Tokaji, or how I learned to love sweet wine
My relationship with residual sugar, or rs, is becoming more complicated. During my first deep dive into wine I was so focused on the ‘natural’ that a touch of rs was a mark of either stuck fermentation – a fault – or sulphur, which I saw as a tool of criminally dishonest winemaking. My haughtiness towards sugar was compounded by the fact that most demands for sweet wine came from belligerent Russian guests running around Georgia with the imperial attitude of Americans in Mexico. While I still don’t love the semi-sweet reds those Russians demanded, I’ve come around to sweetness.
Much of that has to do with my current wine obsession: Tokaji. A Hungarian appellation, Tokaji has been famous since the days of Louis XIV for its dessert wines. The unique sweetness of Tokaji is due to a mold called botrytis cinerea. Botrytis attacks the grapes, leaving the skins more porous. Water then evaporates through the porous skins, concentrating the fruits’ sugar content. A bunch of grapes affected by botrytis will look shrivelled, like half-raisins on the vine.
What this results in is a wine with a good deal of residual sugar, for sure, but a deeply rich, layered aroma as well. Geeking out I might call it ‘phenolic density,’ but an easier description would probably be a nose full of dried apricot with layers of rich nuttiness and cheesiness that seem to go down forever. For its unique, and very lovely, effects botrytis has earned another name: the noble rot.
Tokaji was the first appellation for botrytized wine, established by royal edict in the late 18th century. As early as the 16th century Tokaji winemakers developed a unique technology for making wine from the water-deprived botrytized grapes. They would press and ferment the juice of their non-botrytized fruit. Once that juice was fermenting, they would add in the botrytized grapes allowing them to soak in fermenting grape juice, thereby extracting the higher sugar and phenolic density from grapes affected by the noble rot into their wines. The juice from the non-botrytized fruit contributes a degree of acidity typical of the furmint, hárslevelű, or yellow muscat grapes typically used in Tokaji. In a well-made Tokaji this acidity counterbalances the sweetness of the botrytized fruit, making a wine that is round and full without being cloying.
As always, with wine, things are still a little more complex. Tokaji wines have different designations, the most common of which is Aszú. Aszú wines must be made using the traditional method, and must age in barrel for at least 18 months, and in bottle for a further year. Sweetness in Aszú wines is designated by Puttonyos, which used to number between 3 (60g RS/l) and 6 (150g RS/l). In 2013 appellations rules were changed and Aszú wines must now be at least 5 Puttonyos (120g RS/l). The sweetest, and rarest, Tokaji wines are called Eszencia. Eszencia is made from only the juice of botrytized berries that runs off from the vats after they are collected. The sugar content is so high that Eszencia takes four years to ferment on its own. Though expensive and hard to find, it’s also nearly too sweet to drink. Fewer producers are bothering to make it anymore.
The designation that I’ve fallen for, however, is Szamorodni. Szamorodni is rare as well, becoming somewhat anachronistic as producers opt for the bankability of Aszú. Tokaji Szamorodni wine is made from late-harvested grapes, more deeply affected by botrytis. The resulting wines tend to be higher in alcohol and even richer and denser in flavour. Some producers opt to ferment their Szamorodni dry, resulting in something around 15% abv, but gorgeously balanced if handled correctly. Sweet or dry, my experience with Szamorodni has been of somewhat funkier, stranger wines. One recent gem, from Grof Degenfeld, had a chenin-esque waxiness on top of slight funk and dirty fruit. It didn’t feel like a supremely clean wine, but it was exciting, lively, and well balanced.
This is not to suddenly declare my palate shifted towards sweetness. Sugar for sugar’s sake is often miserable, unbalanced, and hangover-inducing. Manischewitz is still on my no-fly list. But rs used judiciously, induced by a natural process resulting in a richness and complexity that supersedes mere sweetness, that is worth celebrating. Tokaji, in its best iterations, does exactly that. Balance, in wine at least, can involve some rs.
Oh and I haven’t even mentioned Tokaji’s dry wines...another time.