Tokaj Part 2: Quality Over Quantity

In the first installment, we looked at what first made Tokaj a classic wine region, why it nearly disappeared, and how it’s reemerging today in a relevant way. This article will focus on how a new generation is embracing the appellation’s history and pedigree while also improving farming and winemaking, adjusting to new wines laws, and aiming for high quality across the board.

Tokaj, like the other 21 appellations in Hungary, lacks context in the US market. We might know of the late Zsa Zsa Gabor, goulash, Bull’s Blood, and paprika, but we aren’t exposed to the broader culture of Hungary. One might blame the iron curtain, or how quickly Hungarian immigrants integrated into American culture, but those are no longer excuses for the oversight. Tokaji, so heavily imbued with Hungarian identity, is an iconic and worthy ambassador of its country.

Keeping that in mind, this article will outline the various wine styles of Tokaj and how to contextualize them in the larger world of wine, while also hopefully peaking enough interest to compel a visit to the region.

The World’s First Vineyard Classification

What is the significance of being the world’s first delimited wine region? Winemakers weren’t taking deep soil core samples 500 years ago, or scientifically measuring the effects of zeolite versus loess on grapes and vintage. Classified vineyards were largely based on cultural, political, historical, and familial importance—and, of course, market value. Geographical attributes, natural boundaries, and the like also played an important role, but much of the knowledge of what justified a first- or second-class vineyard was forgotten or lost during Communism.

Here are some important milestones, leading up to the classification in 1737:

  • Mid 1550s: Polish traders, the imperial court of Vienna, and others start to buy the wines from the Tokaj foothills due to their spreading fame, quality, and uniqueness.
  • 1613: Villages within the region begin formally setting regulations for viticulture and winemaking. These regulations are ratified in more detail in 1641. There were likely precedents leading up to this, but 1641 marks the earliest surviving written documentation.
  • 1720: All of Hungary’s vineyard regions are classified as first, second, and third class. Tokaj is listed as first class.
  • 1737: A royal decree sets finite boundaries for which villages can use the name Tokaj, meaning that all wine made in these villages is equal and held to the same standards in the vineyard and cellar. Essentially, this is the world’s first protected designation of origin for wine.
  • Over the past few decades, as more and more producers make high-quality wines from the same sites, the original classifications have finally started revealing some distinctions in terms of terroir. The first-class Szent Tamás vineyard in the village of Mád has been such a place for both dry and sweet wines. It’s clearly distinct among multiple producers, even as the wines age. It and many others, including Határi, Szerelmi, Csontos, Lapis, Rány, Úrágya, Betsek, and Király, are all showing defining characteristics. Even so, it remains challenging to connect the present with the past.

There’s also the question of what happens when a second- or third-class vineyard becomes a benchmark or achieves market success over a first-class site. How we both celebrate such an earned history and grapple with the current market is a heavily debated topic, to say the very least.

A map displaying about 100 of Tokaj's 389 single vineyards—zoom in for a closer look! © András Ede Molnár

Better Farming

For hundreds of years, Tokaji had a devoted following within the nobility and aristocracy of Europe, and quality in the vineyard followed suit. Then, after WWII, Communist rule, and a host of other historic maladies, the region turned rather suddenly into a state-owned collectivized model geared toward quantity, as discussed in the first article. Tokaji went from being a sought-after, unique cultural product to a mass-produced recipe. Imagine harvesting everything from all over Burgundy or Piedmont, regardless of terroir and pick dates, and then blending it together on an industrial scale for 50 years. Small growers were incentivized to grow more and more hectoliters. The labor force also became specialized to support these large wineries. Those who knew how to make great wine, from the vineyard all the way to bottle, begin to dwindle.

Further, Tokaj-Hegyalja is the product of 20 million years of volcanic activity. This means that whether in the loess-covered south or the diverse range of rocks and clay locally called nyirok, the subsoil is largely tuff, guaranteeing that vines will struggle. Many of the most famous dűlői (crus) in the appellation are on the slopes of these formally active volcanoes, adding to their struggle with erosion, drainage, and exposure. As the aim was to supply industrial levels of production for consumption in the former USSR and the other former Bloc countries, growers quickly resorted to fertilizing, spraying heavily, and planting on the flats where large Russian-built tractors could easily operate. Vine density decreased, and famed terraces and steep sloped vineyards went fallow or were eventually consumed by the Zemplén Forest. Many forgotten vineyards are visible while driving through the region or walking up into the forest from existing sites. It’s a surreal sight.

