Things have been a little quiet on this site of late, so I thought I’d quickly jot down an impromptu Tokaji comparison I conducted after lunch one day (such are the joys of working from home!) while a larger, weightier piece I’m looking forward to writing soon is brooding in the background.
I really like sweet wines, but my experience of them to date has been very restricted for a number of reasons, the over-arching one being that very few people – or nobody that I know at least – seem to share my love of these golden elixers. This doesn’t seem to happen with regular dry wines: even if someone isn’t a fan of a style or variety that you open for them over dinner the likelihood is that they’ll drink it anyway, or the bottle will somehow magically empty itself over the course of the evening one way or another.
But this doesn’t happen with sweet wines, which seem to have a Marmite effect on people, especially here in Ireland. If you decide to round off a nice dinner with friends by opening up that bottle of stickie that you’ve been saving, the chances are you’ll be the only one enjoying it, save perhaps one other curious friend.
And unlike dry wine, emptying half the bottle – or most of one if your liver’s up to it – simply isn’t an option, unless diabetes is a disease you’re particularly fond of. So to date I’ve had to keep my sweet wine affection in check, except for the odd time I would get it by the glass in a restaurant.
But this has now all changed thanks to my trusty Coravin, a very generous Christmas present from my family and something with which I have absolutely fallen head-over-heels in love with since. It allows me to take measures of wine from a bottle without it spoiling, opening up the possibility of enjoying the same bottle over the course of years rather than days. Watch this space for a more extensive write-up on this magic device at a later date…
So, after lunch one day I got the notion to have a small glass of sweet wine, specifically a Tokaji, and upon opening my fridge I remembered I had two available, both bought in Budapest airport on the return leg of a holiday in said capital city (which I would highly recommend).
Tokaji (pronounced “toke-eye”) is one of the world’s greatest sweet wines, enjoyed for centuries by the great and good: Russian tsars, Polish kings, Austrian emperors and even Louis XIV of France are amongst its roll call of admirers.
Tokaji wines consist mostly of an indigenous grape called Furmint which are allowed to be inflicted with ‘noble rot’ (botrytis cinerea to the geeks out there). This is where a benign mould dessicates the grapes on the vine, increasing their sugar levels (since there’s now less water) but also increasing acidity, giving a happy coincidence of a wine that’s both simultaneously sweet and refreshing when done right.
This is usually about it as far as many other styles sharing this process are concerned, Sauternes included, but Tokaji differs in that this syrupy sweet wine – called aszú and which sometimes in the form of a ground up paste of grape musts – is effectively added back into vats of regular dry wine.
Traditionally the grapes were collected in 20 litre wooden tubs or hods called puttonyos, and the end style and sweetness of the wine was demarcated with how many of these puttonyos were added to each barrel of regular wine. On a scale of one to six: the more puttonyos, the sweeter, richer and rarer the Tokaji.
The two Tokaji wines I had were both “5 Puttonyos”, one click off the top of the aszú hierarchy (there is though a fabled Essencia categorisation above this). Obviously, in today’s winemaking world, “number of tubs in a barrel” isn’t exactly the most accurate or encouraging categorisation, so they’ve shifted to the more scientific measurement of grams of sugar per litre – in this case, 5 Puttonyos equals 120g/L, and where the aszú grapes account for approx. 70% of the final blend.
So, how were the wines?
Grof Degenfeld Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2004
Approx. €40-€45, not available in Ireland
Surprisingly light with a little tartness, redolent of pear drops and apricot. It has a zingy fruity sweetness that I couldn’t put a finger on until I did a quick search online to clarify the name and came across a tasting note that mentioned marmalade, which sums it up nicely. Fresh and flavoursome and deliciously moreish, with a depth and complexity befitting its (still relatively young) years.
Much more on the caramel and butterscotch end of the spectrum but still nicely balanced nevertheless, and not too cloying. Maybe lacks the complexity of the Grof Degenfeld but then again it’s four years younger, so it’s not a fair comparison. There are apricots again, but more of the dried variety and blended with a fresher, honeyed characteristic that marks it apart from the Grof Degenfeld.