Royal Tokaji

Tokaj, Hungary

Vineyard

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Royal Tokaji owns a unique combination of first- and second-growth vineyards that have always been privately owned. At one time, first-growth vineyards Betsek and Szt. Tamás were owned by Prince Rakoczi I. His vineyards were sold in the late 1660s to save the prince, who was involved in a conspiracy that would have otherwise cost him his life. His son, Prince Rakoczi II, was able to buy back the prized land in the 1700s. Three centuries later, these vineyards continue to be highly valued.

Szt. Tamás (SENT tahm-ash)

First growth
Royal Tokaji owns 22 parcels of the Szt. Tamás Vineyard that are located north of the Nyulászó Vineyard on south-facing slopes at nearly 220 meters (720 feet), overlooking the winery’s cellars. Named for the apostle Saint Thomas, the vineyard’s red volcanic-clay soil is high in iron oxide and has the ability to retain moisture well, a characteristic helpful in drought years. Wines produced from grapes grown here have a lovely, pure fruitiness, nice acidity and good ageability.

Betsek (bet-CHEK)

First growth
The largest of Royal Tokaji’s first-growth vineyards, Betsek is named after an old Magyar family. Shaped like a crescent moon and facing southeast, it is located in what is known as the basin of the first growths. The Betsek terroir totals 89 hectares (219.9 acres), of which Royal Tokaji owns 15 hectares (37 acres), all of which are planted to vines except 1 hectare which lies fallow. The area where the vineyard is located is typically cold — lower portions of the vineyard have been known to freeze in the spring. The black volcanic topsoil contributes to the mineral and lovely black pepper characters in the wine. Being at the bottom of the valley, the vineyard imparts a much more earthy character to the wine than the other first growths.

Mézes Mály (MAIZE-esh my)

Great first growth
Royal Tokaji owns more than half of 46.9-hectare (19 acres) Mézes Mály, one of only two vineyards in all of Tokaj to be named as a great first growth in the classification of 1700 (the other portion of the vineyard is owned by Hugh Johnson). It has since been referred to as “pro mensa caesaris primus haberi,” or “to be the first choice at the royal table,” — an honorable distinction likened to Château d’Yquem’s status in Bordeaux. Located on a south-facing slope, “Mézes Mály,” or “honeycomb,” is Royal Tokaji’s only vineyard with loess topsoil, providing the wines with honey and floral characteristics. These wines are softer than other Royal Tokaji wines grown in vineyards with volcanic-clay topsoil.

Winemaking

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The methods and traditions of producing Tokaji wines have changed little since the 17th century when aszú berries — grapes that are infected with “botrytis cinerea,” or “noble rot,” which dries and shrivels the grapes and concentrates the sugars — were individually harvested from bunches and collected in 20-liter (55-pound) wooden tubs called puttonyos or hods. The number of puttonyos added to each barrel of base wine made from grapes unaffected by botrytis determined the puttonyos level of the wine. On a scale of one to six, the more puttonyos the sweeter, richer and rarer the Tokaji. The process remains much the same today, minus the clumsy, heavy hods.

Tokaji Aszú Wines

The berries are crushed once they arrive at the winery, and the syrupy aszú paste is added to the current vintage’s base wine which has already been fermented in stainless steel for approximately three weeks. After the mixture is stirred repeatedly for two or more days to extract the natural sugars and aromas of the paste, it is added to gönci (140-liter or 37-gallon barrels, named after the village of Gönc, known for its barrel-making) and stored in Royal Tokaji’s 13th-century cellars, originally dug out in defense against Turkish invaders. Here, along the moss- and mold-covered walls, is where a second fermentation takes place — a result of the addition of the aszú paste and one that can take several months to several years, due to the cold cellar temperatures and the high sugar content of the wine. Legally, Tokaji aszú wines must be aged for a minimum of three years prior to release; Royal Tokaji’s wines are usually aged for a longer period of time, including some time in old oak — to truly express the terroir of each vineyard and allow the elegance of the fruit to shine through.

Essencia 

Essencia is produced using only the free-run juice that slowly oozes from aszú berries that are waiting to be crushed — no base wine is added. This juice that accumulates at the bottom of a vat by the gentle pressure of the grapes’ own weight is sticky and pours like rich honey. Because sugar levels can be as high as 85 percent, the juice ferments extremely slowly; it took the 2007 Essencia seven years in Royal Tokaji’s cellars to reach only 1.65 percent alcohol.

Measuring Sweetness

Today, a wine’s puttonyos level is determined by the amount of residual sugar in the finished wine, thus the key factor in the production of Tokaji aszú wines is the proportion of aszú berries to base wine.

Below is a chart outlining the sugar levels and percentage of aszú in Tokaji aszú wines.

Minimum residual sugar levels:
3 puttonyos:
60g/L
4 puttonyos: 90g/L
5 puttonyos: 120g/L
6 puttonyos: 150g/L
Essencia: 415g/L  

Percentage of Aszú wine in blends:
5 puttonyos:
60%
6 puttonyos: 70%