Hungary's Tokaji wines are hitting the sweet spot again thanks to far-sighted growers, writes Christine Austin

Now that we are all one Europe, even with Brexit looming, it is odd to remember that less than 30 years ago, Hungary was still under Soviet rule. This had a massive effect on wine production in particular on the legendary wine Tokaji.

Tokaji comes from the north-eastern region of Hungary, on the borders of the Ukraine and Slovakia. Vines have been cultivated here since Roman times but the first sweet wines of Tokaji supposedly date back to 1650 when, in the face of an advancing Turkish army, grapes were left on the vines after the normal harvest. When the populace returned, wine was made from the over-ripe and mouldy grapes. The result was astonishingly good and from then on, this region developed its wines to the point where they were in demand by every crowned head of Europe. Prices for Tokaji wines exceeded those for all other wines and the Russian Tsar kept a garrison of soldiers here just to protect the ‘wine with the price and colour of gold’.

But the Soviet era changed everything. Between 1947 and 1989 the system of collectivised vineyards and wineries concentrated on quantity not quality.

Since 1989 there have been substantial changes in this region and the wines of Tokaji are once again showing that they can be fabulous. A sudden influx of international investment, together with new technology and enthusiasm has driven up quality. Investors, including Britain’s own Hugh Johnson, Italy’s Antinori and the insurance company AXA have ploughed money into the region with spectacular results.

Hugh Johnson in the Royal Tokaji vineyards

The Royal Tokaji Company was established in 1990 when a group of growers, each with small parcels of land came together to create a company. Headed by investors such as famous wine writer Hugh Johnson and skilled wine professionals from across Europe, the main work was to improve the vineyards and winemaking. ‘One of the main problems during the Soviet era was that the way of making the wine had changed’, said winemaker Zoltán Kovács when I met with him over a fabulous range of vintage Tokaji wines. ‘We had to go back to the way things had been done before, to do it properly, although everyone had slightly a different memories of what that was.’

Those 60 vineyards, scattered over some of the best sites in the region are now merged into the whole company which has enabled them to be upgraded and replanted where necessary.

Making any kind of sweet wine is an expensive and complicated matter but for Tokaji it is doubly so. The region is planted with three main grapes. Furmint, is a thin-skinned, late-ripening, acidic grape which is highly susceptible to the special mould called botrytis; Hărslevelu provides good aromas and sugar levels while Muscat Lunel adds richness of style and aroma. All grapes are left on the vines long after normal harvesting dates and as the autumn mists build up humidity, noble rot otherwise called botrytis cinerea spreads across the bunches. This special mould coats the individual berries in a light grey dust which sucks the grapes almost dry, leaving them shrivelled but packed with sweetness and concentrated acidity.

These grapes, known as Azsú, are harvested separately from the unaffected bunches and, once the normal grape fermentation is finished, they are added back into the wine as a thick sticky paste. The whole business of grading Tokaji starts at this point. Words like Puttonyos are still used on labels, indicating the sweetness of the wine, and these days only 5 and 6 Putts are allowed, meaning luscious, sweet wines.

The wine is aged in barrel in small winding tunnels carved out centuries ago from the hillside. Apparently these tunnels were kept deliberately low and narrow so that an invading army could not run amok in them.

The Royal Tokaji Company has been careful to keep a library of vintages since they started and I was privileged to taste through ten vintages starting from 1991. What makes these wines so very special is that Royal Tokai have been careful to keep many of those original 60 vineyards separate, and, following ancient maps of the region, have identified several of them as the very best vineyards.

Vineyards such as Betsek, planted on clay with volcanic rock below produces deep-flavoured wine with spice notes while south-facing Nyulászó produces wines with vibrancy and delicious fruit. I tasted through the wines, from 1991 to 1999, each one layered with flavour – definitely sweet but packed with fresh acidity that balances the sweetness. Words like crème brulée, seared apricots, butterscotch, honey, roast coffee and cinnamon spice flitted across my mind as the gorgeous liquids tingled every single tastebud.

Berry Bros has a very limited number of these vintage cases for sale. They are a genuine taste of history.

Not everyone likes sweet wines, or at least, many people claim not to like them, which is a shame. A sweet wine such as this can partner a fruit-based dessert perfectly but it can also act as a dessert in itself, which is why the tiny bottles of just 25 cl Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2013 (Waitrose £12.99) come in so handy. With flavours of lime marmalade, peaches and quince, a small glass of this will re-energise even the most exhausted chef over the festive season.

If you want to share the gorgeous taste of Tokaji then be prepared to flex your wallet. Waitrose also has 50cl of Royal Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos from the first growth vineyard of Betsek, 2008 at £55.

The Halifax Wine Company has stocks from Disznókó, another company that is busy reviving the reputation of the historic wine region. Try Disznókó Aszú 2006, 5 Puttonyos at £31 for 50cl.

While expensive, it is worth considering the tales that have been told about the life-giving properties of Tokaji. This Hungarian elixir has many ancient stories attached to it, most of them involving aged emperors climbing off their death beds and ruling for decades longer. Apocryphal they may be – but why take the chance?

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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