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College, Communism, and a Confession: Tokaji

The Wine


Some Recommendations:

Royal Tokaji Asz˙ 5 Puttonyos 2000

Royal Tokaji "Birsalmßs" Asz˙ 5 Puttonyos 2000

Royal Tokaji Asz˙ 5 Puttonyos 1993

Disznˇk÷ Tokaji Asz˙ 5 Puttonyos 1999

Disznˇk÷ Tokaji Asz˙ 6 Puttonyos 1995

Oremus Tokaji Asz˙ 6 Puttonyos 1999

By Jim Clarke
Illustration by Dimitri Drjuchin
December 2006

Hungarian wine, strangely, was all the rage in our music department when I was in college. Every other year a group of early-music students went to Hungary on a performing tour (the instructor was Hungarian) and they usually returned with two sorts of wines: Bulls Blood (a rustic red) and the dessert wine Tokaji (anglicized as “Tokay”). This was long before I took an active interest in wine, but the memory of the latter stayed with me.

As it turns out, a taste for Tokaji puts me in good company: the French king Louis XIV was a fan, as was the sixteenth century Pope Pius IV. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name another wine from Eastern Europe that received the historical esteem once bestowed upon Tokaji. Despite its reputation, however, the sun seemed to be setting on Tokaji during the 20th century.

The Russian Revolution and World War I dealt a blow to Tokaji’s market, and Communism seemed like it may have been the death-knell. Instead of providing top-notch wines for royalty, the state-run vineyards were overcropped to produce as much wine as possible, regardless of its quality. Most of the wine, in fact, was exported to the Soviet Union in exchange for natural gas.

However, some growers were able to hold on to a few casks of wine, which they did their best to make in the classic manner. In 1989, with the Berlin Wall and communism collapsing, these were the wines that drew the attention to two visitors, winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers and wine writer Hugh Johnson. Their interest presaged a cavalcade of foreign investment when the Hungarian government privatized the area’s vineyards.

Vinding-Diers, Johnson, and Hungarian winemaker István Szepsy led the way by forming the Royal Tokaji Company. In the 90s, Spain’s Vega Sicilia bought the Oremus estate and, less romantically, three French insurance companies also invested in the region, bringing new life to estates such as Disznókö, Hétszölö, and Pajzos. This investment has made it possible for these estates to rework their vineyards and winemaking practices so that the wines could shed the oxidized style that was popular under Communism in favor of fresher wines that offer a glimpse of what King Louis was so excited about.

And now, a confession: those Tokajis I enthused about back in college probably weren’t very good. While they appealed to my sweet tooth back then, were I to have them today I suspect I would find them lacking in fruit, too low in acidity, and cloying. The vintages in question predated Tokaji’s rebirth (the “new” wines hit the market in 1994, a year after I graduated), and looking back I am pretty sure that the novelty of those syrupy dessert wines is what made an impression on me. To check that theory, I recently had a 1988 Tokaji; poor structure and a tell-tale apple-y note suggested it was passing its drink-by date – hard to imagine it ever had the vibrancy that the post-Communist wines offer and, for that matter, top-notch Tokaji should be able to age for years and years. Anyway, while I am somewhat discomfited to think upon the simpleminded palate of my younger days, I am grateful that it put Tokaji on my radar.

The Wines

Generally speaking, when people talk about Tokaji, they’re talking about botritized dessert wines, made from the native grapes Furmint and Harslevelu as well as Muscat. These days there are some dry whites and late harvest sweet wines as well; for the richer style, look for the words “Aszú” or “Puttonyos” on the label. “Aszú” means botrytis, the noble rot that plays a part in concentrating the sugars, flavor, and acidity of the grapes. “Puttonyos” reveals how sweet and rich the wine is, and hints at the special process used in making the wine. Traditionally, the botritized grapes are mashed and then added to a dry wine made from the previous vintage; how much of the botritized must is added determines the sweetness: 3 puttonyos is the least sweet, and six the sweetest (3 puttonyos means about 75 kg of must were added to 136 liters of wine, while 6 would mean adding 150 kg of must.). The mixture then referments and is allowed to age in humid caves for several years. This is where opinion divides: how much should the barrels be topped off during aging to prevent oxidation? Some say oxidation adds complexity and is part of Tokaji’s character, while others say it’s a fault that harms the fruit aromas, and a vestige of poor winemaking from the Communist era.

Tokaji is sold in 500ml bottles, and many run in the $20 to $50 range, retail (though some are much more). Most producers are currently releasing wines from 1999 or 2000, but vintages from earlier in the 90's can be found with a little searching, often without a huge increase in price. I like the complexity a few years of aging adds: toffee and caramel notes to supplement the marmalade, fig, and apricot aromas. 1993 and 1995 are both showing really well at the moment.

Some Recommendations

Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2000 Shows lots of orange and tangerine aromas, supported by touches of honey, quince, and flowers. A soft, full wine, with a lingering sweetness.

Royal Tokaji “Birsalmás” Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2000 A single vineyard wine (since 1995 an effort has been underway to classify some of the best old vineyard sites; Birsalmás has been deemed a “2nd growth”), the Birsalmás is more intense, with marmalade and apricot notes as well as touches of honey and molasses. It’s full-bodied, with a refreshing, clean finish.

Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 1993 Age has unpacked aromas of walnut, molasses, and maple, but the fruit still comes through in notes of apricot, date, fig, and orange zest. A medium-bodied with lots of elegance.

Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 1999 The nose is dominate by brighter fruit flavors like peach and apricot, but on the palate some butterscotch and honey aromas appear as well. Not as overtly sweet as some 5 Puttonyos wines, with good length.

Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 1995 This wine stood out in character for its minty, spicy side, which made a pleasing garnish to its core aromas of toffee, caramel, and figs. Rich, with good length and acidity.

Oremus Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 1999 To my taste, Oremus makes some of the cleanest, most fruit-dominated wines of Tokaji – summery wines, with a crisp touch that makes them particularly food friendly. There’s lots of acidity and tropical fruit here – pineapple, lemon, tangerine – with some honey and floral notes as well. I’m curious to see how much more complexity this will develop with age.

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