By Jurgen Gothe
www.straight.com – Vancouver’s Online Source
It’s true: everybody who’s anybody in the vast world of wine has been raving about it for centuries, from Louis XIV to Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, and André Simon. But how many people do you know who’ve actually tasted Hungary’s greatest treasure in a bottle, Tokaji? And, for that matter, have you?
You’ve done Château d’Yquem and all the lesser Sauternes, clawed your way through all the icewines your stash of Metformin can ameliorate, done the ports and the sherries, Moscatos galore, and even the Commandaria from Cyprus.
But the great expression of the otherwise lowly furmint grape? Why not?
Cost would be a prohibiting factor; like most rare wines, it’s never cheap. Availability, another—six months ago, there were six separate listings for it in the meagre Hungary section of the LDB product guide. This month, there are two.
Consider the effusive press: “…esteemed Hungarian wine [that] ranks as one of the world’s best sweet wines,” write Ron Herbst and Sharon Tyler Herbst in The Wine Lover’s Companion. “Great Hungarian sweet wine…of such renown it is even mentioned in the national anthem,” says Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine.
Johnson has lots to say. “[It] belongs in history as the favourite dessert wine of a world which thought dessert wine the summum bonum of gastronomy…the Hapsburg Court of the Holy Roman Empire [and] the Russian Imperial Court” is the quote from one of his earliest books, Wine. Last word, for now, goes to Louis XIV, who lip-smacked it as “vinum regun, rex vinorum”, which your Latin teacher will tell you means “the wine of kings, the king of wines”.
So what is it? Decadently sweet wine (although it’s sometimes produced dry as well, which strikes me as aberrant) that comes from the area around the Hungarian town of Tokaj. Labels include an I at the end of the town’s name, which makes it possessive—much like the Germans add -er, as in Piesporter, meaning wine from Piesport. While the world calls it Tokay, labels of the real thing always list it as Tokaji or Tokaji Aszú. This latter term refers to the practice of adding juice from just-picked grapes to the concentrated juice of grapes touched by the noble rot, botrytis.
Tokaji dates back, by name at least, to the 17th century, although sweet wines from this northeastern part of Hungary are referenced for a millennium before that. The wine is made from botrytis-infected grapes, just like Sauternes and most icewines. Tokaji Eszencia is the rarest and most expensive of these wines, produced from the minuscule amount of juice squeezed out naturally by the weight of the grapes atop each other. No wonder the Soviets considered it the height of decadence, and proceeded to run the Tokaji industry into the ground during their occupation of the country. In the last several decades, it has slowly reestablished itself.
The production process is lengthy, complex, and strictly regulated. A word about puttonyos is in order. This refers to the baskets that hold about 25 kilograms of the juice that makes Eszencia. The thick juice is kneaded into an impossibly sweet grape-must paste. The more puttonyos, the sweeter and richer the resulting wine is. Three, four, or five puttonyos indicated on the label is the norm; on rare occasions, we can see six. Traditional Tokaji bottles hold 500 millilitres instead of the more familiar 750 millilitres. The wine ranges in colour from pale apricot to deep mahogany.
Here’s what I found, in the stores and in the cellar. Oremus Mandolás Tokaji Dry 2005 ($24.99) is produced from all furmint grapes and shows a deep apricot colour. On the tongue, it’s a bit perverse: the nose promises sweetness, the palate gets pleasant, if dry, acidity. It costs too much for the novelty it is, but it is unusually rich and fruity and interesting.
On to what we came for: sweets. Oremus Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyos 2000 ($39.99) is the only real (i.e. sweet) Tokaji currently in the LDB system. It is that best of sweet wines: a winning combination of bright, deep fruit; massive natural sugars; and fine acidity, resulting in a sublime thimble-sipping after-dinner wine, gorgeous and deep, marzipan-edged, a great introduction.
A few months ago, I found another one in the system: Chateau Dereszla Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2003 ($46.97). If I’d known how grand it was, I would have cleared the shelves. Wine Spectator placed it at number 95 in its top-100 wines of the world a few years ago, suggesting that you can drink it through 2020 and praising its silky harmony, its orange blossom and honey aromas, and its freshness and aftertaste. All true, all there. The aftertaste is astronomically long, the freshness surprising—and with my friend Barb’s whisky bread pudding, what could be more sublime?
The rest of this lineup comes from the back of my cellar, starting with a Tokaji Aszú Eszencia 1964, which I bought in Alberta in 1974 for $37.45. It has been open, but frozen, for some months now, and every time I approach it I am struck by the apotheosis of sweet wine–ness it delivers. One of the great taste treats of my not inconsiderably lengthy wine-reporting career.
A Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 1996 was acquired somewhere, sometime in the past decade, in a 250-millilitre bottle. It’s the colour of soy sauce and has fabulous weight, intense fruit, a honey-mead texture, and deft sweetness with a very long, very bold finish. The label suggests “foie gras or as digestif”; I had neither at hand so just sipped it on its own in front of the fire, with the dog and some Mozart. One of the best.
One of the greatest Tokaji years of the past century was 1993. Somewhere, I acquired a bottle (it’s not too late to start keeping better notes, is it?), and one of the rare ultra-sweet six-puttonyos models at that: Disznókö Tokaji Aszu 1993. This is one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted, a standard against which a lot of Yquems and ice wines will be measured for years to come. Deep amber colour, depth and charm, intense fruit and perfect acidity—a brilliant balance of all the elements that make a truly fine wine.
If you ever come across it, or a similar one from 1993, five puttonyos or six, grab all you can carry and afford. You’ll be set for life, dessertwise.