Royal Tokaji: Aszú and eternal Essencia

The legend of Tokaji wines is deeply embedded in the history of wines. Its intense concentration, honeyed aromas and luscious sweetness have enticed the royalty and intellectuals since the 17th century. However, the quality has varied dramatically over the years and only recently has it come back to its former glory. Mostly on the shoulders of Royal Tokaji, a conveniently chosen name.

These sweet wines, perhaps first made by Szepsy in 1630, rely on the aszú process. Aszú means dry in Hungarian, a state to which the grapes arrive after being infected by noble rot, a fungus also known as Botrytis cinerea. This fungus affects the skins of the grapes and consumes their sugar and water. The structure of the skin is compromised, allowing water to evaporate naturally. The grapes dehydrate, concentrating its sugars and flavours. When macerated in dry wines of healthy grapes, the final wine yields alcohol levels of approximately 10% and high levels of residual sugar. This sugar is balanced by the intense acidity of Furmint, the main varietal employed in the blends. 

Despite their noble days, Tokaji wines underwent a dark period. First phylloxera, then the World Wars and finally viticulture led by volume, not quality, in Hungary’s communist times. With the aperture to capitalism in the 1990s, Royal Tokaji was one of the first to take the advantage to revive the old golden days of the 17th century. Under the protection of the reputation of owner Hugh Johnson, success was almost guaranteed.

We were fortunate to attend a tasting organised by Master of Wine Christopher Donaldson on behalf of Royal Tokaji in Oxford. Owning a substantial amount of land near Mád and several first growth vineyards, their offering presents one of the most serious and diverse range of Tokaji wines out there. The exercise of identifying the different terroir characteristics in the single vineyard wines was fascinating. The volcanic rocks of Tokaj weather in different forms, yielding very different loesses, sands and clays.

Since Szepsy’s venture into dry wines, Royal Tokaji has also joined the party. Their single vineyard Furmint and Hárslevelű are excellent, to the level of the aforementioned Szepsy.

Royal Tokaji – Dry Furmint Single Vineyard Mézes Mály 2017
Nose:Peach, pear and white flowers. With time, the vanilla notes from the oak appear.
Palate:Fruit dominates, but it possesses some mineral and yeasty notes too.
Structure:High acidity, dry, but not austere. Astringency from lees. Medium body, medium alcohol and a very long finish.

Royal Tokaji – Dry Hárslevelű Single Vineyard Betsek 2016
Nose:Very reductive and mineral nose. Ripe pears.
Palate:Pears. Much riper than the Furmint, the finish is dominated by wet gravel aromas.
Structure:Medium alcohol, dry, high acidity. Slight astringency, similar to the Furmint.

The sweet wines did not disappoint either. We started by an increasingly more common Late Harvest. The appellation does not require Late Harvests to be aged in oak for two years like the Aszús, allowing producers to sell their wines earlier. 

Royal Tokaji – Late Harvest Single Vineyard Szt. Tamás 2016
Nose:Restrained nose of honey and peaches.
Palate:Apricot, honey and orange blossom.
Structure:Medium sweet (>120g/L), high acidity, low alcohol and full bodied.

Their well-known flagship, and highest volume wine, delivered as expected.

Royal Tokaji – Blue Label 5 Puttonyos Aszú 2013
Nose:Old books, honey, apricots and summer flowers.
Palate:Honey. It confirms the nose. Nicely balanced wine.
Structure:Medium sweet (>150g/L), high acidity, low alcohol and full bodied. Medium finish.

And the 6 Puttonyos are simply a treat.

Royal Tokaji – Gold Label 6 Puttonyos Aszú 2016
Nose:More precise aromas. Botrytis (honey, old books), apricots.
Palate:Apricots on the attack, dried apricots in the midpalate. Beautiful concentration. The finish has a very characteristic note reminiscent of tea.
Structure:Sweet (188g/L), high acidity, low alcohol and full bodied. Long finish.

Royal Tokaji – Mézes Mály Single Vineyard 6 Puttonyos Aszú 2016
Nose:Apricots and flowers with a more elegant and balanced profile.
Palate:Honey, slightly riper than the Gold Label and quite fruit forward. Incredible concentration, a wine that will enjoy a long life. The finish is intense and floral.
Structure:Very sweet (>180g/L), high acidity, low alcohol and full bodied. Very long finish.

Having introduced the sweet wines of Tokaj, we can now shine the spotlight on probably the rarest and most unique of all, Essencia. 

If the Aszú grapes are not macerated in dry wine, but left by themselves in a vat, they will be crushed by their own weight and release a minute amount of a highly concentrated juice. The elevated sugar levels of this must make the fermentation an arduous task for the yeast, requiring approximately eight years to achieve an alcohol level of 3%. At this level, under the European Union regulations it cannot be considered a wine. Yet, the result is a true elixir, unparalleled by any sweet wine. 

The residual sugar must be at least 450g per litre, but levels of 600g are common. This yields a consistency similar to honey with an incredibly high acidity (13,5 g/l) which creates a magical balance. With this structure, Essencia is practically indestructible in human timescales. Bottles of 200 years have been enjoyed with success.

Our tasting organised by Christopher Donaldson MW ended with the treat of tasting a sip of the Royal Tokaji Essencia 2008, find the notes below.

Royal Tokaji Essencia 2008
Nose:An intensely aromatic nose dominated by dried apricots and a touch of orange blossom. Very precise and enchanting.
Palate:The dry apricots in the nose turn to mandarines, orange blossom and honey in the palate. The finish is incredibly intense, with strong honeyed notes.
Structure:Screamingly high acid. Luscious to the point that it feels as viscous as honey. The high sugar level even produces a slight warmth at the back of the throat. Very low alcohol. The finish is one of the most intense I have ever experienced. The flavours linger at their climax for two or three minutes. The honeyed notes lasted for much longer.

As a fun fact, Royal Tokaji has bottled 18 magnums of this Essencia, currently available in Hedonism for a reasonable £30,000 a bottle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *