Tokaj and the Noble Rot
Updated: May 13, 2019
The King of Wines, the Wine of Kings
Did you know that Tokaji Aszú is the oldest wine appellation in the world? Well, the title is claimed by Douro’s Port wine appellation as well. But the second one appeared in 1756, while Tokaji in 1732. In this article I’ll share with you not only my personal experience brought to you directly from a classic Tokaj winery - Disznókő, but also share insights related to the history, classification and other less known wines of the Tokaj wine region. Ready to discover the obscure wine varietals of Tokaj?
History & geography of Tokaji wine
The climate of the area pushed locals to producing their beloved Aszú* wine.
*Aszú – is not a grape variety, but a state of grape affected by Botrytis cinerea or Noble Rot. The grape is fully ripe, shriveled from dehydration and infected with Botrytis.
Unlike all Hungarian agriculture which is located on the country’s plain lands, Tokaj wine region is surrounded by Carpathian Mountains, which creates a natural protection and special micro-climate. The best vineyards are located on a small plateau, with volcanic soil, lots of iron and lime concentration.
Winters here are very cold and windy, springs cool and dry, summer noticeably hot and autumn starts with early rains and follows with an extended ‘Indian summer’, which allows long ripening period. Two rivers surround the region – Bodrog and Hemád – this ensures high humidity and morning fogs.
This way the grapes naturally get affected by Botrytis cinerea in autumn, when they are fully ripe, thanks to the early rains and fog caused by temperature difference between the air and two rivers. Then as summer returns mid-autumn, the berries have enough time to dry out under the pressure of Noble rot and the sun.
So how could they avoid making Aszú? :)
I will just say that grapevines been grown here before the arrival of Magyar tribes (Hungarians), and the first records of official Aszú production were made in 1630.
Tokaji wine was well known in the world. The famous Tokaji Eszencia (the most expensive Tokay wine, the sweetest in the world, with ageing potential 200+ years) was always kept for Imperial Cellars of Hapsburg Monarchy. Quite often monarchs were exchanging gifts, and the Eszencia was the most precious one arriving to the highest titles from Hungary. This is how Tokaj earned its’ fame.
As a result, there have been many regions with similar climatic conditions, making sweet wine and using the Tokaji word to emphasize the fact of sweetness in bottle. In Alsace (France) and Friuli (Italy) producers used the words Tokaji and Tocai on the labels. Thus in 1730 the classification of vineyards of Tokaji appeared, which was a hierarchy based on soil, altitude, sun exposure of the estates. In 1757 a noble decree restricted the production of Tokay wine to its’ current boarders. In Friuli (Italy), for example, they had to rename their wine to Tai.
The most famous saying related to Tokaj belongs to King Louis XIV, who said it’s the King of Wines, and Wine of Kings.
So how do they achieve this extreme sweetness?
There are 6 indigenous (native) Hungarian grape varieties approved for Tokaji’s production:
- Furmint – occupies 60% of Tokaj vineyards
- Hárslevelü – occupies 30% of the wine region’s territory
As mentioned above, the Botrytis cinerea (known as Noble rot, when it causes useful changes, and botrytis when it’s harmful) develops on grape berries in moist conditions, fog and river valleys. And, luckily it does it when the berries are fully ripe due to climatic specialties described above.
The mold dries on the berries when the sun comes out, thus causing rotting, which makes the grape shrivel, concentrate sugar and become more sweet.
New flavours are developed due to this ‘disease’ – saffron, beeswax, honey are now added to the palate.
The harvest is done in three parts – first, they harvest the ‘healthy’ grapes, without Noble rot, this will be used for making dry whites like Tokaji Furmint. Second is the Tokaji late harvest wine, grapes are over-ripe. Third – they harvest the rot affected berries. Moreover, rotten berries will be selected from clusters manually, as they are too precious to be mixed with ‘rot-free’ ones.
The 'normal' grape berries will be fermented as standard white wine in old Hungarian oak tanks. Meanwhile, the aszú berries with noble rot will rest in stainless steel tanks, releasing juice under their own pressure. This is the ‘free-run’ juice which is used to make the Eszencia (the sweetest of all Tokajis, and of all wines).
Photos taken by me during wine trip to Tokaj:
1) Bottles with Tokaji Eszencia - this is how the sweetest wine in the world ages and matures.
2) More glass containers with Eszencia
3) Tokaji Aszú wine resting after bottling
4) This is a small glass/spoon which is used to drink Eszencia (you won't be able to drink more, it's like drinking honey)
When the white wine must (our base wine) will reach the necessary alcohol level it will be added to the aszú grapes. Those grape berries can’t be pressed, as they are very dry. So, the winemaker will wait until they get filled with the wine must, during maceration. After the maceration, they will draw off all the free-run juice, then press the berries gently for 6-7 hours to get all their juice as well.
Next stage is fermentation of the blend of base wine and aszú berries. It lasts for 3-6 months in old casks.
Ageing goes on in barrels, for 2-3 years, while the Eszencia (made only of the free-run juice of rotten berries) will age in special glass containers. After bottling the wine rests for a few months and then released.
The ratio of base wine and aszú berries indicates the final sweetness level of the wine. So let’s switch to classification.
Tokaji Aszú Wine Classification & What is Puttonyos Tokaj?
In good old days, locals were measuring the aszú berries in ‘puttony’s (baskets), actually they were classifying their wine based on how many ‘puttony’s they added to the base wine. Therefore, the more ‘puttony’s (baskets) were added, the sweeter the wine was.