Today, producers are reverting to pre-Communist era practices. One of the biggest jobs is replanting the slopes, terraces, and other sites that weren’t ideal for squeezing out the most hectoliters. Clonal selection for these new plantings is also being addressed, as earlier clones were frequently chosen for mass production rather than affinity to terroir. Growers are increasing vine density to promote competition. Many top sites are once again stake trained and worked by hand, horse, or small modern tractor.

It is important to note that botrytized grapes bring unique challenges: how do growers manage use of copper, sulfur, and pesticides that potentially inhibit the one thing that makes their wines so special? Aside from the heavy use of chemicals in the Communist era, Tokaj has largely working in what we would now call an organic fashion. Picking up where they left off, most top producers aren’t spraying pesticides and instead use orange oil and other more natural deterrents for pests. The proximity to the forest and general biodiversity of the region help as well. Cover crops abound, and there isn’t a massive monoculture of vines.

With quality fetching a better price than quantity in today’s market, growers have plenty of incentive to improve their farming practices.

An example of improved farming practices at the Határi vineyard, which is now stake trained, farmed without pesticides, and worked completely by hand.

Improving Winemaking with New Wine Laws

While many of the new laws align with Tokaj’s current focus on improving winemaking quality, others are major changes to the previous state-owned collective mentality. This attitude still has influence—even today, the largest producer and buyer of grapes, Grand Tokaj, is state owned. Despite some changes in its management and policy, it remains an anchor for the region.

There is a far more detailed and complex set of laws than covered here, but the aim is uniform: raising quality. Here's a quick breakdown of recent changes in the wine law:

  • As of August 2014, all wines must be bottled in Tokaj to be labeled as such (and yes, that wasn’t always the case!).
  • As of August 2015, all forms of sweetening Aszú are now prohibited.
  • As of 2013, the minimum residual sugar is set at 120 grams/liter for all Aszú wines. The pre-amendment minimum residual sugar levels were 60 grams/liter for a 3 Puttonyos Aszú, 90 grams/liter for a 4 Puttonyos Aszú, 120 grams/liter for a 5 Puttonyos Aszú, and 150 grams/liter for a 6 Puttonyos Aszú. This means the use of the name Aszú is now restricted to the former two highest categories, 5P and 6P. The 3 and 4 Puttonyos categories are now effectively gone. Minimum total potential alcohol level is also raised to 19% for Aszú wines.
  • As of 2013, the barrel aging requirement for Aszú wines was lowered from a minimum of 2 years to 18 months.
  • As of 2013, a minimum of 1 kilograms of Aszú berries is required per 2.2 liters of Aszú wine.
  • The Máslás category was phased out in 2013.
  • As of 2012, Aszúeszencia, originally referring to an Aszú over 180 grams/liter of residual sugar, was phased out. It was conceived as an official category in the 1970s to create an extra market for something in between an Aszú and an Essencia but instead produced market confusion.

Winemaking Styles

Száraz (Dry)

This category is perhaps getting the largest push in terms of marketing, market reach, and attention among producers in the region. It’s also what you’re most likely to see in the US market in terms of by-the-glass offerings. Looking solely at cash flow, these wines make sense. They don’t require the 18 months minimum aging of Aszú, are far less labor intensive, and compete on the larger market of dry wines. The style is not new: dry Tokaji was made for centuries but over time took a back seat to the popularity and value of the sweet. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that any remarkable dry wines were produced, and even then, only a small handful of winemakers made them. This begged the question of how to highlight dry wines in an appellation whose soul is steeped in the sweet. For many, making dry wines is the fastest way to rediscover terroir, identify the best clones, and gain the opportunity to make Aszú.

Volcanic soils, including rhyolite, andesite, dacite, bentonite, zeolite, kaolin, opal, and obsidian, are major influencers on the dry wines. Like volcanic wines around the world, salt, weight, acidity, and minerality must be balanced. Since botrytis can set as early as August, picking early isn’t an option, and picking late and fermenting all the way dry can drive alcohol up. Is it better to push through malolactic fermentation to soften acidity, or to avoid it altogether? Leave some residual sugar or not? Omit or include botrytis? Employ oxidative or reductive fermentation? The answers to these questions are still being uncovered, after only 20 years of trial and error. Some early dry wines tasted like salted mineral water at 15% alcohol. Still other early examples were as magical as the sweet wines.

