin skin makes it prone to infection by Botrytis cinerea, the noble rot responsible for both the Sauternes and Tokaji styles. Sauvignon Blanc, constituting around 25 percent of the blend, is less prone to infection, and adds a crisp acidity to the wine. Muscadelle, rarely more than five percent of the blend, adds delicate floral aromas.
Six native white grape varieties are officially approved for the production of Tokaji wine: Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárgamuskotály, Kabar, Kövérszőlő, and Zéta. The first three represent the majority of the Tokaji blend, with Furmint accounting for almost 60 percent of the region’s vineyard area and Hárslevelű for another 30 percent. Furmint starts out with thick skins, which become thin and transparent as they ripen. A second skin develops to seal the grape from rot, allowing Furmint to hang on the vine long enough to develop noble rot. Furmint brings its acidity and structure to the blend, while Hárslevelű adds a certain saline and spicy quality. Sárgamuskotály adds a grapey, floral touch.
The Climate and Terroir
Now that we’ve covered the grapes, let’s look at the conditions in which they grow: the terroirs of Tokaj and Sauternes.
Situated in the south of the Bordeaux wine region in France, Sauternes is characterized by an overall maritime climate. Nevertheless, Sauternes boasts a unique microclimate formed by the two rivers running through it. The warmer Garonne and its cooler tributary, the Ciron, meet to produce a cool mist, which descends over the vineyards between the evening and late morning. These misty conditions help the development of the fungus Botrytis cinerea or noble rot. The warm sun dissipates the mist by noon, drying the grapes and preventing the spread of other types of rot. Sauternes’ soil types are quite varied, with various degrees of gravel, clay, sand, limestone, and chalk over an alluvial subsoil.
The Tokaj region is located in northeastern Hungary, at the foothills of the Zemplén Mountains, which protect the vineyards from harsh winds. The climate is overall continental, but with a microclimate created by the meeting of two rivers: the Tisza and the Bodrog. Just like in Sauternes, these rivers create a mist that is necessary to help the spread of noble rot. The south-facing vineyards receive plenty of sun, helping the fruit ripen. The Tokaj terroir is characterized by mostly clay or loess soils on a volcanic subsoil. These volcanic tuff soils have been said to impart a certain minerality and enrich the acidity of Tokaj’s wines.
The Winemaking Techniques
The Tokaji Aszú and Sauternes sweet wines are both made from white grapes affected by the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea. This fungus pores tiny holes in the grapes, causing them to dry and shrivel, thus concentrating the flavors. Nevertheless, the winemaking techniques used in the two regions are vastly different.
The sweet wines of Sauternes are produced only from botrytized grapes. These are crushed and the juices left to ferment. Fermentation stops naturally once the wine has reached around 14-15 percent alcohol by volume (abv), with plenty of residual sugar left behind. The latter contributes to the sweet flavor of these wines.
Some Sauternes winemakers also produce dry wines under the Bordeaux Blancs Secs appellation from 100 percent un-botrytized Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which are harvested earlier.
Tokaji Aszú wines are made by macerating only botrytized grapes (which have been hand-picked and berry-selected) in a base wine for 12 to 60 hours with the level of sweetness depending on the amount of botrytized (aszú) grapes used.
Unlike in Sauternes, the winemakers of Tokaj can make several different styles of wine under the Tokaj appellation. They can make both dry wines and sweet wines, and they can blend botrytized and non-botrytized grapes to produce different styles. Dry wines are made from non-botrytized grapes that are harvested early. Szamorodni wines (ranging from dry to sweet) are made from a blend of botrytized and non-botrytized grapes with a flor of yeast covering the surface of the aging dry Szamorodnis. And finally, the exceedingly rare Eszencia is made from the free-run juice of only botrytized fruit. Eszencia is more of a nectar than a wine, with over 450 grams/liter of sugar and under 5 percent abv. This wide range of winemaking techniques results in much more variety among the wines of Tokaj.
Tokaji and Sauternes in the Glass
Honey, butterscotch, marmalade and caramel … These are common descriptors for both Tokaji Aszú and Sauternes. These are both luscious and velvety smooth sweet wines, but how do you tell them apart?
ON THE NOSE
Sauternes wines reveal intense aromas of honeyed apricots, caramel, ripe tropical fruits like mango and pineapplee, touches of ginger, honeysuckle, citrus marmalade, and baking spices.
Tokaji Aszú offers a complex bouquet of the same honeyed apricots, ginger, and citrus marmalade, along with notes of marzipan, toasted walnuts, tangerine and a distinctive minerality.
So, on the nose the two wines are pretty similar.
ON THE PALATE
It is on the palate that the differences between the two becomes clear. While Tokaji Aszú wines often have more residual sugar and thus are much sweeter than Sauternes, they also have a higher level of acidity. This acid balances out the extra sugar, resulting in a very refreshing and fruity ensemble. The balancing act of acid and sugar gives Tokaji a certain tension that is difficult to find in Sauternes wines, which are typically creamier, more concentrated, and more straightforward in their sweetness.
Tokaji Aszú wines also come in a few different sweetness levels, distinguished by the number of puttonyos. A 5 puttonyos Aszú must have at least 120 grams of residual sugar per liter (g/L), while a 6 puttyonyos, being the sweetest (apart from Eszencia, of course), must have 150 g/L. To give you a comparison, Sauternes has around 120-150 g/L of sugar.
Tokaji Aszú and Sauternes wines both age remarkably well—potentially for several decades—but they age differently. Sauternes tends to change more over time, evolving greater complexity and tertiary aromas of dried fruit and nuts. Tokaji Aszú is quite complex already in its youth and retains its acidity over time, tasting fresh even after a century in the bottle.
Food and Wine Pairing
Tokaji and Sauternes are similar enough in style to pair with similar dishes. Both are classically served chilled and paired with foie gras and blue cheese. They both shine with desserts featuring roast pineapple, caramelized apples, and chocolate. Both will go exceptionally well with tiramisu or crème brulée.
Sauternes wines will also go nicely with a roasted poultry dishes with garlic and herbs, an onion tart or maple-glazed pork belly. Meanwhile, the high acidity and sweetness of Tokaji Aszú will allow this wine to shine with Asian fare, especially spicy Szechuan and Thai dishes. Try it with Dan Dan Noodles or a Kua Kling red curry.
Tokaji or Sauternes: Which one should you choose?
So, there you have it—all the information you need to make the right choice between two fantastic wines. If you’re looking for a creamy, rich, and concentrated sweet wine from France to age for several years in your cellar, Sauternes might be right for you. Just make sure to choose a bottle from a quality producer, like the legendary Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Coutet or Chateau Rayne Vigneau.
Meanwhile, if you seek a slightly less sweet, more layered, and more refreshing sweet wine with enough complexity in its youth to open now or age longer, a Tokaji Aszú might be the best option. Make sure to choose a puttony level that corresponds to your preferences (the higher, the sweeter) and always buy from a quality producer like Disznókő, Oremus, Royal Tokaji or Château Dereszla.
Provided that you choose a bottle from a quality producer, you really cannot go wrong with either.