Tokaji Wine Review: Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2005 & 2006

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

Royal Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2005 and 2006

I first wrote about the Royal Tokaji wine company about a year ago, when I reviewed the very precious 1999 Essencia. For more information, the first half of the video below, presented by owner Hugh Johnson, gives a good overview of Tokaj, the region, and Tokaji, the wine. My favorite moment: the capitalist saviors rescuing wild, communist Hungary from its oenologic mediocrity in their big 4WD. The second half of the video is essentially a commercial for Royal Tokaji.

The two Royal Tokaji aszú 5 puttonyos wines that I’m reviewing today have had the rare honor of being featured in the Wine Spectator Top 100 for two consecutive years.

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Tokaji Wine Review: Hétszőlő Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2000

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

Tokaji Wine - Hétszőlő Aszú 5 Puttonyos 2000If you visit Tokaj, it’s hard to miss Hétszőlő: they own the historic Rákóczi cellar right on the main square, next to the church. The Tokaj-Hétszőlő Estate currently consists of this 15th century cellar, the vineyard on the south slope of Mount Tokaj, and the 18th century Château Rakoczi-Dessewffy, a former Treasury and Customs House, now used as winery offices. The Hétszőlő vineyard has had a long list of owners over the centuries. Here’s more from their site:

The Garai family simply selected the best 7 parcels of the land in the region, hence the name – Hét Szőlő means “7 parcels of vineyard” in Hungarian. There then followed a series of prestigious owners, including Gaspar Karoli, translator of the Bible into Hungarian, Gabor Bethlen, prince of Transylvania, then the Princes Rakoczi, a grand aristocratic family. The Habsburg royal family finally took possession of the vineyard and Tokaj-Hétszőlő became an Imperial Estate in 1711. It was to remain the property of the Austro-Hungarian Crown against all odds for almost two centuries.

Following a turbulent 20th Century, the prestigious Tokaj-Hétszolo Estate became one of the Michel Reybier [Luxury Hotels and] vineyards in 2009.

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Tokaji-Cured Lake Trout and Mozzarella-Potato Pancakes

About two years ago, I posted a recipe for vodka-cured lake trout. Since I once again find myself with a profusion of trout — this time from Lake Ontario — I wanted to try a different kind of alcohol cure. (Incidentally, it’s quite interesting to compare the bright orange color of the Ontario fish to the pale pink-beige shade of the trout from Keuka Lake.)

Unlike the vodka cure, Hungarian Tokaji wine brings some subtle fruity notes to the fish. I’m not using just any Tokaji table wine, but an Aszú 4 puttonyos to get the right amount of sugar. However, I highly doubt that anyone would taste the result and exclaim, “Wow, this trout really tastes like Tokaji!” So to make this more than a gimmick, I serve it with small cubes of Tokaji jelly — and wow, these cubes really taste like Tokaji!

Eastern European Cuisine - Tokaji-Cured Lake Trout and Mozzarella-Potato Pancakes

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Tokaji Wine Review: Royal Tokaji Essencia 1999

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

Tokaji Wine - Royal Tokaji Essencia 1999

Located in Mád (only a few hundred feet from Úri BorokRoyal Tokaji has played an important role in Tokaj’s recent history. As its web site mentions, it was “the first foreign company established in the Tokaji wine region in 1990″. Its co-founder Hugh Johnson, who modestly calls himself “the world’s best known wine writer”, is just as modestly immortalized with a bronze bust in the courtyard of the winery, a former Diocesan Bishop’s residence. Still according to the web site, “following this leap of faith, others followed and the renaissance of Tokaji began”. Of course, considering Tokaj’s centuries-old reputation and the rush of foreign investments throughout Eastern Europe in the early nineties, one could argue this was really just a small leap.

