Really bad title, I know. But the thing is that, for WSET Level 3, we don’t really study Hungary as a wine producing region outside of the Tokaj region and the production of Tokaji. So, that will be the focus of this post.
The WSET Level 3 book doesn’t even give us a map. But if you look at the one I pasted above, Tokaj is that purple splarnge up and to the left of the country. (Yes, I just wrote splarnge.) It’s not marked on this map, but the region is located in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The climate here is moderate—I’m thinking moderate continental since there are no major bodies of water are in sight. But you are right if you’re looking at the blue squiggly lines assuming that those are rivers. Indeed, the best vineyards are planted on hillsides with southerly aspects facing the Bodrog and Tisza rivers—and it’s these rivers that help the region produce what it’s become best known for: botrytized sweet wines.
There are three main grape varieties used in the production of Tokaji:
- Furmint: This is the most widely planted grape variety and the dominant variety used in the production of sweet botrytized Tokaji, as it has a naturally high level of acid, is late ripening, and has a natural susceptibility to the noble rot. It’s noted that it can also make premium quality dry white wines.
- Harslevelu: This is also a late ripening grape variety. It contributes the perfume-y aromas in Tokaji.
- Sarga Muskotaly: AKA Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains (or Yellow Muscat) is also utilized for it’s aromatic quality
I know what you’re thinking—sweet. Yes, sweet. But there’s an “an also…”
Dry Wines Without Botrytis
Super helpful in years when there’s not an abundance of noble rot, these dry wines range in style from simple, un-oaked, early drinkers, to more complex, concentrated, and age-worthy expressions. Again, the dominant variety here will be Furmint.
I’m glad I’m writing this post and not speaking it because I do not know how to pronounce that second word. But what I do know is that the word means “as it comes.” The wine may be dry or sweet, depending on the amount of noble rot present during harvest.
Let me back up a bit…
As with any producer looking to make a sweet wine from botrytis-infected grapes, pickers will have to do several passes in the vineyard, hand picking individual rotten (aszu) grapes. Bunches unaffected at all will be picked separately. And those vines that have partially infected bunches may be collected in a third batch to create these Tokaji Szamorodni. You with me?
So, again, the Tokaji Szamorodni will have noble rot present, but not enough to make a sweet wine. Tokaji Szamorodni may ferment to dryness, but due to the nature of the harvest, those noble rot aromatics will still be present. Tokaji Szamorodni must age in oak for one year and be two years old prior to release.
FUN FACT: The casks for Tokaji Szamorodni are not completely filled, so the juice forms a yeast cap, called flor (yes, like Sherry) that prevents oxygen influence during the aging process. This means that the wines also have a Fino Sherry-like character.
Alright, there’s a bit of a…sticky…process here, so stick with me…
Tokaji Aszu starts with a base wine made from healthy ripe grapes. Now, the key word to remember is aszu, which means “rotten.” At some point before, during, or after the base wine’s fermentation, the aszu (rotten) berries are macerated in that base wine. (I’m guessing timing is a winemaker’s stylistic choice. The book doesn’t go into that much detail.) Alright, so rotten grapes are macerating away—it does this for anywhere between 12 and 60 hours. When that maceration period is over, the juice is then pressed and the wine is aged in oak. The amount of aszu berries used in the maceration process determines the sweetness of the resulting wine.
Rules of the Game: The unit to describe that sweetness is puttony. The minimum residual sugar for Tokaji Aszu is 120 g/L, or 5 puttonyos. Any lower than that, the wines are simply labelled “Late Harvest” (see below) or Tokaji Szamorodni, depending on how the wine was made.
Tasting Notes: Well, I don’t have any personally, but it’s described as deep amber, high acid, intense aromas, and flavors of orange peel, apricots, and honey (typical to noble-rot-style wines). As these wines age, the sweetness increases.
Ok, again, this is a process. But if you followed me on that last one, you’ll be ok here.
Eszencia is created using the free run juices of the aszu berries. So, you can imagine, the must is so sweet that the yeast can hardly handle it. It says that it can take years to ferment, and even then, it will struggle to reach 5% ABV.
Rules of the Game: The minimum level of residual sugar for Tokaji Eszencia is 450 g/L. Tokaji Eszencia receives a minimum of 18 months of oak aging and—I’m not sure why on this last bit—”wines can be released in the January of the third year after harvest.) Tough rules…
Tasting Notes: The super sweetness is balanced by the grape’s natural acidity, but the flavors are, indeed, quite concentrated (as you can imagine). It’s noted that these wines can age for “a century or more” and still retain their freshness. (Really?)
Modern Sweet Wines
Oh these crazy kids these days…
So, these guys are the wines made with grapes that experienced extra hang time. Sometimes the wines are made with botrytis-infected grapes, in which case the winemaking process is to ferment the infected grapes, as one would in Sauternes or to make a Trockenbeerenauslese. (Yes, I could have wrote TBA, but how fun is it to spell in German?) There are less strict rules about aging and such. These wines are usually labelled “Late Harvest.” Peezy.
Ok, so I clearly have no experience in tasting Tokaji wines. But I have to admit the process completely fascinates me. Anybody out there taste any? Regularly enjoy these? Have any notes or comments to add?
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