The tasting of a lifetime: The great first growths of Royal Tokaji
“In the wine industry, there are many once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Tasting a wine for the first time, pulling an old vintage out of the cellar, sitting with winemakers and tasting their wines, every wine experience is unique in its own way. But, from time to time a tasting takes place that takes once in a lifetime to a new level. At Pebble Beach Food and Wine in April, a tasting took place that really was the tasting of a lifetime. Since Royal Tokaji started in 1990, they have produced only 10 vintages, made only in exceptional years. Our tasting of a lifetime was a complete history of the company through nine of its vintages (sadly, there is no more 1993 left).
“Tokaj is a region in northeast Hungary. It was the first vineyard classification in the world in 1700, more than 150 years before the Bordeaux classification of 1855. The wines of Tokaj were consumed by royalty, emperors, popes and czars for more than 300 years. Following World War I and II, as well as the rise of Communism, the wines were mass produced and the quality diminished. But, in 1990 Royal Tokaji was founded by wine writer Hugh Johnson and a group of investors who were inspired after the fall of Communism to restore and preserve Hungary’s wine legacy.
“Royal Tokaji owns 11 of the 22 hectares in Mézes Mály, one of only two vineyards in Tokaj to be designated a First Growth. In fact, Mézes Mály (which means honeycomb) is a Super First Class vineyard, meaning it is for the Royal table only. Mézes Mály is located on a south-facing slope, and the loess topsoil (wind-blown silt) results in wines with honey and floral characteristics. There are three grape varietals used. Furmint is the core of the wine. It is a thin skin grape, making it susceptible to botrytis and has the potential for high-level ripeness and good acidity. The other two varietals are Hárslevelü and Muscat for aromatics.
“Tokaji Aszú (meaning dried) wines is painstaking to make, like Champagne, Madeira, Port and Sherry. The berries require humidity, heat, wind and rain to create botrytis, which concentrates the sugars and acidity, creating new flavors. The berries are picked individually and only the best berries are desired (one man will pick only 22 pounds per day). In fact, to make 1 kilogram of Aszú berries can take up to 5 kilogram of healthy grapes. The Aszú berries are macerated with the base wine for 48 hours. The ratio of base wine to Aszú berries dictates the level of sweetness. This blend is placed in old oak casks to ferment for 3-6 months. The wines are then aged for a minimum of two years before final blending and bottling.
“Aszú wines can range from 1 Puttonyos to 6 Puttonyos. Traditionally, this indicated the number of Puttonyos (20 kilograms) of Aszú berries added to each 140-kilogram cask of base wine (or Gonci). Today the final classification is based on technical analysis of sugar levels. Royal Tokaji only produces 5 Puttonyos (120-150 grams of sugar per liter) and 6 Puttonyos (150-180 grams of sugar per liter) wines, as controlled by legislation. The wines from Mézes Mály are 6 Puttonyos. Royal Tokaji wines are not dessert wines. They are sensory experiences to be enjoyed with foie gras or cigars. As we tasted through the nine vintages, it was an unforgettable experience. The wines developed in the glasses resulting in extraordinary aromas. And, no matter how old the wine is, while the sugar seems to have decreased, the acidity has increased.”
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