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Tokaji Wine Review: Disznókő Tokaji Aszú 4 And 6 Puttonyos 2000

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

Tokaj - Disznókő Winery

Disznókő is a winery located on the road between Tokaj and Szerencs. It’s usually the first landmark winery that visitors to the region will pass, if driving here from Budapest. The name means “boar stone” in Hungarian, and here’s the story behind the name of the winery, from their website:

The hill behind the Yellow Wine House, where there are still stake supported vines on the secular terraces, is the heart of the Disznókő vineyard. Reaching the top of the hill we can see a small white pavilion, the belvedere. The Lónyai family had it built in the 18thcentury and meant it to be a lookout tower. There is the famous stone called Disznókő beside it. A giant rock that looks as if it had come from the sky. According to the local people’s stories the shape of the rock reminded of a wild boar some time in the past. The slope and the estate were named after this rock.

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Tokaji Wine Review: Árvay Hétfürtös Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 1999

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

 Arvay Hétfürtös Tokaji Aszu 6 puttonyos 1999

János Árvay is a heavyweight in the Tokaj region. After working for the state wine company during communism, then for Disznókő after privatization, he started his own winery and was named Tokaj’s Winemaker of the Year in 2000 and Hungary’s Winemaker of the Year in 2003. Of course, with two exceptional vintages in 1999 and 2000, this wasn’t a bad time to make a name for oneself.

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Tokaji Wine Review: Tokaj Classic Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2000

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

Hungary - Tokaji Wine - Tokaj Classic
Tokaj Classic Winery is located in the village of Mád, in the heart of the wine-producing region, and owns parcels in the Király, Betsek, and Juharos vineyards. It is the second of two wineries founded by three musicians from the Hessen State Theatre in Wiesbaden, Germany. According to their website, the prodigal Hungarian András Bruhács got together with his two German colleagues and refurbished the generations-old Bruhács family winery in Pécs, a wine-growing region in a different part of the country. They dubbed it Villa Makár, after the nearby mountain. Since they were already doing that anyway, it would seem, they also decided to plant their flag in Tokaj-Hegyalja. This was in the early 1990′s during privatization, when it was much easier for outsiders to buy up historic land than it would be today. (Check out the picture of the owners in tuxedos brandishing bottles of Tokaji on their Facebook page!)

Hungary - Tokaji Wine - Tokaj Classic

When we visited back in 2007, I believe the winery was open for tastings by appointment only. We had managed to arrange a visit, and were greeted by Imre Galambosi, the chief winemaker and former mayor of Mád, on a quiet morning just after Christmas. To this day, I clearly remember the moment after the very interesting tour when he basically told us we could try any of the wines in the barrels in front of us, like kids let loose in a chocolate factory! (At the time, the Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2006 had promised to be excellent. As it should hit the market pretty soon, I’m curious to see how it turned out.)

Hungary - Tokaji Wine - Tokaj Classic

Meanwhile, the Tokaj Classic Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2000, available on the US market, received a score of 96 in the Wine Spectator and a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 2004. Its medium amber color is darker than many other aszús of the same vintage. The nose reveals apricot and tropical fruit (guava maybe?), and the palate confirms this impression, with extra notes of caramel and tangerine. This is definitely a very good wine, but not as rich as some of its peers — if I was paid to split a hair one hundred ways, I would probably give it slightly less than 96.

Hungary - Tokaji Wine - Tokaj Classic

At the very least, it seriously makes me look forward to trying that 2006 bottling…

Tokaji Wine Review: Királyudvar Tokaji Pezsgő Henye 2007

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

I’ve already introduced the Királyudvar winery in a recent post. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they’ve started making sparkling wine, and that it’s available, albeit with limited distribution, on the U.S. market. After a field trip to PJ Wine in Inwood, I became the proud owner of a bottle of 2007 pezsgő (sparkler in Hungarian).

Back in the communist days, sparkling wine, like many other things, was an affair of dubious quality. Sure, it was regularly decided to increase production at a frantic pace to give the masses the appearance of a happy, festive life, but wine-growing and fabrication methods weren’t much of a concern. The only producer in Hungary was Törley, and their production reached 30 million bottles annually by the end of the 1980s — not bad for a country with 10 million inhabitants. For those with a very, very sweet tooth, Törley’s offerings included a sweet Tokaji sparkler. (As a matter of fact, they still do, and it’s even imported in the U.S.! I’m tempted to buy a bottle for old times’ sake, and to write about it.)

