Tokaji in Many Forms: Dry, Semi-Dry, Semi-Sweet, Sweet & Very Sweet
The bottle size is the most obvious indicator to the shopper whether a Tokaj wine is dry table wine or sweet desert wine.
Tokaji in 750ml bottles - Table Wine
The 750ml "Bordeaux" or "Burgundy" or "Rhine" style bottle is typically used for dry or semi-dry table wine. Yes, all three styles are currently used for table wine, adding to the confusion. There is no consensus between makers and no legal mandate for a uniform 750ml bottle for table wine. In Hungary, you can even by Tokaji table wine in plastic two-liter jugs! While some producers use the 750ml Rhein-style wine bottle for their semi-sweet table wine, in general, the large bottle is an indicator that the wine is not sweet. For some companies, the clear "Bordeaux" bottle is used for non-wood aged wines, and the "Rhine" bottle used for wood-aged wine. This is interesting to note, but is only a guideline and is not universal to all producers.
The process of making dry Tokaj table wine is the same as every other table wine of the world; selection, pressing, fermentation, bottling. Tokaji wines are primarily made from three Hungarian grapes. (There are also three secondary Hungarian varietals which will be discussed later). The three primary grapes in Tokaj are Furmint, Harslevelu, and Sargamuskoly. Each has a unique character and lends a different component, be it structure, acid, aroma, to the blended wines. All three are made and sold as varietals in at least two forms: Dry (Szaraz) and Semi-Sweet (Felédes) and can be sold as true varietals, a blending of two varietals, or a blend of all three varietals Dry Tokaji wines are seen occasionally on the US market but are often confused by consumers (and retailers!) who think that Tokaj is always a sweet, dessert wine. Adding to the problem is often confusing or mistranslated label language and unfamiliar grape varieties.
Again, the main Tokaj grape varieties are:
Furmint (pronounced "foor-meent")
Hárslevelű ("linden leaf")
Sárgamuskotály ("yellow muscat")
The sweetness of the table wine is influenced by ripeness at harvest and reads on the label:
félszáraz (medium dry)
félédes (medium sweet)
Note:The terms "sweet" for table (750ml bottles) here refers to no more that 15 grams per liter or residual sugar.
Tokaji in 500ml bottles - Sweet Wine
Tokaji wine in 500ml bottles always contains some juice from over-ripe, moldy grapes (botryis). Grapes grow on the vine in spring and summer and at the end of summer, in normal wine making, the grapes would be harvested. In Tokaj, some wine are made in this way (see above). What makes Tokaji wine sweet (and special) is that most of the grapes are left on the vine in hopes that they will over-ripen and attract a naturally airborne mold called botrytis. Those grapes that attract the mold are called Aszú (which in Hungarian means "shriveled") while those that are simply over-ripe but did not attract this mold are called "Late Harvest" or "Késöi Szüretelésü" (see below).
Tokaj is especially damp in the late-summer mornings as there are two major rivers, the Bodrog and the Tisza, which bisect the area. Tokaj is also quite breezy in the autumn, being located on a hill. This combination of conditions, partially due to the hills, partially to the rivers, encourages mold to grow on the grapes. The mold, as it forms, begins to leech water out of the grapes through the skin, while at the same time not breaking the grape skin. As the already over-ripe, sweet grapes begin to get moldy and their water removed, the grape get sweeter and sweeter (as their sugar-to-mass ratio increases) until after about a month or so, when they begin to look like raisins hanging on the vine. These "raisins" called ‘Aszú’ in Hungarian (sometimes called "Ausbruch" the German term for Aszú) are then picked by hand over a period of weeks. Since the mold does not grow evenly across clusters, the remaining grapes which could have been right next to a moldy grapes, are harvested and made into wine in the usual manner while the Aszú is reserved. There is no way to manipulate the mold’s growth so growers in Tokaj literally pray that the process will take place. As a point of interest, in historic cellars of Tokaj, nearly all of them contain a wine "Chapel", an actual holy space in which to pray for good conditions to grow Aszú.
To make the sweet wines, these hand-selected and shriveled grapes are pressed and their juice and skins added to either already made wine from a previous year or to new must (pressed grapes, just beginning fermentation). The amount of Aszú added to each batch is measured in "Puttonyos" or literally "hopper", an ancient form of measure no longer used except in name. One "Puttony" is about 25kg of Aszú grapes in modern measurement. The resulting mix of wine/must and Aszú grapes and juice is fermented, barrel aged (by law), bottled and further bottled aged (also by law).
