Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tokaji: Depressing and Encouraging News From Hungary

Picture: Budapest, Hungary

Is the Tokaji region in a crisis?

The authors of the Polish Wine Blog recently went to Hungary and came back with a depressing and at the same time encouraging report. First, the Tokaji region is in crisis; winemakers are unable to sell their noble-sweet wines. Second, the winemakers are adjusting to the difficult circumstances by moving away from the noble-sweet wines to bone-dry grand cru wines.

Noble-sweet Wines


Mother Nature, under non-special circumstances, produces dry wines in the vineyard. All the sugar in the grapes at harvest disappears during fermentation and no sweetness remains in the wine. There are, however, plenty of sweet wines made around the world. There are different techniques to make a wine sweet. One of them is to let the noble rot suck the water out of the grape, so that the degree of sugar in the grapes is extra-ordinary high.

Another technique is used in Portugal to make Port wine. Port wine is made sweet by adding alcohol to the fermenting must so the fermentation stops and the sugar of the grapes remains in the wine. What you get is a wine with lots of alcohol and remaining sweetness in the wine.

Botrytized noble-sweet wines

Botrytis cinerea is the key to the success of many of the world’s most famous noble sweet wines. Also known as noble rot, Botrytis cinerea is a fungus that under the right conditions attacks already-ripe grapes, shrivelling them, concentrating the sweetness and acidity. The grapes end up looking disgusting but they make profound sweet white wines.

Picture: 3 Noble-Sweet Wines from my Cellar

Noble sweet wines made on the basis of noble rot are produced in a number of countries. The most famous ones are the Sauternes in France, the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany and in Austria, the Austria Ausbruch and the Tokaji from Hungary. No doubt, the first noble rot wines were created by accident - both the Hungarians and the Germans have similar stories of how the harvest was delayed for some reason, but the over-ripe grapes were vinified anyway and then the resulting wine found to be delicious.

The Tokaji

The Tokaji has been Hungary’s crowning glory for hundreds of years. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Tokaji was a cherished wine enjoyed by the European Courts, including Louis XIV of France, Peter the Great, Elizabeth of Russia, and Frederick the Great; it graced the wine glasses of Beethoven, Schubert, and Hungary’s native son Franz Liszt.

The vineyards of the Tokaji region were classified long before Bordeaux, already in the 1700s, with vineyards grouped into 3 categories depending on the soil, sun exposure and potential to develop noble rot. A royal decree in 1757 established a closed production district in Tokaji and the classification system was completed in 1772.

The noble-sweet Tokaji wines nearly disappeared after World War II, as Hungary became a communist country. Family vineyards became collective farms. The Soviets forced everyone into making low-grade jug wine. Since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire desintegrated, Tokaji is starting to see a rebirth, which however is fragile.

A Tokaji is typically a blend of botrytised (aszu) and non-botrytised grapes. There are different levels of sweetness in the noble-sweet Tokaji wine. The more aszu grapes are blended into base (not- botrytised) grapes, and the sweeter the aszu grapes are, the sweeter the final wine will be.

To indicate the sweetness of the Tokaji wine on the label, the Hungarians have developed the puttonyos classification system. A puttony is a traditional wooden hottes. Generally, noble-sweet Tokaji wines range from three to six puttonyos. Since joining the EU, wine with one or two puttonyo(s) is no longer allowed to be bottled.

3 puttonyos = 60 grams of remaining sugar per liter
4 puttonyos = 90 grams of remaining sugar per liter
5 puttonyos = 120 grams of remaining sugar per liter
6 puttonyos = 150 grams of remaining sugar per liter

In addition the rare Asz├║ Eszencia wines contain more than 180 grams of remaining sugar per liter and the Eszencia wines more than 400 grams of remaining sugar per liter.

What is interesting is that Hungarian Tokaji wines are classified according to the level of remaining sweetness in the wine, while German and Austrian noble-sweet Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein are classified according to the sugar level in the grape at harvest.

Once mixed, the Tokaji must undergoes a slow and cool fermentation which can take several months or even years to complete. A practice unique to Tokaji wines is to allow a degree of oxidation to occur during fermentation. In fact, the amount of oxidation often becomes the hallmark of the producer’s unique style. When I was in Budapest last year, I was surprised by the extent of oxidation experienced in many Hungarian wines; I did not like it. In fact, when I spent a week in Budapest earlier last year, I came across several times a dry Tokaji wines, with a distinctive note of oxidation. Initially, I thought the wine was faulty. But then I learned that some wine makers in the Tokaji region still use a vinification method whereby the wine is exposed to air during fermentation , as the Sherry from Spain, and adopts a distinctive style. This style is clearly not appreciated on the international market, but I found it interesting to experience this taste in Budapest.

Depressing and Encouraging News from the Tokaji Region

The authors of the Polish Wine Blog went to Hungary recently and came back with reports that were depressing and encouraging at the same time.

Thousands of bottles of noble-sweet Tokaji wines going back as far as 1998 remain unsold. Apparently, the vineyard buying and planting over enthusiasm of the late 1990s has now become a serious hiccup. A mixture of unwise business decisions from the late 1990s and Hungary's suicidal governmental policy of the last few years has resulted in a complete standstill of noble-sweet wine sales. Large companies are reporting large losses, and many small estates are struggling to survive.

Tokaji is in crisis. Read more about the wounded heros here.

In the second posting, the authors of the Polish Wine Blog report that in response to the crisis, wine makers are moving away from noble-sweet Tokaji wine and turning to bone dry Tokaji wines. The Polish Wine Blog has tasted many of them and was impressed by the dry wines. They tasted the wines and reported about it here.

The Wine bar by Bazilika

While the Tokaji region Hungary’s is best known wine, there are a total of 14 wine regions in Hungary. A good place to get an overview of Hungarian wines in Budapest is "The Wine bar by Bazilika”. Here, they sell a wide range of Hungarian wines by the bottle to go and to consume at the premise as well as many wines by the glass. The staff speaks English and they serve cheese and charcutterie snacks. The cheese, to my disappointment, was all French cheese. See my posting here.


Schiller Wine - Related Postings

German Wine Basics: Sugar in the Grape - Alcohol and Sweetness in the Wine

German Wine Basics: How does a Sweet German Riesling Become Sweet?

Wine Bar: The Wine Bar by Bazilika, Budapest, Hungary

Eiswein in Germany and Icewine in Canada

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