For those who have ever found themselves confused about the different types and categories of the wine of Tokaj-Hegyalja, today’s article will definitely come in handy before your potential excursion to the region. In this post, we’ll be going through all the products with increased attention given to the wine specialties, starting from the basics and finishing at eszencia.
What is sweet and what is dry?
The Hungarian wine law precisely defines what may be called dry or sweet on a wine’s label. This is mainly determined by the sugar content and occasionally its relation to the acid levels of the wine. The residual sugar content of a dry wine stays under 4 gram/liter but it’s not always that simple. One can consider a higher sugar wine dry as well (even 9 g/l) but the titratable acid (tartaric, lactic and other organic acids) content must be at or below 2 g/l. If it reaches over the aforementioned attributes but the sugar is under 12 g/l, we consider the wine a semidry one. If the difference between the acid level and sugar content is lower than 10 g/l then even an 18 g/l wine can fit into the semidry category. The semisweet wines contain more than the above but still lower than 45 g/l of sugar. Anything above is considered a sweet wine. The levels are slightly different when it comes to champagne but they won’t be discussed in today’s article.
Tokaj OEM (PDO)
Currently, there are 3 levels in Hungary when it comes to protecting the origins of products. The Tokaj wine region allows the use of six grapes under the legislation of the OEM (protected designation of origin): furmint, hárslevelű, sárga muskotály, kabar, zéta, kövérszőlő. Any other wine made from white or even red types falls under the Upper-Hungarian OFJ (under protection and geographically designated). Anything that falls outside of these two are FN (without geographical designation) wines, although these don’t concern us for the moment, as only the OEM types will be discussed further below.
Szamorodni, máslás and fordítás: dry or sweet?
It’s quite interesting that – traditionally – each wine located and made in Tokaj was able to be made both dry and sweet – even aszú – based on the completion and length of its fermentation process. Nowadays, only szamorodni keeps this ambiguity, although there once used to be dry máslás and fordítás as well. These wines’ dry counterparts have at this point disappeared from official product descriptions, mostly due to an effort in making the region’s spectrum of variety clearer and more organised for the average person.
Dry and sweet szamorodni
Szamorodni therefore may be sweet and dry based on the sugar and acid levels contained within. Both are made via harvesting the unseparated grapes straight from the vine (as the polish word of origin also declares: „as grown”). These clusters contain ripe, overly ripe and aszú berries as well, providing the wine with a highly unpredictable sugar amount. With a shorter fermentation period, the product may stay sweet and a longer process can produce a fine dry wine as well. A unique attribute of dry szamorodni is that, according to a particular tradition, it is fermented in parts, meaning the barrel isn’t filled to the brim, creating a sort of layer of yeast on the surface of the wine inside. This layer gives the wine certain notes like walnut, bread crust, or an oxidized, aldehyde-like taste. Its colour becomes darker, the acid levels turn out to be much more apparent, and the wine usually has a more mature taste spectrum. There are also those who try to avoid this type of fermentation. Another point of view claims that hundreds of years ago, the one-year-old wines – transported in barrels – couldn’t possibly be transported in multiple parts, as the sales were made quickly in the hubs of large trading cities. It often occured that this yeast layer developed in the polish traders’ cellars (due to a plague or famine, lowering the overall sales of wine) and this tradition carried over to Tokaj too, not so different from the process of making the french Jura or the spanish Sherry wines. This wine has a minimum requirement of spending at least 6 months in a wooden barrel. Nowadays – as drier wines without any signs of botrytis are growing more and more popular – the dry szamorodni is much less popular and frequent than its sweet counterpart. Both are to be transferred into half litre, white tokaji bottles. A close sibling of sweet szamorodni is the late harvest, where the requirements are much lighter and forgiving: it can contain aszú berries but can also be made from overly ripe fruit. One may also choose to age it in either wood or steel, which is usually determined by the current year’s quality and the winemaker’s style, as well as the ever-changing market.
Máslás and Fordítás
These are two ancient wine types, as the máslás dates back to 1759 and the fordítás to 1826. Both are the byproducts of aszú, created by the winemakers’ will to save the botrytis berries’ extremely valuable essence and to make the most possible use of them. Fordítás is made by a second soaking (and later pressing) of the previously pressed aszú wine. Máslás is made by adding a new, fresh wine to the marc of an aszú (or rarely szamorodni) wine, and letting it sit and clear over time after multiple stirs. Due to the marc’s properties, the wine gains its sugar, acid and aroma contents, granting the final wine a creamy, buttery texture. According to descriptions, the wine’s name is a reference to this, as the polish masło means ‘butter’.
Similarly to the trends of szamorodni, both máslás and fordítás are made sweet nowadays and are to be bottled into white tokaj bottles.
The world’s greatest naturally sweet wine is a miracle of nature itself: on cool autumn mornings when the mists of the Bodrog and the Tisza fall down onto the barely ripened berries in the valleys of Hegyalja, the thin skins of the grapes are settled by the Botrytis cinerea fungus. This mold penetrates the berries and deprives the fruit of water until it’s completely dry. Once these berries are picked in the correct status of ripening, they can be soaked for a short time in either grape juice, 'murci' (fermenting wine) or wine and then pressed for the result of the finalised aszú. The amount of aszú berries which were soaked – in 136 litres, also known as a ‘gönci’ barrel’s worth, of “base liquid” – was measured in puttony-s, which later indicated the aszú wines 'puttony' number (3-4-5-6).
A puttony is roughly 27 litres. However, as time went on, aszú had begun to be classified by the sugar contents rather than the puttony number. It ranges from 60 g/l natural residual sugar (3 puttony) in 30 g/l jumps all the way to 180 (6 puttony). Nowadays only 5 and 6 puttony aszú exists, meaning the wine must contain a minimum of 120 g/l of sugar. It must also be aged for 18 months in a wooden barrel and it cannot be distributed until at least 3 years have passed since it was harvested, after January 1.
Aszúeszencia vs eszencia
This topic has plenty of confusion around it, since the former doesn’t even exist since 2006. This is mainly due to the (lack of) clarity surrounding aszú, as aszúeszencia was basically every aszú that peaked over 180+ g/l (meaning it cannot be further measured via puttony number). These types of wines are made today as 6 puttony wines, but the different names given to them prove to be inefficient, confusing and superfluous.
The eszencia is something entirely different: it is made from a dripping nectar (concentrated grape juice) which is gathered into a tub during the harvest, containing a minimum of 450 g/l of sugar and ferments all the way down to 1-2% of alcohol. All wines have a restriction of at least 9% alcohol to be brought into distribution – except eszencia, of course.
translated by Áron Várhelyi