In Hugh Johnson's early edition of The World Atlas of Wine, he sets the mood for a fascinating treatise on Tokaji, one of the world's great dessert wines. "Tokay is like one of the provincial towns in Russian novels which burn themselves into the memory by their very plainness." As Johnson astutely observes, the plainness of Tokaj town and the wider region, in the far northeast corner of Hungary, makes its famous sweet wine, Tokaji, all the more dramatic and appealing.
But history has not been kind to Tokaji. Never as popular or well known as its French cousin Sauternes and rarely as available as German auslesen wines, Tokaji, nevertheless, was long treasured for its depth, complexity and longevity. Influencing the acceptance of Tokaji were such thorny factors as the language of the label, which proved confusing eager wine drinkers who struggled to understand the meaning of such tongue-twisting terms as aszu and szamorodni. Then there's the little mind game that wine lovers wrestle with: 'Tokaj' as the town, 'Tokaji' as the wine and 'Tokay' as the English variation of both the town and the wine. Add to the confusion the matter of other grapes grown and wine made outside Hungary known as Tokay that have no relationship to Hungarian Tokaji, like California Tokay, Italian Tocai Friulano, and Tokay d'Alsace which, come to think of it, now must be called by its rightful name, Pinot Gris.
To be sure, there are a few things to know about Tokaji that will add to the pleasure of drinking the wines. Furmint is the principal grape of Tokaji, although it is often blended with the indigenous Harslevelu. Other native grapes, such as Muscat Blanc, may also be used for their perfume. Furmint is a high-acid grape that is especially sensitive to botrytis, a key element to the style and flavor of Tokaji. Without the 'Noble Rot,' Tokaji would be just another late harvest dessert wine. Ben Howkins, managing director of the Royal Tokaji wine company, explains it like this: 'In theory, you have to have botrytis to get to level six, but in 2000, for example, we had little botrytis, but ample botrytis in 2008, which I would describe as a miraculous vintage for a miraculous wine.'
The 'levels' of Tokaji refer to the relationship of botrytis to the style of Tokaji. Simply put, true Tokaji can be made dry, semi-dry or sweet, depending on the state of the grapes at harvest. Dry Tokaji is often made from over-ripe, shriveled berries that remain on the grape clusters when the aszu (very ripe berries dried either by the sun or botrytis) have been removed. Dry wines are usually fermented in stainless steel, and sometimes in oak barrels and then matured in Hungarian oak. Szamorodni is a type of Tokaji that can be either dry or sweet. The dry style contains some botrytized grapes and is fermented under a film of yeast similar to the Vin Jaune wines of the Jura region of France. Dry types of Tokaji, known for their aging potential, are hard to find in the U.S. market. Royal Tokaji sells a dry Furmint table wine, a late harvest wine made from bunch picked grapes called Ats Cuvee, and Aszu Sweet wines, at 5 Puttonyos, 6 Puttonyos and Essencia.
Tokaji labels offer another bit of confusion for the wine buyer, through the use of puttonyos, a word that describes the container, or wooden hod, that is used (although the practice is changing) to carry the 40 pounds of aszu grapes from the vineyard to the winery, where each puttonyo is added to a barrel of dry white wine to increase the sugar levels. 'Puttonyos' is not, however, the plural for 'hods,' which in Hungarian would be puttonyok. Nevertheless, Tokaji labels continue to carry the designations of 3 Puttonyos through 6 Puttonyos, to indicate the number of hods of aszu berries per Gonc, the traditional Tokaji barrel, named for the Hungarian village that used to be famous for its cooperage. By law, sugar measurements for the puttonyos levels range from 60 grams per liter for 3 Puttonyos Aszu to 150 g/l for 6 Puttonyos Aszu.
Then there is Essencia, the ne plus ultra of Tokaji, a rare nectar that is often savored from a silver or ivory spoon. Minimum sugar level for Essencia is 180 g/l, but often reaches 450 g/l with some juice topping out at a dizzying 800 g/l, or 80% residual sweetness. This ultra-rich, super-sweet, treacle-like wine often takes years to ferment and rarely reaches an alcohol level higher than 5%. Required by law to be aged a minimum of five years in barrel, Essencia is rarely sold commercially but is used to improve the concentration of Aszu wines.
The recent surge of interest in Tokaji has encouraged foreign investment in the region and its wines. Besides Royal Tokaji, there is Tokaj Oremus, owned by Spain's Vega Sicilia and the French insurance group AXA, producing Tokaji wines under the Disznoko brand. Check with your local wine merchant, make a choice, then usher in the new year with a glass (or two) of Tokaji.