The other week, a small group of wine pros met at Wild Ginger to taste through an exquisite line-up of Hungary’ Royal Tokaji. Tokaji (formerly Tokay) is one of the world’s greatest dessert wines and our tasting more than lived up to expectations!
Our guide was Kimberly Bowden, CSW, CSS (those initials mean she knows her topic) from Wilson Daniels, the importer of Royal Tokaji.
Tokaji’s wines were renowned throughout Europe – among nobility, Czars, and clergy – 400 to 500 years ago. Tokaji was also the first wine region in Europe to be classified.in 1700. Prince Rakoczi initiated the world’s first classification of a wine region by Great First Growth, First Growth, Second Growth and Third Growth.
There are 3 grape varieties permitted in production of Tokaji:
- Furmint, 70% of plantings, very high levels of tartaric acid, very susceptible to Botrytis
- Hárslevelú, 25% of plantings, rich in sugars and aromas
- Muscat de Lunel, 5% of plantings, difficult to grow but important seasoning
The Tisza and Bodrogm rivers create a mist similar to the fog in Sauternes, which encourages development of botrytis cinerea and potentially, noble rot, under the right conditions.
Royal Tokaji uses indigenous yeasts and grapes, traditional winemaking methods and ages wines in a 13th century underground cellar. They hand-harvest non-Botrytis bunches to ferment into dry base wine in stainless steel. About three weeks later, they hand-harvest harvest shriveled aszú berries berry by berry then grind the berries into a paste and add it to the partially fermented base wine. After stirring for two or more days, the wine is transferred to gönci, 140-liter or 37-gallon barrels and moved to the 13th century cellar for the second fermentation which may take a few months to a few years due to high sugar levels and cool cellars. The wine is so rare because each vine yields one glass of wine.
Royal Tokaji is one of the region’s elite producers with holdings in all of the region’s top crus. It was founded by British wine authority Hugh Johnson, among other investors, in 1990 after the fall of communism.
We were lucky to taste these rare wines. They are sensational and complex with notes of blood orange, citrus peel. As the Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin writes, “The delineation is astonishing on the nose, unfurling with entrancing scents of orange blossom, freshly sliced apricots, almond, and quince – all beautifully focused.” I might add, on the palate, stewed mandarin orange, honey, and quince. In addition to sweeter wines, we tasted a terrific, crisp dry Furmint and an elegant, mildly sweet late harvest Tokaji.