Here’s what’s important to know. There are three major tiers: Birtok (estate), village (as in Burgundy), and single vineyard. Many producers in villages like Tarcal, Tokaj, Mád, Bodrogkeresztúr, and Bodrogkisfalud are forging ahead with high quality production of all three of these. Producers in other villages like Tállya, Sárospatak, Erdőbénye, and Olaszliszka are still catching up, releasing their inaugural commercial vintages only in the past couple of years.

Regardless, this category is a common first introduction to Tokaj, so it must surprise consumers with its quality, character, and deliciousness. Promisingly, faulty dry wines are increasingly infrequent. Most have embraced that “dry” in Tokaj means keeping some of the region’s famed residual sugar (often 6 to 15 grams/liter), thus keeping alcohol in check, and highlighting how incredibly well these wines pair with food, given their high acidity. The best examples compare to the best white wines of the world. Furmint and Hárslevelű are in the same genetic family as Chardonnay and Riesling, with the cultural weight of Tokaj behind them. Riedel has even developed a dedicated Furmint glass, and a new dry Tokaji bottle has been designed by Géza Ipacs for market recognition.

Pezsgő (Sparkling)

Traditional method Hungarian sparkling wine dates to 1882 in Törley, but it didn’t reach Tokaj until 2006 or 2007. It has had the same challenges as dry wines in appealing to the market: sweet wines were the celebrated wines of the region, not bubbles. Due to lack of equipment and knowledge, commercial production started with larger producers like Dereszla, Patricius, Gróf Degenfeld, and Királyudvar, who could source equipment and bring in experts. But in more recent years, smaller artisan producers like Demeter Zoltán and Kikelet have made stunning traditional method wines in house as well. Other likeminded producers are doing the same, utilizing the facilities of larger producers.

Ideal grapes, clones, and terroirs for these wines are still being identified. Furthermore, the two most grown grapes, Furmint and Hárslevelű, are relatively late ripening, prone to botrytis, can produce a lot of sugar, and have high acidity—not exactly a dream scenario for typically crisp sparkling wine production. However, when balanced, you’ve got something in between a Sekt and a sparkling Vouvray—only coming out of a volcano. Some producers are even experimenting using Aszú as the dosage.

Késői Szüretelésű (Late Harvest)

Tokaj’s late harvest (sometimes called cuvée) wines only came about as a category in the 1990s. Unlike Aszú and Szamorodni, this category is not strictly regulated. Made from over-ripened grapes, it does not require botrytis and can be fermented and aged in stainless steel for whatever amount of time the producer dictates, with no minimum for alcohol or residual sugar. This is not to say these wines are necessarily simple. Rather, they are fresh, can span the whole spectrum of grapes (late harvest Sárga Muskotály or Kövérszőlő, for instance), and have an incredible value-to-price ratio. These wines are comparable to late harvest wines from Canada, Germany, and other parts of the world.  

Édes (Sweet) & Száraz (Dry) Szamorodni

Originally called Főbor (main wine), this style was officially named Szamorodni, a Polish term, in the 1800s due to its popularity in that market. To make this style, healthy, shriveled, and botrytized grapes are harvested and fermented together. There is no individual botrytized berry selection as in the Aszú wines.

Szamorodni literally means “as it comes” and can be both sweet and dry. Sweet Szamorodni must spend at least two years in barrel and have at least 12% alcohol. It is more complex than late harvest wine, with more botrytized character and integrated oxidative flavors. Dry Szamorodni is currently a rarer style. It isn’t just fermented to dryness but also introduces Cladosporium cellare (a special cellar mold), and in some cases, a yeast veil (flor) develops over the top of the wine. These yeasts are specific to Tokaj’s volcanic cellars, and the evaporation rate is also the reverse of dry cellars, in that alcohol evaporates without water loss so the wines lose a small percentage of alcohol each year. With an initial potential alcohol of 17 to 18%, the wines can be aged for six or more years and still end up at 13 to 14% alcohol. No fortification is allowed. Like Fino Sherry or Vin Jaune in aroma, the acidity, sweetness of the botrytized fruit (but little-to-no residual sugar), and low alcohol sets it firmly apart.