Today wineries are using modern technology to measure the level of sugar and adjust it according to their plans. Thus the 3, 4, 5, 6 Puttonyos classification is just a nostalgia. While producers can still use the Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos term on the bottles, all the others you may see only on wine bottled before 2013.
Nowadays, Tokaji wine is classified based on sugar content:
- 3 Puttonyos must have had 60 grams of sugar/liter, but it discontinued since 2013
- 4 Puttonyos – 90 grams of sugar/liter, and it discontinued as well
- 5 Puttonyos is now labeled as simply ‘Aszú’ and requires 120 grams of sugar/liter
- 6 Puttonyos – 150 grams/liter
- Eszencia – is made solely of aszú berries’ free-run juice, contains 450+ grams sugar/liter, and barely exceeds 2% ABV.
The non-sweet wines of Tokaj
Unfortunately, the communist regime negatively affected the winemaking processes in the country. Quality wasn’t a concern, so vineyards were replanted with high yielding vines. Winemaking started to arise from 1990 when vineyards got privatized. That’s the main reason we know so little about other Hungarian wines, and especially other Tokaji wines.
However, the region impresses us with exceptional dry white wines made of rare local wine varietals.
The two main grape varieties are Furmint and Hárslevelü, they often end up as single-varietal wines. They have very high acidity and winemakers aim to leave some residual sugar to lower the acid intensity. They are often aged in neutral (old) Hungarian oak. Usually, the dry Tokaji wines don’t undergo malolactic fermentation, but they do rest ‘sur lie’ (on lees) for a few months. Furmint even deserved an appellation of its’ own – Mád – named after the village where the first dry Furmint was produced in 2000.
Szamorodni is a special subject. It’s also made of Botrytis affected berries, but in this case healthy and rotten berries are not separated, but from the very beginning macerated and fermented together. This is where the name comes from, as ‘Szamorodni’ in Slavik means ‘born by itself’ or ‘made by itself’. Szamorodni can be ‘édes’ (sweet, with 100-120 g of residual sugar) or ‘száraz’ (dry).
Fordítás – which means ‘turn over’ or even ‘translate’ in Hungarian. In this case the wine must (base wine) is poured over ‘aszú dough’ (the pressed berry leftovers).
Máslás – which is ‘copying’ is wine made by pouring the base wine over the lees of aszú grapes.
Visiting Tokaji Disznókő Winery
It's not difficult to find a winery to visit in Tokaj, but it takes a while to do your homework and find a producer that focuses on quality and has an impressive history to share in their bottles. Disznókő winery is just at the entrance of the Tokaj region (UNESCO Heritage since 2002), and you’ll notice it by unique architecture which is not usual for Hungarian vineyards. The oldest building is the Sárga Bórház – before AXA Millésimes invested in the vineyard, that was the only construction onsite. Today it’s functioning as a traditional Tokaji restaurant, and the production processes moved to new, but very impressive premises.
AXA Millésimes built a state-of-art winery, perhaps, the most impressive viticultural architecture in Central Europe. It has 3 floors, and each represents a process of wine-making:
- The ground floor where the grapes arrive and get under press
- The fermentation of the grape juice is done a level below in stainless steel tanks
- Finally the wines are ageing in Hungarian and French oak barrels in the subterranean cellar (which will be the most impressive part of your tour, since it’s very cold and almost 100% humid, you’ll see water dripping from the ceiling, walls, everywhere, and the famous fungus is here as well)
Then there is a yurt shaped huge garage for tractors, which is at the same time the most beloved by Hungarians concert venue. And, most importantly, a 19th century belvedere allowing you to see far to the horizon.
The experience in Disznókő combines a tour around the vineyard, to the chapel which leads to outstanding views around all the estate. You’ll see the famous stone which was believed to have a shape of a hog, that’s where the name comes from (Disznókő – literally means ‘Hog stone’). Then your guide will take you to the winery, where you’ll learn all stages of Tokaj wine production. After which you'll find yourself in a underground cellar tasting the best Tokaji wines in Hungary. You can choose which wines to taste, the winery will provide you with 3 options – dry wines only, Aszú wines, or all of them combined. We chose the most complete one of course!
It was a memorable trip worth those hours on the way, the winery actually made me finalizing and putting in words my feelings towards wine – one day I definitely want to have my own estate, it is one of the most beautiful businesses a human being could ever have))
Wines we tasted
1413 Tokaji – named after the first mentioning of the vineyard in 1413. The wine type is called Szamorodni (which means ‘born by itself’ in many Slavic languages). This explains the processing method – the grapes are not selected one by one, but picked as whole bunches with many shriveled and botrytized grapes. The young wine might be a bit acid (but I love that), with age it gains more honey notes.
Tokaji Dry Furmint 2016 – aromatic, dry, crisp with a lot of stone-fruit aromas with a long finish.
Tokaji Késo Szüret Late Harvest 2015 – elegant, reminding a Sauternes, with mango, honey and pineapple aromas.
Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2003 – citric, mineral aromas, walnuts with honey and caramel. They say drink it with a dessert, I say it’s better than any dessert on its’ own! An exceptional wine.
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2002 – incredible sweetness balanced with such a high and refreshing acidity. Even more dry fruits, nuts, caramel, honey and oak flavours to enjoy (and btw I have 2 bottles of this miracle at home, one open for a few months, but still didn’t lose its’ richness in the fridge).
Have you been to Tokaj wine region? If not, join me in my Tokaj wine tour this autumn and let’s try to get there for harvest! Drop me a note and we’ll make it happen.