This lusciously sweet wine is one of the oldest and most unique in the world. Tokaji ("toe-kay-ee") is made from a few native grapes in northeastern Hungary. A historic wine, Tokaji has a distinct flavor profile rich with balanced notes of brown sugar, fig, and chamomile.
What Is Tokaji Wine?
Named after the Tokaj foothills in northern Hungary, Tokaji wine is a uniquely produced wine with a big reputation. The golden, viscous wine is a sweet indulgence defined by the desired grey mold, botrytis, that collects on the berries, creating aromas of honeycomb and peach while the natural sugars become concentrated.
This unique style leaves bunches of grapes shriveled and gray on the vine. While this may look unappetizing, the noble rot (or aszú) is what makes Tokaji wine truly remarkable. The one-of-a-kind aromas, concentrated sugars, and high acidity are what define Tokaji.
- Tokaj = is the name of one of the villages in the region
- Tokaji = is the official name of the wine and the wine region
Grape Varieties Used for Tokaji Production
There are six white grape varietals permitted for the production of Tokaji.
- Sárga Muskotály
Furmint is king here and accounts for more than half of the grapes grown in the region. It's full-bodied, late-ripening grape that's prone to botrytis. It's especially well-suited to the cool environment where it retains high acidity, balancing out the sweet concentrated sugars.
Hárslevelű is the second most important variety in the region, accounting for approximately 30% of Tokaji production. Another late ripening grape, it brings brilliant aromatics to the wine.
Tokaji Wine Styles
With Tokaji now being made in a dry style and the traditional sweet version, there are a few styles to be familiar with.
This is the most traditional and commonly produced style of Tokaji. Sweet, golden, and textured from the noble rot, Tokaji aszú can only be produced in the best years due to the importance of developing the botrytis fungus. The residual sugar can range from 60 grams per liter (g/L) to 150 g/L.
Tokaji Aszú Eszencia
This style is similar to aszú, but with significantly higher amounts of residual sugar, anywhere from 180 g/L to 300 g/L.
The rarest of all the Tokaji wines, The essencia style requires only hand-selected grapes affected by noble rot. The berries remain whole, and only the juice that collects from the weight of the berries crushing themselves is collected to make the wine. The resulting wine is highly concentrated, and the residual sugar must be at least 450 g/L, making it more of a sweet elixir than wine.
This style is made in years when there aren't enough botrytis-affected grapes, and it can be made in both dry and sweet versions. The sweet style must have a minimum of 30 g/L residual sugar, whereas the dry style is 9g/L or less. It has more of a nutty flavor profile, not unlike Sherry.
Tokaji Aszú Flavor Profile & Characteristics
Sweet Tokaji aszú is a radiant, deep golden hue. This decadent wine is lusciously sweet with a viscous, almost syrup-like consistency from the high natural sugar content. The botrytis, or noble rot, is what gives the wine its particularly unique and concentrated aromas and flavors of beeswax, ginger, and brown sugar. The grapes' high acidity balances out the richness with fresh fruit flavors of peach, apricot, pineapple, orange zest, and fig. Aromas of chamomile, acacia, and mint persist through the fruit.
When aged, Tokaji aszú darkens in color, becoming a deep shade of amber. The fruit flavors become rich and jammy, and the wine can take on spiced notes from the oak such as clove and vanilla. Nutty aromas and back notes of almond, hazelnut, caramel, and toffee draw out the finish.
The Importance of Terroir for Tokaji
The climatic conditions suitable for developing the botrytis fungus must be just so. The terroir in and around Tokaj is defined by two rivers, the Bodrog and Tisza. The moisture and humidity that these rivers and streams provide is key to the vineyards developing the mold necessary for the production of Tokaji.
However, if conditions in the vineyard are too damp, undesirable mold can also develop. Dry harvest seasons in the fall are crucial for the fungus-affected grapes to dry on the vine. During this time, the berries shrivel, resembling raisins, and the sugars become highly concentrated.
Even though the microclimate of Tokaj is particularly well suited for this style of winemaking, the weather and conditions vary year to year, so Tokaji wine can only be made when the environmental conditions come together perfectly. This means Tokaji is not made every vintage, but only in the best years.
A Long History
The town and surrounding area of Tokaj has been a hot spot for wine production since the Ottoman occupation in the 16th century. The unique golden nectar was a sweet sign of wealth and status, served up to royals.
In the late 1800s, Tokaji production was hit hard by the pest phylloxera, which decimated vineyards across Europe. After a long road of re-establishing vineyards, Tokaji production resumed. Eventually, political influence shifted ownership and management of vineyards, and the market demand for cheaper, mass-produced wines from the region grew.
Today, there has been a conscious effort to restore the prestige and value of Tokaji wine. There are about 13,600 acres (5,500 hectares) spanning across 27 towns in the region of Tokaj. Modern-day winemakers honor the original Tokaji style by making exquisite expressions of aszú only in the best vintages. They also have taken an innovative approach, producing dry furmint that is becoming more and more popular internationally.
Serving Tokaji Aszú
This sweet dessert wine is best in small amounts of 4 ounces or less. If you have your grandma's vintage dessert wine glasses or something tiny and cute, this is the occasion to dust them off. Tokaji can also be served in a white wine glass or stemless wine glass.
In order to keep some of that sweetness from becoming overly cloying on your palate, Tokaji aszú is best served slightly chilled, around 54-59°F (12-15°C). This will help to keep a fresher fruit profile more prominent on your palate.
Pairing Tokaji Wine
Tokaji is dessert itself. But if you are looking to pair it with a little something extra as part of your after-dinner treat, it goes well with a bit of blue cheese and fruit desserts that mimic the wine's profile without being too sweet. Think caramelized apple galette and roasted pineapple with a bit of whipped maple cream.
A Sweet Sip
A uniquely sweet and richly flavored wine, Tokaji is a real treat in more than one way. A true taste of terroir, these raisin-like berries create a wine that overtakes your palate with rich browned sugar, fresh pineapple, delicate chamomile, and ripe orchard fruit.