Tokaj is a special wine region from several aspects. Unique areas, local grape varieties, particular wine categories and of course, a rich history. One thing that separates it from any other region in the world is the fact that every single year shows us just how different they can be in terms of the qualities and characteristics of the wine produced here. A favourite endeavour of everyday wine manners is the so-called „vintaging”, where the worldy and less informed consumers can’t always orient themselves easily, especially with so many years to consider. Fear not, this article will answer some questions like: what makes a year good or bad? What were the best years of the past decade? Is it worth to save these wines for my kid’s 18th birthday or not?
What makes a year good, then?
In most regions of the world it’s the main winetypes that define if that particular year will end up to be notable or not. It can be easily said that the classic, dry wine regions enjoy warm but not too hot years (the phenomenon of climate change has impacted this aspect quite a bit, especially since the early 2000s), with the precipitation spreading ideally and/or especially during the first half of the growing season (sprouting, blooming, ripening). And then there are those years where diseases (downy mildew, powdery mildew, rot) are more common, while the less humid or damp years aren’t usually bothered by these infections.
A nice harvest weather is paramount. This isn’t only important for the organization of the work that needs to be done, but the must degree of a berry can change in a matter of days or even hours, and this applies to the acid contents as well. The optimal timing of the harvest is the most important changing factor in terms of the quality of a finished wine. Especially regarding dry wines, a warm year provides us with more full-bodied wines with higher alcohol levels thanks to a general increase in sugar degree, often with noticable amounts of residual sugar (if the fermentation stops). Opposed to a warm year, a cool, rainy one can grant us wines with much more defined acid levels.
Tokaj is a bit different (in this too)…
The Foothills isn’t only home to its dry specialties – it’s also the region of sweet delicacies, where the presence of noble rot defines the qualities of the wines in the given year. The prerequisites for this are well or overly ripened grape produce and the damp, humid autumn mornings. In terms of the generally damp environment and of the large presence of botrytis, the correct dispersion of rainfall is extremely important. Rainy weather has to consistently swap around with sunny and warm days in order for us to make high quality szamorodni or even aszú wine – therefore, they are the only wine types in the world to require both rain and sunshine. Generally, the Tokaj region enjoys around 3 great vintages every decade (in the 90s, these were 1993, 1999, 2000, then 2003, 2006, 2007 and the latest decade would probably show a bit more tendency to change thanks to climate change)
Which year was good in Tokaj?
It’s important to note that, going back multiple hunders of years, there exist several vintage ratings on the region. With all that said, the wine types and shifts of trends means that a recent 5-star rated year is much different than that of a similar year in, let’s say, the 60s. The national wine combine defined the years by a quantified standpoint: there must be as much aszú as can be produced (in all sorts of puttony numbers), there has to be a lot of szamorodni, and the dry wines without botrytis never became popular until the year 2000. This leads up to our current two aspects, based upon which we can try to determine the quality of current vintages (especially regarding younger wines): it’s possible that a dry year is perfect for a dry wine, but simply not enough for an aszú and vice versa, if the noble rots hits the grape a bit too early due to the weather conditions.
In this text we won’t go over the years before the regime change, but rather do our best to showcase the past three decades with their most striking lessons, recommendations and what to look for all the way from the 90s up to this day - with a bit of additional label history, and painting the years red to indicate which ones yielded aszú wine here at Hímesudvar.
2020* - a difficult year with a large amount of rain, disease, not truly favouing any wine type, although, with the correct selection and proper harvest timing, the base wines could be made at a high quality.
2019**** - this one favoured several wine types, a warm year overall. Its dry wines already prove that it’s an exciting year and multiple (mostly larger) vineyards enjoyed a promising aszú harvest as well, with plenty of botrytised berries to collect.
2018*** - an extremely hot, early year with a never-ending summer throughout Europe. As a result, a less ideal year for aszú and the dry wines are less about the acids, being highly enjoyable when fresh.
2017***** - a beautiful year regarding all types. The dry wines are starting to really grow turn into their greatest forms and the aszú wines aren’t even in distribution. It’s worth to keep an eye on these!
