Forbes: Royal Tokaji: Rediscovering The Wine That Communism Left Behind
One of the world’s most legendary and beautiful wines, Tokaji Aszú from Hungary’s Tokaj region, was born of violence. It was a volcanic violence, a rough beginning, as upwards of 400 individual volcanoes erupted on the edge of the Hungarian plain spewing a breathtaking array of mineral ash onto what are now the vineyards of Tokaj. The volcanic debris left behind a happy inheritance for Tokaj, becoming an essential aspect of the terroir. Yet, the rubble of two World Wars and decades of communism left a far more negative legacy—one that the Tokaj region and wineries like Royal Tokaji are slowly beginning to unravel.
Royal Tokaji was established when a group of vineyard owners, the famed wine writer Hugh Johnson, and several investors formed an alliance and began the painstaking work of restoring Tokaj and the vineyards to their formal, regal glory. During the communist era, the vineyard lands were confiscated by the government and formed into communist cooperatives focused on maximizing quantity, not quality. The post-communism restoration work has taken decades and what this means for today’s wine drinker is the chance to rediscover a historic wine celebrated by kings with a legacy that goes back much further than Bordeaux or Burgundy. Revered for its healthful and decadent appeal, everyone from the Romanovs to Louis XIV (even Thomas Jefferson), sought its charms. Today, Tokaji Aszú is arguably one of the world’s most under-rated wines (not by critics mind you, but by a lack of awareness).
Tokaji Aszú is a sweet white wine made with late-harvest grapes. The primary grape is Furmint which, when left on the vine, becomes infected with botrytis (also called noble rot), a fungus that shrivels and dries the fruit, concentrating the flavor and acidity into a powerfully decadent wine. But this wine is more than just sumptuous flavor, it is also the sum of the volcanic terroir’s breathtaking mosaic of minerals. The crazy range of soils is Tokaj’s signature and was the prime reason these vineyards were classified before any other, in the 1700s to be exact. The terroir also lends these wines their trademark purity and freshness. Then we have the extraordinary cellar mold. Many of the Hungarian cellars hail back to the 13th century and are frosted in an alcohol-loving mold that interacts with the barrel aging—which also contributes to the final flavor profile of these wines. And, the barrels are all crafted from Hungarian oak grown in neighboring forests, making this wine about as local as they come.
Charlie Mount, managing director of Royal Tokaji, acknowledges there is always more work to be done but is confident about their progress, “Our vision has always been to bring back these wines, and we think the wines we make now are the best possible iteration of the historical wines.” Indeed, it’s a fine time to be a wine lover. Here’s what you should be trying:
What to taste now:
The Oddity 2016: This is the dry version of Furmint which shows bracing vivacious acidity laced with fresh botanical notes. It also has a lovely floral aspect with a rich palate. Very refreshing—a great alternative to Sauvignon Blanc. $16-$18
Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2017: A blend of three grapes (Furmint, Harslevelu and Yellow Muscat) with Furmint as the dominant varietal. Honeyed on the palate with a seam of freshness throughout. Drink this with any spicy or salty cuisine—the pairing will be magnificent.
Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos, 2016: A classic vintage with higher acidity. Notes of apricots, honey, and some brioche. A perfect starting point for understanding this wine.
Royal Tokaji 6 Puttonyos 2013: These wines age beautifully, and while this one is still quite young it does show the succulent tropicality with orange blossom aromas and lip-smacking opulence. Buttery, honeyed and fresh.
Royal Tokaji Mezes Maly 6 Puttonyos, 2016: Made with fruit from one of the classified great first growth vineyards (Meze Maly), the palate leaps with succulent honeyed notes. Fresh basil, lemon curd, melon, butter, and cashew are all wrapped in a silky unforgettable texture.
Royal Tokaji Essencia: This exquisite wine is made from the free-run juice of Aszu berries (the dried late harvest grapes) while they are being stored during harvest. It is likely the richest wine in the world, literally the essence of these shriveled, dried berries. To give you an idea, it takes two pounds of the Aszu to yield a spoonful of Essencia (two pounds of dried Aszu is equal to 10 pounds of fresh grapes). That’s some serious juicing. One sip has a finish that can outlast and Olympian marathoner, and the palate sings with notes of toffee, dried apricots, and silky wildflower honey.