Aszú

Put simply, this is the world’s first and most concentrated (in terms of acidity and sugar) botrytized wine. It’s important to remember that during Tokaj’s heyday in the 17th and 18th century, sugar was rare and alchemy in vogue. Here comes an impossibly sweet golden wine—an easy choice of medicine and muse for queens, kings, tsars, popes, and influential artists and intellectuals across Europe. It was also a diplomatic tool to court foreign powers and was heavily imbued with national identity. The Tokaj brand became attached to all types of things outside the region to connote prestige—Tokay d’Alsace or Tocai Friulano, anyone? These and other unsubstantiated uses of the brand have only been recently outlawed.

How exactly is this wine made? First, single botrytized berries are hand-picked, berry by berry. Originally, these were put into a puttony, a small wooden basket that could carry about 25 kilograms. A skilled worker putting in a full day’s work in a quality vintage would be lucky to pick 10 kilograms a day. Once the puttony is full, berries are mashed into a chutney-like consistency and then macerated with either a fermenting must or an already fermented base wine. Then, they are pressed and barreled down into Gönci, special 136-liter barrels of Hungarian oak sourced from the forests bordering the appellation. Minimum aging is 18 months in barrel and a year in bottle.

Aszú is essentially a skin-contact sweet wine. The number of puttony added to a single Gönci barrel originally defined the 3-to-6 puttonyos scale. More puttonyos meant a sweeter and more complex wine. Nowadays, Aszú is measured by residual sugar (grams/liter), but the puttony paints an important picture of the labor involved in production.

The 1991 banning of chaptalization and fortification is generally considered the first step toward reinstating quality Aszú production. This is not to say that good Aszú was not made during Communism—according to Christie’s Auction House, drinkable bottles have purchased from as far back as the 1648 vintage. Quality Aszú today is refreshingly sweet, low in alcohol, oxidative (not oxidized), and balanced.

Fordítás & Máslás

Fordítás is quite rare, and Máslás was recently phased out as a category. They are similar and still deserve some attention. They are bottled in the same traditional 500-milliliter glass bottle as an Aszú or Szamorodni, so it’s important to understand the differences.

Fordítás means “turning over.” After making an Aszú or Szamorodni wine, the pressed dough (mashed up botrytized fruit) is soaked again in a non-botrytized fermented must or a finished based wine from the same vintage. It’s then aged for a minimum of one year in barrel and one more in bottle to eke out every bit of botrytized flavor. It is not nearly as elegant as an Aszú or Szamorodni but can have a raw and rustic charm. This style dates to the early 1820s.

Máslás means “copying.” It is made by blending the previously used lees from Aszú or Szamorodni into a non-botrytized fermenting or already fermented wine. It’s a copy-and-paste method, with Aszú lees and fresh wine dating back as far as 1759. This style served a purpose, in the same spirit of using every part of an animal, but doesn’t garner much favor today. Historically, there was even a third copy, “Harmadolás.”

Essencia

Essencia is more of a nectar than a wine. In top vintages, single Aszú berries are hand-picked and left to crush under their own weight, with no pressing allowed. It can reach over 800 grams/liter of residual sugar and well above 20 grams/liter total acidity before fermentation. It can only be fermented in glass (usually carboys) and takes years to reach only a few degrees alcohol. There is no other wine like it in the world. It’s concentrated, viscous, and oddly bright and invigorating. Traditionally, it’s served via a spoon, some more ornate than others. Spoons also recall the fact that this was originally seen as medicine. A drop at birth and a drop before death, at the very least, and considered a magical cure-all.

Aszú berries being pressed under their own weight to make Essencia © Mathilde Hulot

Rediscovering a Classic Appellation

At the risk of hyperbole, visiting Tokaj today is like visiting Burgundy or Piedmont 20 or 30 years ago. Visitors can get appointments easily, walk the vineyards, and explore the cellars with just about everyone. Producers’ doors are open, and winemakers are working hard to better one another and the region. Now is the time to get in on the ground floor of a truly classic appellation of the world coming back to life. Check out the travel websites listed in the previous article and get going!

As a final plea, if you’re into salty, weighty, acid-driven wines from regions like Etna, Santorini, and the Canary Islands, dry Tokaji is a logical next step. If you’re into Vin Jaune or Sherry, consider dry Szamorodni. If you enjoy Crémant du Jura or Crémant de Loire, please try some Pezsgő. If you’re into Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese, you have a professional obligation to taste quality sweet Szamorodni and Aszú. And if you’re lucky—or a hedonist—seek out some Essencia.

Recommended Producers

This is by no means an exhaustive list and, of course, omits entire villages with outstanding producers (another reason to visit!). Broken down by village, these producers represent a broad range of styles and production levels and can be sought out stateside.

