Understanding Tokaj

15 minutes read

Tokaj is the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú (which is also the best, at least in our humble opinions). Though it’s a spectacularly complex wine, there’s so much more to this region than the Aszú, including plenty of pretty amazing dry white wines. Tokaj is not a large region, but it is a complex one—full of fascinating history, unique wine styles, indigenous grapes, terroirs which vary widely from vineyard to vineyard, deep traditions, and a climate uniquely inducive to bringing on the botrytis which defines the most famous Tokaji wines. Tokaj is a very old wine region—the world’s first demarcated region, in fact, which was demarcated by a 1737 Royal Charter. But it is still in the process of re-introducing itself to the world since its rebirth in the early 1990s after Communism ended.

This guide will help you understand some of the essential Tokaji concepts, decode the important vocabulary you will find on a bottle of wine from Tokaj, and just generally put the nuances of the region into context. But in order to truly understand Tokaj’s magic, you really do need to visit the region. Only by breathing in the unexpectedly crisp air in a subterranean mould-covered cellar, walking through the vineyards, meeting the winemakers, and tasting through more Furmint and Hárslevelű than you thought possible (and realizing that every single one was different than the one before it) can you really appreciate the uniqueness of this region.

And by that point, Tokaj will most likely have you captured your heart (and your palate) for life.

First Things First

Tokaji or Tokaj? What’s the difference?

  • The ‘i’ that is tacked onto the end of words in Hungarian makes them possessive. So Tokaji Aszú means Aszú from Tokaj.
  • Tokaj is the name of one of the villages.
  • Tokaji is the official name of the wine region.
  • To complicate matters, Tokaj wine can be made in two countries (a smaller portion of the Tokaj region falls on the Slovak side of the border).

Botrytis
Also known as “noble rot,” botrytis is mold that is essential for the production of Tokaj’s sweet wines. Botrytis occurs only when the climate is right for it, and dries and shrivels the over-ripe grapes, turning them into raisin-like “Aszú berries.” This concentrates their flavors and their sugars, and gives the wines made from them distinct complex flavors, a honeyed character, and high amounts of residual sugar. Tokaj’s fame was built on botrytis.

 

Soil types
Winemakers in Tokaj are masterful at experimenting with the region’s various soil types and at highlighting these differences in the bottle. The Tokaj area has experienced 20 million years of volcanic activity, which has given the region many different soil types over the deep mostly tuff subsoil. There’s loess, mixtures of rock and clay, rhyolite, andesite, dacite, bentonite, zeolite, kaolin, opal, and obsidian. At any wine tasting in Tokaj, you’ll undoubtedly be presented with an array of rocks representing the different vineyards.

Grape Varieties

6 white grape varieties are permitted in Tokaj. Of course some winemakers also experiment with other grapes, notably pinot noir,  though these are not allowed to be labelled as Tokaji wine.

  • Furmint—The most important grape in Tokaj, Furmint makes up approximately 60 percent of grapes grown here. It is related to Chardonnay and Riesling, and has been used in Tokaj for centuries (the first written mention of it was in the 17th century). Since it is a late-ripening variety, it can build up sugar content as it ripens. It is prone to botrytis, has high acidity, and has high tannins, making it ideal for sweet wine. Furmint makes a full-bodied wine, and has a relatively neutral flavor profile. It is often matured in oak and can range from dry to very sweet. Read more about Furmint here and here.
  • Hárslevelű—The second most important variety grown in Tokaj (about 30 percent), Hárslevelű is related to Furmint. Hárslevelű—which means “linden leaf”—has thick skins, is late ripening, aromatic, and has strong acidity. Hárslevelű It is often made as a stand-alone dry wine, or is blended in both sweet and dry wines.
  • Sárga Muskotály—“Yellow Muscat” makes floral, very aromatic, acidic wines. It can be used for dry and sweet wines.
  • Kövérszőlő—This is a large grape (the name actually means “fat grape”) which nearly disappeared, but was re-discovered along with the revival of Tokaj. It doesn’t have a lot of acidity, and is usually blended into sweet wines.
  • Zéta—Formally known as Oremus, Zéta is a cross between Furmint and Bouvier. It’s prone to botrytis, ripens early, and isn’t often made as a single varietal wine.
  • Kabar—A crossing of Hárslevelű and Bouvier, Kabar is the region’s newest authorized grape. It ripens early, has high acidity, and can be high in sugar. A few winemakers make single varietal wines from it, but there’s not much.