2016*** - a mild year, botrytis came early, so a heavy amount of selection was needed for the dry items. Thanks to a large amount of rainfall during the autumn season, this is quite the limited vintage, as the few aszú that was made during it is showing fantastic levels of acidity.
2015**** - a warm year, which generally favoured the botrytis devoid, full-bodied dry wines. Very few aszú was made throughout the entire region.
2014* - once again an extremely rainy, disease-heavy year with a lot of selection, a bit of nice aszú but a lot of wines showed fast paces of aging (1-2 great aszú products).
2013***** - a great year with a warm fall, fine dry wines and then very intensified aszú presence which gave us rich, deep and thick sweet wines (with relatively low acidity).
2012*** - hot (stacking on top of 2011), a year full of drought, providing quite full-bodied, acid poor dry wines.
2011**** - similarly to the previous one, very warm, dry year but the 2010 rainfalls filled the land with water, so the grapes didn’t suffer as much. 2011**** bore high quality, although only a few, larger wineries could produce good aszú during this one.
2010* - lots of rainfall, infections, lots of selection needed. While it’s difficult to find the dry ones, a lot of great aszú were produced during this one.
2009**** - warm year, once again proving to be exciting across all dry wines, while the aszú wasn’t that favoured at all. Low acid levels all around.
2008***** - the year of acidity with fantastic, long lasting dry wines, then beautiful aszú presence allowing us to make wines with fresh acids and durable structure.
2007***** - extremely warm, quick ripening, with a massive noble rot presence during the shrivelling season: creamy, plump, thick wines in every category. A year to remember.
2006***** - one of the most well-balanced vintages of all. Moderate weather conditions, warm autumn, lengthy ripening period with great dry wines and harmonic aszú wines.
2005* - flood-like rainfall, moderate or maybe even a cooler year overall. It was a true search for dry wines during this one, but provided us with some exciting aszú wines.
2004** - rainy, cold vintage, failing to provide a lot of quality in the dry category. There are some sweet ones to be found from this year, however.
2003**** - one of the decade’s most memorable, warm vintages: there were some milestones to be made in terms of dry wines, and this year gifted us with some plump, rich aszú wines.
2002*** - not that outstanding in the dry category, but there are some notable, perfectly acidic, long lasting aszú items from this one. Required a lot of selection due to the harvest rainfall.
2001* - a difficult, rainy, cold year. Most categories enjoyed a weak quality during this vintage.
2000***** - a classic, warm, dry vintage. Several of the first few game-changing dry wines in the region, and then the creamy, complex, great aszú wines – which are making their way to the top nowadays – were produced during this year.
1999***** - one of the classic vintages of Tokaj’s modern era. Fantastic aszú items, high acidity, the sweet wines from there still feel fresh and young (the first cuvée blends and late harvest wines are created as well).
1998* - a mild one, with lots of rainfall and a lot of rot. Weak aszú harvest, with few exciting wines overall.
1997** - a late, cool year with a delayed ripening. Only the luckiest winemakers could harvest a good aszú yield, with relatively nice acidity.
1996*** - a milder summer, delayed harvest, late ripening. That said, several time-enduring aszú was made, where they selected according to the quality (an aszú year diving the old and the new styles).
1995*** - a warm summer full of drought, a long indian summer. A fine year, but overall a small amount of aszú.
1994* - cool, mild year, with insufficient aszú quality.
1993***** - the first great year after the regime change. Complex, fruity, long-lasting aszú wines were made then, which live up to their name to this day in their bottles.
A few great vintages are still remembered before the regime change: for collectionists, 1956 or 1972 are considered great treasures. The year of the comet, 1811 throughout Europe, therefore in Tokaj as well, is an important vintage. This was the first year where a large amount of bottled aszú wines survived several years and for posterity’s sake (even the world famous Christie’s Auction House met some of these wines). The first well-known, great year in the Tokaj Foothills was 1524. Well, if anyone has a wine from this vintage, make sure you let our editors know…!
translated by Mara Várhelyi
Discounted pre-orders for a limited batch of our newest aszú wine are available now until December 10-12. This one was 100% produced from the Zéta grape variety.
Expect more details in the next newletter.