Tokaji Aszú has nothing to do with the Eiswein making process where water is removed from a partially frozen must. In Tokaji Aszú, no water is removed after the grapes are harvested nor is there manipulation of added sugar or alcohol as in Champagne or Port, respectively.
A 1942 Tokaji Aszu, 5 puttonyos
True Aszú wine is base wine or must with shriveled grapes added until it reaches a desired sweetness. Historically measured in buckets called "Puttony" (Puttonyos is plural) and not measured, as it is today, by sugar grams per liter. The following table indicated the MINIMUM sugar level each "puttonyos" level is required to have. NOTE: A 5 puttonyos Aszú can, by law, have as much or more sugar than a 6 puttonyos and still be sold at 5 puttonyos. Again, these are only the least amount of sugar each can have. It is better to think of the "puttonyos" as a quality indicator as well as a sweetness indicator. Import bottles often contain a misspelling: "puttonos" -minus the y. In Hungarian ny, like cs, is considered one letter (like the "ash" syllable in English: ae). On labels prepared for export you may see "n" alone substituted for the Hungarian "ny."
2 puttonyos (not made in Hungary since the 1930s) Still made in Slovakia under protest from the Hungarian government. (No minimum sugar requirement)
3 Puttonyos: minimum 60 grams/sugar per liter
4 Puttonyos: minimum 90 grams/sugar per liter
5 Puttonyos: minimum 120 grams/sugar per liter
6 Puttonyos: minimum 150 grams/sugar per liter
7 puttonyos: There is some lore about this wine existing however if it does exist, it is not readily made or available in Hungary and has never been seen or distributed in the USA.
Note: In the 1970s, US import law prohibited the importation of alcohol in bottle sizes other than 750ml and 375ml. During this time, Aszú was imported into the US in specially made 750ml export bottles. Aszú in vintages from 1974-1978 are sometimes seen in the US in these unique bottle format.
a rare 1975 Tokaji Aszu in "large format" 750ml
Aszú-Eszencia is not Natur-Eszencia
Aszú Eszencia and Natur-Eszencia are the very sweetest of all Tokaji wines. They are also the most confusing of Tokaji wines to Americans in that they share the name "Eszencia", sometime spelled" Esszencia" or even "Essence". These wines, while sharing a name, are made by completely different processes from one another. A simple indicator to their main difference is found by reading their percent alcohol: Aszú Eszencia is typically about 8.5% alcohol (closer to Aszú wine and table wine) by volume while Nature-Eszencia is usually between 2% and 5%.
Aszú Eszencia (A-E) should be likened to "7 puttonyos" wine. It is required to have at least 180 g/l however it contains so little base wine that it has a unique character unlike the other Aszú wines hence its special name "hors de classification" from the other "puttonyos" wines.
Natur-Eszencia is a thing all its own. Natur-Eszencia contains no base wine or must and is NOT pressed. Instead, the Aszú is brought to the winery and dumped in large vats. The shriveled grapes then begin to release a little juice under their own weight. This free-run juice is then fermented separately and because of the enormous sugar level takes years to ferment to even 2% alcohol. Some companies choose to use this juice as a sweeter for other wine, some bottle it separately (Kereskedohaz, for example, has not sold Natur-Ezencia since 1988; the N-E is only used to sweeten other wines.) Natur-Eszencia must be either filtered or pasteurized (before/after bottling) since the wine never reaches a high enough alcohol level to kill the fermenting yeast. If the yeast were not filtered out or the wine is heat-pasturised, the yeast would continue to ferment in the bottle despite its turtle-paced fermentation and eventually the bottle would fill with carbon-dioxide gas and explode!
IMPORTANT NOTE: In 2009, the Tokaji wine makers and Hungarian government agreed that Aszú-Eszencia was so confusing to the consumer, that the term would no longer be used! This does not change bottles that already exist called "Aszú-Eszencia" however it prevents any new bottles of A-E from being made. In short, from 2009 vintage onwards, look for 6 puttonyos wines to offer more complexity and greater range of subtleties and sweetness. Likewise, from the 2009 vintage onward, any wine labeled "Eszencia" will be true Natur-Eszencia.
