Tokaji

Tokaj (formerly Tokaj-Hegyalja) has long been Hungary's most famous and respected wine region, thanks mostly to its nectar-like, botrytised Tokaji dessert wines. The region and its wine are held in such esteem in Hungary that the Hungarian national anthem thanks God that Tokaj szőlővesszein nektárt csepegtettél ("into the vineyards of Tokaj you dripped sweet nectar").

The ham-shaped region is located in the northeast of Hungary, near the border with Slovakia. Comprising roughly 30 small towns and villages, it measures 25 miles (40km) from southwest to northeast, making it roughly the same size as Burgundy's Cote d'Or. At its very southern edge is the town of Tokaj from which the region and its wines ultimate take their name. The main centers of Tokaji wine production are the towns of Mád, Tarcal and Tokaj itself.

Tokaj's climate is relatively warm, protected as it is by the vast crescent-shaped mountain range (the Carpathians) which dominates neighbouring Slovakia and Romania. The region's soils are a patchwork of various types. Volcanic clays are to be found in the higher sites on the many hillsides here, and on lower-lying sites layers of loess and other sedimentary soils cover the bedrock. Closer to the banks of the Bodrog, the river which flows along the region's eastern edge, sandier soils prevail, particularly around Tokaj town.

The grape varieties used to make Tokaji wines are Furmint, Hárslevelű and Sárga Muskotály (Muscat Blanc), in that order of importance. Furmint, which dominates the Tokaji blend, is renowned for its naturally high acidity, high sugar levels and spicy aromatic profile. The first two of these characteristics are responsible for the wine's phenomenal ageing potential, while the latter provides a flavour distinct from any other sweet wine.

The aszú (botrytised) wines for which Tokaj is known are made from grapes affected by benevolent Botrytis cinerea fungus. This beneficial fungus dehydrates the grape berries, concentrating their sugars and leaving a trademark honeysuckle aroma in the wine.

The sweetness of Tokaji aszú wines is indicated in "puttonyos". A puttonyo is a large basket used for harvesting grapes; the number of puttonyos of aszú grapes added to a 136 litre barrel of base wine was a traditional measure of the wines' sweetness. In modern times this has been transposed into a more precise system based on grams per litre of residual sugar. Three puttonyos indicates 25g/l - the lowest sugar content and thus the least sweet of the aszú wine styles. Each additional puttonyo thereafter indicates an increase of 5g/l of residual sugar. Eszencia is the very sweetest aszú style. With around 800 g/l of residual sugar, it is so sweet, and so low in alcohol (about 5 percent ABV) that it hardly qualifies as wine at all. It is the undiluted, barely fermented juice of botrytised berries. Unsurprisingly, Eszencia is one of the rarest and most expensive wines on earth.

The non-aszú Tokaji wines receive less attention than their sweeter brothers. These szamorodni wines are those made without any additions of pure aszú berries (szamorodni means literally "as it was grown"), although the grapes may well have been harvested with a certain amount of naturally-occurring botrytis. Even within the szamorodni style there are several sweetness levels, from dry száraz to sweet édes. The typical szamorodni wine has a sweetness comparable to an aszú of 2 or 3 puttonyos. Most of these wines are matured for a couple of years, and have a gently oxidised, sherry-like character.

Dry Tokaji wines are increasingly popular in the 21st century, in line with international consumer demand. These can be divided roughly into two categories: fresh, steel-fermented wines best drunk within a few years of harvest, and ageworthy, cask-matured wines. While the former category is often made using a proportion of botrytised grapes, the latter is not; botrytis flavours do not sit well in these relatively serious styles. Typically the wines are labelled with the name of the grape variety from which the wine is made (most often Furmint).

The annual Tokaj grape harvest is a long, drawn-out affair, with multiple stages. The first grapes picked, in September, are those destined for the region's increasingly popular dry wines. The much-prized aszú (dried) grapes are not harvested for several weeks after this, and sometimes remain on the vine right into November.

There have long been various legal disputes over the use of the name Tokaj, particularly since 1990, when Hungary imposed strict conditions around the production of its wines. In 2007, Tokaj became a protected name, which only authorised wine-producers from Tokaj-Hegyalja could use. This EU ruling was made despite vociferous protests from Alsace, where Tokay had long been used as a synonym for Pinot Gris, and from Friuli, where the prefix Tocai was traditionally given to the Friulano variety.
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