Wine Styles

Dry Wines
Tokaj has been making a big push in producing and marketing its dry wines, particularly Furmint, and dry Furmint is now fairly common to come across at restaurants in the US and elsewhere. With dry wines, winemakers don’t have to be so heavily dependent on whether weather conditions in any given year will bring on the botrytis, and they don’t have to wait for the sweet wines to age before bringing them to the market, so most winemakers see dry wine production as a key to being able to successfully stay in business (and also produce the more labor-intensive sweet wines which define the region). Being Tokaj, most of the dry wines will contain a few grams of residual sugar, which combined with their high acidity make them extremely food-friendly wines. Dry wines can be blended, or single varietal.

  • Tiers—Winemakers usually have two levels of dry wines: a basic birtok (estate) bor, and then a single vineyard dry wine through which they can emphasize the wide-ranging terroirs that the region is blessed with. On the single vineyard ones the vineyard (dűlő’) will always be prominent in the label. Some of the villages—like Mád, Tállya, and Olaszliszka—are also making village wines, a lower category of easy-drinking, good value wines, which have become popular and successful.
  • Varietal Wines—Since Furmint is by far the main grape, most single varietal wines are Furmint. However, all of Tokaj’s permitted grapes can be made into varietal wines, which can be either dry or sweet.
  • Sparkling Wines—It seems like there’s hardly a winemaker in Hungary who does not make a sparkler (pezsgő), and Tokaj is no exception. While a few wineries are making lovely traditional method sparkling wines, others are making simple Prosecco-style sparklers.

Late harvest
Kései szüret wines first began appearing in the mid-1990s. Made from late-harvested, over-ripened grapes (which are not necessarily botrytized), these wines have less complexity than Szamorodni. Generally lively and fresh, this category doesn’t have any ageing requirements, and they are generally aged for just a few months.

Szamorodni
This is an important and traditional Tokaji category, and these wines can be made in either a sweet or a dry style. Originally called Főbor (main wine), the name Szamorodni was later adopted. Derived from a Polish word, which means ‘as it was born,’ this name reflects the historic importance of the Polish market for Tokaj during the 18th century. This wine was one of the best sellers. Whole clusters of grapes, which contain a mixture of both botrytized and healthy grapes, are harvested late (without the individual berry selection as in Aszú). The resulting wine can be either dry or sweet depending on the sugar content of the grapes. Read more about Szamorodni.

  • Sweet Szamorodni—Must be aged in oak barrels for at least six months, and have at least 12 percent alcohol.
  • Dry Szamorodni—One of Tokaj’s most unique wines, unfortunately this is not made by many wineries anymore. It is fermented to dryness, and then aged under flor (a veil of type of yeast which is unique to Tokaj’s cellars). Though no fortification is allowed, dry Szamorodni is reminiscent of sherry. Must be aged in oak barrels for at least six months, and have at least 12 percent alcohol.

