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Wines

 

Probably no other wine region can boast such an intricate hierarchy of wine styles. This amazing diversity can be somewhat perplexing to the novice, but all great wine regions are complex – and none more so than the Tokaj region.

However, Tokaji wines are made in a number of easy to understand styles that can be summed up as the following:
  • dry wines made from non-botrytized grapes

  • Szamorodni and late harvest wines made from partially botrytized, shrivelled and overripe grapes

  • Wines made with the individually picked and selected botrytized aszú berries (i.e. Tokaji Aszú, Tokaji Eszencia, Fordítás, Máslás).

 

Dry varietals

The three main varieties, Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Sárga Muskotály can all be used to make dry (száraz) white wine. Furmint, the most common of the three, is pretty versatile. It can be crisp and light, but more often it is peachy, floral and mineral. This often full bodied and high alcohol wine has characteristic acidity and excellent structure. It works well with new wood, and since it’s quick to mature, it develops a honeyed, waxy nose. Hárslevelű is usually lighter in body, possessing balanced acidity, and a wonderful bouquet of honey and linden, while Sárga Muskotály is quite “feminine” with its intensive floral, fruity notes and delicate structure.

Maturation can be carried out either in stainless steel or in oak, and sometimes in new oak. 

 

Szamorodni and late harvest wines

Szamorodni is a word of Polish origin that conjures up the age when Poland was the biggest customer of Tokaji, which means “as it grew” or “as it comes”. In order to make szamorodni, healthy and botrytized bunches are harvested and vinified together “as they grew”. Depending on the proportion of aszú-berries in the mix and on vinification decisions, it can be dry or sweet, but always undergoes a mandatory maturation period of two years.

The dry ones (száraz szamorodni) are usually quite like dry sherry; nutty and full bodied with some botrytis, and oozing zesty acidity – just the stuff to whet all palates. The sweet ones (édes szamorodni) generally contain between 50-100 grams of residual sugar. Though not as viscous, complex, and sweet as aszús, they do offer real harmony and elegance.

Late Harvest wines. The unofficial late harvest category, into which vastly different wines are clumped together, is responding to market trends and sparked off a much needed debate over the future direction of Tokaji. They can be anything from off-dry to very rich and concentrated (price is normally a good indication of what to expect); made of a single variety or as a blend; and with virtually no botrytis or with a massive amount of botrytized grapes. The common denominators are the later-than-usual harvest and the limited use of barrel ageing in order to preserve the intensity and freshness of the fruit.

 

Aszú wines

Aszú is the wine that made Tokaj famous and its vinification method is entirely original. The botrytized (aszú) berries and bunches are harvested separately and crushed into a sort of aszú-paste, a process that was once carried out by treading, though today most winemakers will settle for some gentle mashing. The uncrushed aszú berries or the mashy paste is then added to either new-wine or to fermenting must, and left to macerate. This is in contrast with szamorodnis, or most other sweet wines, which are simply pressed. Macerating the aszú-berries or the aszú paste is a key step in aszú-making, as it helps extract a complex array of distinctive flavours. The wine is then matured for a minimum of three years in cask and bottle in the underground labyrinth of cellars before release.

Aszús come in various grades of 3, 4, 5, or 6 puttonyos Aszú established according to how much residual (i.e. unfermented) sugar a wine contains. If a wine contains more than 180 grams of residual sugar, it is called an aszú-eszencia, although the story does not end there. The highest category of all is the Tokaji eszencia or nectar, which is not to be confused with aszú-eszencia. This is the free-run juice the berries exude by themselves without pressing and it is simply the most concentrated form of grape juice you can imagine: sweeter and more concentrated than honey (over 800 grams of residual sugar is not that abnormal) and it is virtually everlasting.

The name “puttonyos” pays homage to how the wine was made in the past. A “puttony” is a hod in which roughly 25 kg of aszú berries were collected. Depending on the number of hods added to a 136 litre barrel of base wine, you had a 3 to 6 puttonyos wine.

Rising puttonyos numbers indicate increasing levels of concentration, complexity and balance. 3 and 4 puttonyos aszús are moderately sweet and easy to drink; while the 5 and 6 puttonyos aszús and the aszú-eszencias are the real top-products of the region. In these latter wines the unique complexity of fruits and spices is complemented with chocolate, toffee and crème-brulé as they mature, while keeping a wonderful balance between sweetness and acidity. These wines are the utmost expression of firm structure allied with pure sumptuousness and possess legendary ageing potential.

 

Fordítás and Máslás

There are two further historic wine-styles rarely encountered these days: Fordítás and Máslás, made by macerating the marc and the lees of the aszú respectively in wine or must anew. Their style is not unlike that of a sweet or dry szamorodni, perhaps a touch more rustic.

 
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