I can think of no better way to begin this post than with a quote.
“Oh Lord… you blessed the Hungarians with good cheer and bounty… for us you let golden wheat grow on the plains of the Kuns and sweet nectar run from the grape fields of Tokaj.”
This is an actual quote from the Hungarian national anthem (translated to English of course.) Now I’ve gotta say, when a country mentions a wine in their nation’s most patriotic song, that’s a pretty strong endorsement for the stuff. But what is it? What is Tokaj?
Tokaj is a town in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region of Northern Hungary. Wines made within the town are labelled “Tokaj,” and all those made in the surrounding area may be labelled “Tokaji.” Confused yet? That’s alright, the spelling isn’t all that important, but the wines are. Tokaji is a botrytis affected sweet wine with incredible complexity, fragrance, and depth that has been in production since the mid to late 1600s. The wines that we will be talking about today, and most (if not all) of the Tokaji in production, are blends of Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat grapes. If all of this sounds completely foreign, and yet strangely enticing, keep reading, it eventually makes sense.
First off, let’s talk about botrytis. Also called “Noble Rot,” botrytis is a strain of mold that typically affects ripe white wine grapes. Unlike all other molds, which can be disastrous threats to a crop’s harvest, botrytis is actually encouraged in the right conditions. Once infected, the grapes go through a transformation, during which the botrytis mold sucks away around half of their liquid content, reducing them to extremely concentrated (in sugar content and in flavor), somewhat juicy raisins. In addition to its concentrating effects, botrytis also contributes its own delicate flavor, creating extremely unique, multifaceted sweet wines. If you’ve ever had a Sauternes, you’ve had a botrytised wine, although the exotic grapes that go into making Tokaji create a tasting experience like no other.
Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat. These are the stars of the show when it comes to Tokaji. Furmint typically makes up the body of the blend. It’s known for its potential for high alcohol levels (up to 14%), high acidity, and ability to reach full ripeness and build sugar content. Occasionally Furmint can be found bottled alone and in the dry style (I actually have one in my cellar and I’ll probably post on it when I get a chance,) but it shines much brighter when mixed with Harslevelu. Another big, bold grape, Harslevelu makes wines that are dense and full bodied with an extremely intense, spicy fragrance. It’s really this grape that gives Tokaji its unique perfumed character, but small amounts of Muscat Blanc give the wine its light and delicate qualities.
So there, Tokaji in a nutshell. There is only one more thing to cover before talking about today’s wines. You will notice that both of today’s wines have the word “Puttonyos” in their titles. Simply put, this is a unit of measure, and the higher you get (the range is from 3 Puttonyos to 6, and on very rare occasions in exceptional vintages, 7) the sweeter and more intense the wine becomes. In the production of Tokai, winemakers harvest ripe grapes that are not effected by botrytis to create a regular base wine. The grapes that are effected by botrytis do not actually have enough liquid to be pressed, so they are ground into an incredibly concentrated and flavorful, syrupy paste. The paste, traditionally measured in Puttonyos (which you can imagine as giant scoops), is then added to a set amount of base wine to finally create a Tokaji. And now, at last… on to the wines.
Wine #1: The Royal Tokaji Wine Company 2006 5 Puttonyos
In the glass this wine looks the way that it tastes; golden like sunshine. The color alone is impressive, with its intense liquid gemstone cast, but the nose is extraordinary. The blend of different components is fascinating. I immediately pick up on a vague graphite tone, but it leads strongly into something that I can only describe as wildflowers growing in a forest. There is an exotic orchid aroma, soft apricot, and something vaguely like sweet, ripe dates, and a good spin in the glass releases tons of marmalade, spice rack aromas, and fresh baked-good tones.
I could sit and sniff this wine for hours, but it’s just too inviting for that. The first sip of this wine is rapturous. Bright, wonderful sweetness explodes on the palate, with tropical flowers and rose petals, cinnamon and golden caramel, and tons and tons of spiced marmalade. There is also apple jelly, a very vague hazelnut component and a finish that is strangely reminiscent of chocolate.
This wine is EPIC! The acidity is amazingly bright and sunny, and it leaves the palate craving more. The balance is spectacular, the body is rich and full, and it remains refined while being smooth and luscious. There is absolutely no reason why anyone with even the slightest interest in wine should not be begging, borrowing, or stealing to get their hands on this. Plus, at $35, this is the steal of a lifetime. I would typically expect to pay at least 3 times that much to find this kind of intensity, complexity, and refinement in a table wine. This wine is amazing all around, and best of all, because of its lightness, it would go just as well with appetizers, like a cheese and salumi platter, as it would dessert. Twice the opportunity to enjoy. This wine is a must; definitely…
Worth Buying. 95 points.
Wine #2: The Royal Tokaji Wine Company 2000 6 Puttonyos Betsek
Unlike Wine #1, this wine comes from a single vineyard, called Betsek. Located on the cool valley floor on the side of a volcano. It was aged four and a half years in used Hungarian oak barrels and eight months more in the bottle prior to its release.
Visually, this wine is deeper, somewhat darker, and more the color of very light pure maple syrup than the previous wine. The nose is rich with amber incense, rose petal, caramel, and a note of something slightly smoky. There is also a brown butter note, some subtle nuttiness, and a hint of citrus, with pretty strong baked goods and marmalade components.
The palate opens luxuriously sweet with honey dripped apricots, flinty stone, and delicate floral notes. There is orange marmalade and apple and cinnamon jam, with a nice intense kitchen spice quality and a dash of pepper.
This is a high class wine. It’s dense like honey and fragrant like flowers, it’s perfumed and delicate while at the same time maintaining an almost syrupy viscosity. Extremely lush and smooth with nice density and weight. This wine is liquid luxury. It’s well made, complex, and deep, but its additional weight and intensity may limit what it can be paired up with. I’m extremely impressed by this wine, and for the price I would say that at just under $100, it is a solid buy, however, I think that the 5 Puttonyos offers the same level of quality in a form that is somewhat lighter, easier to pair, and much easier on the pocketbook. The 5 Puttonyos is the bargain, the Betsek is the luxury.
Worth Trying. 94 points.
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