Aszú
This complex golden-colored wine is what brought Tokaj its fame. Aszú is an extremely concentrated wine, high in both sugar and acidity, with more flavors than you could imagine possible in one wine. Making Aszú starts with the harvest, which only happens when the grapes have achieved botrytis (also known as ‘noble rot’). They turn into shriveled raisin-like berries with concentrated levels of sugar and aroma, and then they are selectively harvested—one at a time, by hand—multiple times. A 2013 law requires that one kilogram of Aszú berries make no more than 2.2 liters of Aszú wine. Aszú berries long ago stopped being harvested into the puttony (and since 2013 puttonyos are no longer used as an official measure of sweetness). Now Aszú is measured by its residual sugar (which has to be a minimum of 120 grams per liter), so only wines which would have formerly been 5 and 6 puttonyos are allowed in this category. The berries are then mashed into a paste that they call “Aszú dough,” and a fermenting must or a base wine is added so it can macerate for up to 2 days. The mixture is then put into special 136-liter Gönci barrels—made of Hungarian oak from the nearly Zemplén forest—to finish fermenting and to age for a minimum of two years (at least 18 months of which should be in oak barrels. Aszú is most often made as a blend (with Furmint usually being the primary component), but there are also some single varietal versions also. On older bottles you may come across Tokaji Aszúeszencia, which was a rarer category that is no longer permitted. It was made by adding even more shriveled berries to the base wine. Read more about Aszú.

Fordítás
Fordítás was once popular in Tokaj, but is now made in very small quantities by few wineries. Fordítás means “turning over” and the wine is made from the second pressing after Aszú is made. The pressed Aszú dough still contains plenty of sweetness and good stuff, so it is soaked again in a fresh or base wine, resulting in Fordítás. In terms of the recipe, winemakers typically use a one-one ratio for the quantity of base wine which they use to to soak one kilogram of the aszú paste. It is then aged for at least a year in barrel and a year in bottle. Fordítás is not as elegant or full bodied as Aszú or Szamorodni, but it does have all of the wonderful botrytis character and flavors and it has plenty of tannins.  The sugar level must be at least 120 grams per liter (which is the same as a 5 puttonyos wine).

  • Máslás—Similar to Fordítás, Máslás is another by-product of Aszú. However, it is no longer permitted in Tokaj. Máslás means “copy”, and was made by pouring must on the Aszú lees (the sediment that has accumulated during fermentation and aging) and then fermenting it again. Fordítás and Máslás have been described as “Aszú’s of the second try”.

Eszencia
Eszencia is not strictly a wine because its high sugar content causes it to ferment extremely slowly, never reaching more than four to six percent alcohol even after fermenting for years. Eszencia is only made in stellar vintages, and can reach more than 800 gram per liter of residual sugar. To make eszencia, a vat is filled with Aszú berries and the pressure of the grapes pushing produces the free-run juice that is Eszencia. It’s like a thick, honey-like syrup, which is fermented in glass demijohns. Eszencia is often served on elegant, specially-made glass spoons. For most people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime wine to taste if they are visiting the Tokaj region. Elsewhere, it’s very hard to find (and very expensive!). Read more about Eszencia (or taste it by the glass at The Tasting Table Budapest).

Important Places

Settlements in Hungary
Abaújszántó, Bekecs, Bodrogkeresztúr, Bodrogkisfalud, Bodrogolaszi, Erdőbénye, Erdőhorváti, Golop, Hercegkút, Legyesbénye, Mád, Makkoshotyka, Mezőzombor, Monok, Olaszliszka, Rátka, Sárazsadány, Sárospatak, Sátoraljaújhely, Szegi, Szegilong, Szerencs, Tállya, Tarcal, Tokaj, Tolcsva, Vámosújfalu

Settlements in Slovakia
Čerhov, Veľká Tŕňa, Malá Tŕňa, Slovenské Nové Mesto, Bara, Černochov, and Viničky

Rivers
The Bodrog and Tisza

Prominent Vineyards
There are almost 6,000 hectares of planted vineyards in the Tokaj region in Hungary (and an additional 910 hectares on the Slovak side ). Many of today’s most prominent vineyards were also prized when Tokaj’s vineyards were classified in the 18th century. The characteristics of these vineyards vary so much—which is why winemakers here love making single vineyard wines. Vineyards to look out for are: Birsalmás, Betsek, Barát, Szent Tamás, Nyulászó, Lapis, Úrágya, Király, Határi, Percze, Disznókő, Kővágó, Szílvölgy, Szerelmi, Mézes Mály, Zafír, and Mandolás.