  • Mezőzombor
    • Disznókő
  • Tokaj
    • Demeter Zoltán
    • Tokaj Hétszőlő
    • Dobogó
    • Erzsébet
  • Tarcal
    • Tokaj Kikelet
    • Dorogi Testvérek
    • Királyudvar
    • Fanni Kertje
    • Gróf Degenfeld
    • Basilicus
  • Mád
    • Szepsy
    • Royal Tokaji Company
    • Holdvölgy
    • Barta
    • Szent Tamás
  • Rátka
    • Árvay
  • Bodrogkisfalud & Bodrogkeresztúr
    • Bott
    • Tokaj Nobilis
    • Füleky
    • Bodrog Borműhely
    • Patricius
    • Dereszla
  • Olaszliszka
    • Samuel Tinon
    • Kvaszinger
  • Erdőbénye
    • Béres
    • Hommona
  • Tolcsva
    • Oremus
  • Sárospatak
    • Pajzos

Resources

See “Tokaj Part 1: Sweet Relevance” for a list of books and websites for further exploration.

  • "The 3 and 4 Puttonyos categories are now effectively gone. Minimum total potential alcohol level is also raised to 19% for Aszú wines."

    is 19% correct? or it is 9%?

    cheers!

    L.

  • Good question.  19% is the potential alcohol at harvest assuming all of the sugar is fermented to alcohol.  This is not the final ABV % after fermentation.   For instance, you if you harvested at 33 Brix and fermented to total dryness, you might end up with something like 19% ABV.  Since Aszú must be minimum 120 g/l residual sugar, most final ABVs end up around 11-13%.  You're correct that the finished alcohol cannot be lower than 9% for Aszú.  Does this help clarify?

  • This does help . Thank you very much. And thank you for posting about Tokaji. I am thrilled by Tokaji´s "revival" and cannot be excited enough to see more and more of them in wine lists.

  • As I had hoped, albeit somewhat nervously, a few producers from Tokaj have already contacted me with some small corrections and additions we should take note of.  Since very little has been written from an American perspective, there is plenty of room (and need!) for more dialogue.  This is especially the case for a region as in flux as Tokaj.  In no particular order:

    >I had written that the 3 and 4 Puttonyos categories are now effectively gone.  Technically, the use of 3 and 4 Puttonyos is still permitted as long as they meet the minimum 120 g/l of residual sugar.  However, with this sugar level you could label the same wine as a 5 Puttonyos.  From a market perspective, most consumers and trade want a higher number of Puttonyos.  Is sweeter better for an Aszú is another question, but the 120 g/l is firm.

    >Máslás is still authorized, but nobody can point to any currently being produced.  I had said it was being phased out as a category.  

    >One thing I did not mention was wine law before Hungary joined the EU in 2004.  Tokaj fell under three categories: Table Wine (Tokaj name not used), Quality Wine (Tokaj name used, sugar correction allowed), and High Quality Wine (500 ml bottles, no sugar or alcohol corrections allowed).

    >I had mentioned that there are currently 389 single vineyards (Dűlő).  Over this past summer, this has been upped to 429 although work is not finished.  Drones, satellite imaging and historians are hard at work in concert with new registrations.  The single vineyard map included above only covers roughly 100, but these are more established names you’re likely to encounter in the US market.

    Overall, there is no doubt that articles like this will be either dated or in need of revisions sooner than later.  This is good news!

  • Excelent work! As half-hungarian (hungarian mother) i have to thank you for such a great resumee of one of the most amazing and unknown regions of the world! i recently visited the region. I wish i could have read this before going! Chrees from Bogotá!

  • Eric, as you mentioned in the article, Aszúeszencia was conceived as an official category in the 1970s,  however I have found a bottle of 1920's Tokaji under Aszú eszencia. Does that mean thats a fake wine or the catagory was already there before 1970's?

  • Thank you for the question Richard King.  Aszú Essencia did in fact exist as early as the beginning of the 1800s.   The minimum residual sugar level was 180 g/l, but no longer used the Puttonyos system.  These were supposedly just exceptionally sweet vintages.  The method for making Aszú Essencia was however exactly the same for Aszú, not Essencia.   I'm not sure why it took until the 1970s to become an official quality level other than to create another style to sell.  So yes, that 1920s bottle you found could be something special.  Did you drink it?