Aszú-Eszencia: minimum 180 grams/sugar per liter, pre 2009
Aszú-Eszencia: N/A, after 2009
Natur-Eszencia: minimum 250 grams/sugar per liter, pre 2009
Natur-Eszencia: minimum 450 grams/sugar per liter, after 2009
Szamorodni édes - Szamorodni száraz
Causing even greater confusion to the mix, is the wine called Szamorodni. The word Szamorodni comes from a derivation of old Polish meaning "as it is born". (At one time, the Poles were the world’s largest consumer to Tokaji). Some say that is means "as it comes" or other variations of that, however the process is the same no matter what it is called.
Szamorodni comes in the stumpy 500ml bottle because it contains Aszú grapes. (Any 500ml "barrel" bottle, must contain some Aszú.) The Szamorodni is unlike all of the other Aszú wines because it made WITHOUT selection, that is to say, the grapes are picked in clusters without the Aszú removed separately The wine is made by pressing ripe grapes, moldy grapes and overripe grapes all together, all of which grow together on the same cluster. The wine is not made in batches like the Aszú wines: base wine first, Aszú pressed separately. Instead, the clusters contains grape of various stages of development, are all thrown in the press together and the wine made all at once.
Two types of Szamorodni are made. Sweet (édes) and Dry (szaraz). Szarmorodni szaraz must be picked at the beginning onset of Botrytis. Making Szamorodni Szaras is a true labor of love and of tradition since the cluster, if left to grow, could attract more botryis allowing the maker to make more profitable Aszú wines. However if Aszú does not come or there are bad growing conditions int he fall, there is a bit of a gamble on the part of the vinter. Not all makers make Szamorodni szaraz on a regular basis. Dry Szamorodni has minimal sugar after fermentation and is of similar dryness as the table wines. When bottled, dry Szamorodni often has a silver capsule differentiating it from its sweet counterpart with a gold capsule. Sweet Szamorodni comes from clusters harvested at the end of the growing season, usually in a bad year where there is not enough Aszú to make Aszú wine, but where the cluster are healthy enought to produce good-quality semi-sweet wine. Sweet Szamorodni is often quite sweet and can be sweeter than 3 puttonyos Aszú.
Szamorodni édes: minimum 30 grams/sugar per liter
Szamorodni szaras: maximum 30 grams/sugar per liter
Dry (silver capsure) and Sweet (gold capsure) Szamorodni
Máslás and Fordítás
These two types of wine are rarely seen outside Hungary but are mentioned here for the sake of completeness. Essentially, these two wines are made by rinsing out the barrel and vats with new base wine which were used to make the sweet wines. There is often so much residual sugar left in the grape skins and barrels after making Aszú wine that at after the Aszu wine is made, that rather than waste it, new base wine is "rinsed" in the barrels, sweetening what would otherwise be table wine. The result is a sweet wine yet retaining the table wine's original acidity; an interesting combination. Máslás is made by putting new wine into the fermenting vessel, after the Aszú wine has been racked. The lees (or sediment) contain so much residual sugar that the new base wine (table wine) can leach the remaining sweetness from these fermenting remnants, and re-ferments in the barrel. Forditás, on the other hand, is the rinse (with new wine) of the the Aszú paste after pressing. New wine is mixed with the remnants of Aszú pressing, and re-fermented.
Note: On a recent try to Hungary, I found only two bottles of Máslás for sale in all of Budapest and Tokaj!
A modern invention
A confusing "in between"
Késői Szüretelésű or "Late Harvest"
bottled in 750ml or 500ml
In an effort to turn a faster profit on sweet wines, a new category of Tokaji wine has emerged in the last 10 years. The new category is called "Late Harvest". Of course, all Aszú by definition are "late harvest" however in an attempt to skirt an Hungarian wine law that states that Aszú wines must age at least 2 years in barrel and 1 year in bottle, Tokaji markers bottled their young Aszú wines in a non-regulated bottle shape and called it "Late Harvest". These "Late Harvest" wines are extremely sweet and made with Aszú grapes but since they have not met the required aging requirements and bottle size/shape cannot be labels Tokaji Aszú. The sugar can be as high as 200g/l however lack much of the richness and nuance of true Aszú. "Late Harvest" wines are often produced in blends (sometimes labeled "cuvées") however they can be found in varietals such as Harlevelu Late Harvest which contains only Harslevelu base wine and Harslevelu Aszú. Again, bottle styles vary wildly between makers with some companies having chosen the 750ml "Rhine" bottle for these new wines, others having created a new, striated, 500ml bottle, and even a 375ml bottle is being used.