Traditions

Puttonyos
This was the traditional way of measuring sweetness in Tokaji Aszú wines (however, in an effort to simplify the wine labels, since 2013 Tokaji Aszú is no longer labeled in puttonyos). A puttony is a 25-liter wooden tub, in the old days traditionally used for collecting the Aszú grapes. Before the Tokaj wine laws changed, Aszú was categorized as between three and six puttonyos (which means that the equivalent of between three and six tubs of botrytized grapes would have been added to each Gönci cask of base wine). The higher the puttony number, the sweeter, more golden colored, and more expensive the wine. (For a more concrete idea of the sweetness level, a three puttonyos Aszú had from 60 to 90 grams of residual sugar per liter, a four puttonyos has from 90 to 120, a five puttonyos from 120 to 150, a six puttonyos from 150 to 180, and an Aszúeszencia from 180 to 260.)

Gönc barrel
A 136-liter cask made of oak from the Zemplén forest, the traditional-sized cask in Tokaj for making Aszú wines. Read more about Hungarian oak. 

Bottles Used in Tokaj

  • Aszú bottle—By law, since the late 19th-century, Tokaji Aszú (and other botrytized wines from the region) must be bottled in a uniform 500 milliliter “Aszú bottle.” The elegantly-shaped bottle has the word “Tokaj” embossed into the neck, and is unique to the Tokaj region.
  • Dry Tokaj Bottle—The bottle for dry Tokaji wines is a much newer addition to the region’s branding. It is modelled after the traditional Aszú bottle, just in a larger proportional 750 milliliter format (and also in 375ml and magnum sizes). The bottle succeeds in letting the customer know at first glance that they are looking at a quality dry wine from the Tokaj region.

Ageing cellars
One of the really unique things about the Tokaj region is its extensive system of underground cellars, which provide the precise microclimate needed to perfectly age Tokaj wine. Carved into the volcanic tuff, these long narrow cellars are covered with a special puffy black mould (Cladosporium cellare) which feeds on the alcohol which evaporates from the wine. Despite all of the mould, the cellars smell fresh, clean, and alive. Their very high humidity is ideal for long-term ageing. Many of these cellars have been hand-carved, starting in the 15th century. One of the most famous is the historic Rakoczi Pince, a one kilometer-long cellar in the center of Tokaj, where János Szapolyai was secretly crowned King of Hungary in the 16th century.

Enjoying Tokaj Wines

Food Pairings
Dry Tokaj wines are incredibly food friendly, and you can use your imagination to create some great pairings. Drink it as an aperitif with cheese and charcuterie, or with pasta, spicy food, Thai food, Chinese food, seafood, grilled dishes, pizza, and much more. Wines that are sweeter are also excellent with dishes that are heavily spiced or hot. The classic pairing for Aszú are foie gras and blue cheese, and it’s also wonderful with fruity desserts. But it’s also perfect just on its own. Eszencia should be enjoyed on its own, with nothing to distract you from the intense experience.

Tasting spoon
Eszencia, a rare wine made in extremely limited quantities, is often served in portions of just a few sips on a glass spoon.

Furmint glass
Riedel, the Austrian company known for its wide range of glasses specific to regions and wines, has developed a Tokaj Furmint glass. The glass is meant to deliver Furmint’s characteristics, and preserve its aromas and flavors. It can be used for all types of Furmint, from dry to sweet.

Serving Temperature
Tokaj wines should be slightly chilled, but they’ll benefit from being consumed a bit warmer than the typical white wine would be, between 54-59°F (12-15°C).

International Furmint Day
February 1st has been declared the day to celebrate Furmint, which is often seen as Hungary’s flagship grape. Make sure you have a bottle handy to celebrate!


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