I’ve become aware of a serious problem in this country, one that affects 9 out of 10 wine lovers that I meet each day. It’s a deep rooted problem that stems from the media, dietary choices and lack of exposure. It has created an entire subdivision of wine lovers that have been missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures and a world of unique experiences that would amaze and challenge them over decades of maturity. Every wine retailer is aware of it. Every Importer wishes it didn’t exist. That problem is America’s fear of residual sugar in wine.
You must forgive me for my comic delivery, but I wanted to get your attention, and the fact is that everything I said is true. I understand that we have been taught that sugar is the enemy, and I’m not going to get into my opinion of the chemical alternatives that many people choose to supplement it with. However, what I will do is state my opinion: that moderation is the key, and that the dismissal of sweet-styled wines in America has caused us to turn a blind eye to some of the greatest wines in the world.
But in the end, I can assure you that there is a large group of enlightened wine lovers who are more than happy to allow the masses to disregard these wines, because it keeps the prices low and the availability high. However, this is a fad, and it can only be so long before consumers start to catch on and the pendulum swings back in the other direction. Because the fact remains that–we are missing out.
I thought it was only fair to follow my rant with an introduction to one of the world’s most famous, oldest and truly royal sweet wines, Tokaji.
Tokaji pronounced “toe-kay,”
Tokaji, pronounced “toe-kay,” is one of the world’s oldest winemaking traditions from the first classified vineyards in Europe. It’s thought that winemaking in this part of Hungary may have predated Roman expansion which brought vitis vinifera to the nations of Europe. The region that shares the same name as it’s famous wine is located in north-eastern Hungary, at the foot of the Zemplen Mountains. It’s here that the tradition of making sweet wines from botrytized Furmint berries (known here as Aszú, but otherwise known as noble rot) was invented.
Tokaji went on to become the elixir of royalty, coveted King Louis XIV after it was introduced to him by Ferenc Rákóczi II, a prince who owned the majority of Tokaji vineyards in the 18th century. It was during this time that the famous phrase was coined, “The king of wines, and the wine of kings.” With a royal seal of approval, it wasn’t long before Tokaji truly did become the wine of choice for nobles and monarchs throughout Europe and beyond.
So why is it that most consumers have never tasted one?
Like nearly all regions of Europe, Tokaj paid a heavy toll during the spread of Phylloxera in the late 18th century. The same root louse that destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards left Hungary vulnerable. Next followed World War I, World War II and the onset of communism. To this day, the countryside echo’s the memories of a different time. As the rest of the world’s wine regions evolved, Tokaj remained secure behind the iron curtain with state-run wineries that were focused more on quantity than quality. Those times are now over, but you can see as you tour the landscape and speak with the locals of the region, that they are nowhere near forgotten.
With the fall of communism came a rejuvenation of the region and its wines. Suddenly, the world was being reintroduced to the famous elixir of centuries past, and new investment followed. One such investor was David Álvarez of Vega Sicilia, an icon of Spanish winemaking in the Ribera del Duero, who saw great potential in Tokaj. When the opportunity presented itself in the early nineties, David founded Oremus, purchasing along with it a library of Tokaji wines, vast cellars and what we would refer to as 1st growth vineyards. It is thought that the Oremus vineyard was the source of some of the world’s first Aszú wines, produced in the early 17th century. With this inspiration, a new winery was built and connected to a maze of ancient cellars that hold treasures from decades past.
What impresses me more than anything about Oremus is their respect for the past. Having toured many properties under Vega Sicilia’s management, nowhere else did I feel so immersed in the traditions of the region.
Today Tokaji continues to grow in popularity and prestige, even if the States haven’t fully accepted it, the rest of the world is quickly catching on. In 2002 the region was classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site, ensuring that it will only gain further recognition, while also maintaining its natural beauty and traditions.
One thing that has changed, however, is the focus on creating a dry style of Tokaji. These wines are also produced from Furmint and present a unique mix of depth and vibrancy. It’s a category that is worth exploring, as the wines can age beautifully and remain extremely well priced in world markets.
What’s a Puttonyos?
As for the sweet wines that inspired me to words today, they are only getting better and better. The term Aszú is used to describe wines made with some portion of botrytized berries, yet the traditional term puttonyos has lost much of it’s meaning. Puttonyos was once used to describe the number of baskets full of Aszú berries that were added to a fermenting barrel of fresh crushed grapes. Meaning that a 3 Puttonyos would be drier than a 4, 5 or 6 Puttonyos. Although many properties, including Oremus, continue to use these terms, they “officially” have no meaning. That said, a 6 Puttonyos will loosely translate to an Aszú wine with 150 or more grams per liter of residual sugar.
And then there’s Eszencia
The nearly immortal Eszencia is the richest and rarest of all Hungarian Tokaji. It can take between six to eight years to complete fermentation down to 3% alcohol, producing one of the finest, layered and most elegant experiences in wine that you will ever experience. Here the grapes are all Aszú berries, intensified by noble rot into shriveled raisins. This fruit may not be pretty to look at, but the wine it produces is otherworldly. The cellars at Oremus guard these jars closely as they naturally work their way to fermented perfection. The resulting wines is said to be able to age for hundreds of years–yet I challenge you to open a bottle and not experience euphoria today. They aren’t cheap, but when you consider the time and effort that goes into making a single bottle… it’s hard to imagine that there’s any money to be made in producing this elixir of the Gods. Eszencia is a bucket list experience.
So throw your misconceptions to the side.
Live life a little, and taste some of the greatest wines being made today.
On to my tasting notes:
2009 Oremus Furmint Tokaji Dry Mandolás – The bouquet was kaleidoscopic and constantly evolving from peach, to floral perfumes, to minerals, to spice, and then almond. On the palate, it was soft and giving, nutty, mineral and with saturating citrus acidity. It was fully mature yet highly enjoyable. (90 points)
2015 Oremus Furmint Tokaji Dry Mandolás – The bouquet was rich and deep with ripe stone fruits, citrus and minerals. On the palate, a contrast of soft textures and zesty acidity gave way to peach and minerals in a soft, bountiful and textural experience. (92 points)
1972 Oremus Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos – The nose showed crushed fall leaves, spiced orange, and ripe apple in brown sugar. On the palate, I found lifted textures, with minerals, exotic spices, and dried apricot. It finished incredibly long with lingering notes of dried orange, fresh fig and spice. (93 points)
2007 Oremus Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos – The bouquet was deep and rich with notes of ripe peach, mango, plum, dried flowers and hints sweet herbs. On the palate a velvety wave of textures was offset by stunning acidity, ripe tropical fruits, sweet inner florals and spiced apple. It finished unbelievably long with a contrast of rich textures, tart citrus and zesty acidity. (94 points) M
2009 Oremus Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos – The nose showed ripe, fresh mango, floral tones, peppery spice, sweet floral undergrowth, and then intense lime. It was rich yet zesty on the palate, with penetrating citrus tones, yellow tropical florals and fruits yet fresh, with lasting inner florals and spicy citrus. (92 points)
2006 Oremus Tokaji Eszencia – The Eszencia is still a total game changer. The nose was absolutely stunning with dried flowers, bergamot, dried pear, peach, orange peel and candied ginger. On the palate, a wave of weighty silk flooded the senses and saturated everything it touched with a sweet and savory mix of dried citrus fruits, saline minerality and exotic spice. Stunning acidity contrasted it’s 524 grams per litre of sugar, almost hiding all of its sweetness and making for a remarkably fresh experience. (98 points)