Heaven’s Gates: Tokaj, Hungary

Binding the Tokaj wine region with Budapest in one trip could be compared to a perfectly arranged dinner – you receive an exciting appetizer, which intrigues just a tad, and then you wait for the main course that nurtures a slight tremor to your senses’ core. The final class of the WSET Diploma study was completed with visits to the Disznoko and Szepsy wineries, the giants of Tokaji wines. Their best creations, bursting of botrytis flavours, explained why iconic Tokaji wines have been a privilege and a definition for diversity in the wine world for centuries.

At first glance, Tokaj, this epochal region, does not give off any meticulous charm; you’re driving along the road surrounded by meadows and gentle hills, without any fascinating landscapes, monuments, unusually planted vineyards. But after a few minutes, spontaneously and almost imperceptibly, the thought hits you – this area has an amazing history of independence, economic meltdown, historic intrigue and phoenix winemaking, in which the verb to give up does not exist.

Tokaj, Hungary’s wine region located in the northeast of the country, is so highly respected that it even managed to get a spot in the national anthem, in which the people give gratitude to God for providing them with this sweet vineyard nectar (Tokaj szölövesszein nektárt csepegtettél). No wonder, because once you try liquid gold, reasons become irrelevant. All that matters is that unwavering pleasure that lasts and lasts and lasts…

The temple we visited during the final WSET Diploma class was the Disznoko winery, known for its by-the-book examples of famed sweet wines Tokaji Aszú, but also dry Furmint. Declared part of UNESCO World Heritage in 2002, the Disznoko vineyards have always been a symbol of superior quality. They were once owned by an influential aristocratic family and in 1992, the winery was taken over by the French insurance group AXA Millesimes, which owns several prestigious wineries around the world. The huge inflow of investments into the region in recent years is evident everywhere you turn (the renowned Italian winery Antinori is one of many that have invested here).

In the village of Mad, there is another representative winery called Szepy. Completely authentic, the village has been revived just enough to provide wine lovers and tourists with complete comfort and a unique visual experience. The influence of foreign investors is moreover reflected in the technology used in the vineyards and winery, modern restaurants that provide support for wine tastings, to an entirely new way of presenting wine, which will cleverly be packaged with passion and magic by local winemakers for generations to follow.

The soils on which Furmint, Harslevelu, Zeta and Yellow Muscat grow consist of clay and rich volcanic stone, which gives a unique spark to wines – the famous mineral touch. The specific microclimate is expressed through sunny slopes which flawlessly blend with the Tisza and Bodrog rivers – damp enough for morning fogs and winds from Carpathian Mountains that, together with afternoon sun rays, clear the ground for the wondrous dance of noble rot. Botrytis, the undisputed king of sweet wines, creates some of the most exciting examples of this divine beverage.

After harvesting, the individual aszú (dried) berries are pressed, made into paste and inserted into a fermented dry wine (generally kept in large tanks 24-48 hours). From here, they are transferred to wooden barrels to complete the fermentation, which can last for years, because the barrel is never completely closed, letting the oxidation process add additional complexity to the wines. After the production, the winemaker determines the so-called puttony, a number indicating the amount of sugar and extract in an aged wine (puttony is a name for a large basket that is used for harvesting grapes). The numbers ranged from 3 to 6, but since 2014 have been reduced to only 5 and 6 in order to raise quality on the market. The additional creme de la creme category – Eszencia (above 6 puttonyos), which can contain from 400 to even 900 grams of residual sugar, is something worth living for. This residual sugar does not cause instability, but rather makes the wines special for enjoyment, allowing them to age up to a hundred years and still be in top shape when opened. The foundation of longevity and agility of Tokaji wines is the tightly woven juicy acidity of Furmint, which forms the backbone of this exceptional liquid.

The tour of the stone cellars themselves, covered in black mold, was like passing through a true wine maze. All Aszú wine must be aged for at least two years in wooden barrels and then one in bottles. At the very back of the cellar, it quietly ages in specially designed metal cages, patiently waiting for a signal to show the world its splendour.

As if catapulted out of a time machine, along with the owner of the winery, we had the privilege to taste the twelve latest harvests. If I had to describe the wines using a systematic approach, I’d use terms such juicy, sticky sweet, refreshing, explosive, highly concentrated flavours, with notes of honey, dried apricots, raisins, figs, orange peel, roasted almonds…all followed by a subtle mineral touch. The final wine, from the 1993 vintage (one of the best ever), showed all the power, grandeur and charm of Tokaj. This unique vertical tasting of top Tokaji wines from 1993 to 2012, with prices from 20 to 500 Euros a bottle, destroyed all prejudices related to sweet wines and Hungary as a second-class country.

Tokaj, Disznoko and Szepsy, thank you.

Wine of choice: Disznoko Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2007
Means of transportation: car sharing
Accomodation: hotel

Facebook Gallery HERE.

Written by Aleksandar Draganić.

I’m a WSET certified grape juice drinker, and yes, I’m that 1% of people that love their job. I drink wine, write about it, preach about it, even take pictures of it. Find me at @grapenomad

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2 thoughts on “Heaven’s Gates: Tokaj, Hungary

  1. The 3-4 puttonyos categorizations are no longer used although wines made before this rule change can still be categorized as such.
    Here’s an article in English:
    http://www.decanter.com/wine-news/hungary-drops-lower-tokaji-grades-in-bid-to-raise-quality-29372/

    Also, although “Aszú Eszencia” is a very special wine, the REALcreme-de-la-creme is “Eszencia”. I believe Eszencia may be the most unique wine in the entire world. Here’s an article about the different types: https://www.tokaji.com/about-tokaji/types-of-tokaji.html

    “Because of its enormous sugar content (balanced always though by tremendous acidity), often syrup-like texture and extremely low alcohol levels, Essencia is not really a wine in the conventional sense, but rather a unique elixir, the quintessence of the grape, with an almost supernatural concentration of taste and aroma. It’s something that every wine aficionado dreams of tasting at least once, and to do so is likely to be a life-enhancing and never-forgotten experience.”

    In Hungary, a bottle of Aszú Eszencia typically costs in the 25000-30000 HUF range, around 100 Euro. A bottle of Eszencia will set you back well over 100000 HUF, probably around 125000-140000 HUF (400-500 Euro) and no doubt more depending on the cellar from which it originates. I cannot – and do not want to – imagine how much these might cost with various markups once it reaches the UK or USA!

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    1. Thank you for the feedback Patrick! I realized that I made a mistake where I didn’t state that the Eszencia was the top category of Tokaj wines. I truly hope that these particular bottles get the consumers they deserve, because they’re truly something out of the heavens that have the power to change some belief systems on the way.

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