Nowadays, a handful of producers have realized that making a sparkling Tokaji isn’t necessarily a bad idea, and that it doesn’t have to be attrociously sweet. Királyudvar’s Tokaji Pezsgő 2007 was the first sparkling wine produced by the winery, and it’s definitely dry. The grapes, a blend of furmint and harslevelű, come exclusively from the Henye vineyard.

The tasting revealed none of the orange blossom and apple aromas mentioned on Királyudvar’s web site. This wine has evolved quite a bit, and I find lemon and a hint of grapefruit on both the nose and the palate. This is a pleasant wine, without being as outstanding as the winery’s aszú bottlings. And at around $25 a bottle, I consider it a viable alternative to champagne — it’s certainly better than the Spanish, Italian, or German sparkling wines I’ve tried, and I’ll keep my rant about Champagne-champagne for another time.

Henye vineyard, photo © Királyudvar

Tokaji Wine Review: Úri Borok Eszencia 2006

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

First of all, Tokaji Eszencia is a very peculiar kind of wine. In fact, it’s hardly a wine at all, since its sugar level is so high that it greatly impairs fermentation — a  high-alcohol eszencia barely rises to 5-6%, and only after several years. This sweet nectar is simply the juice of botrytized (aszú) berries that runs off from the vats in which they are collected. Its sugar concentration exceeds 500 grams per liter, which makes it difficult to drink in large amounts, as it coats your throat with the same intense sensation you feel when drinking, say, syrup (if you happen to drink maple syrup). It’s unfortunately not visible in photos, but it also looks quite viscous in the glass.

I talked about Úri Borok in one of my recent posts. Vince Gergely’s Eszencia 2006 is rather extreme. For a start, it didn’t ferment at all! The very artisanal label, which was filled out and glued on by hand in front of me, reads 0% alcohol. Then, it was so sweet that some of it crystallized inside the bottle. Depending on whether you’re a bottle-half-empty or bottle-half-full person, you could say I got ripped off for paying full price for half the expected liquid content, or you could see an opportunity. Forget Serendipity 3′s $1000 Golden Opulence Sundae, which any moron could replicate for a fraction of the price, imagine the possibilities of the crystallized Tokaji Eszencia dessert! Not only have I never seen any other crystallized Eszencia, I’m also pretty sure this one is sold out. Of course, you could cheat and use an evaporator, but you would still end up with the most exclusive dessert in the world (“exclusive” being a sanctimonious way to say crazy expensive).

As for the tasting impressions, the lack of alcohol makes the nose very intense, with aromas of apricot preserves and sultanas. The taste is just as strong, and it’s a good idea to take a very little sip and let it roll around in your mouth with some saliva, perhaps while contemplating that $10,000 dessert you could make with the (literally) residual sugar.

A shot from one of my trips to the caves at Úri Borok

Tokaji Wine Review: Királyudvar Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2000

During numerous trips to the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, I’ve had the opportunity to taste hundreds of Tokaji dessert wines, and I’ve managed to build a small personal collection. With no great claim to being a sommelier, I will share with you my impressions about the wines, and stories about the people who make them.

Királyudvar, which means the king’s court in Hungarian, is probably the most renowned of all Tokaji producers. The reason is simple: it makes some of the very best wines and exports to North America, Europe, and Asia.  Located in a 16th century wine-press house in the village of Tarcal, the winery was founded in 1997 and owns parcels in the Lapis, Henye, Percze, Becsek, Danczka, and Nyulászó vineyards. Until 2008, the wines were produced by István Szepsy.

I read on their web site that the winery is now open to the public for tastings, and this is great news. Back in 2004 when we visited, things were a bit more complicated. Only professional visits were accepted. We were tipped off that a group had an appointment the next morning, and that Szepsy, being a sympathetic man, would probably not turn down a couple of enthusiastic tourists looking to tag along. This also meant that we had the grand tasting, a 2-3 hour affair from the dry Furmints to the super-sweet Aszú Eszencia — just count the bottles in the picture below! To this day, this remains one of the greatest tastings I’ve ever had.

Made up of 70% Furmint and 30% Hárslevelű, the Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2000, we are told, “has a classic Tokaji nose”, and I couldn’t agree more. The golden amber wine smells of caramel and mixed tropical fruits, mostly pineapple and mango. The day after opening, the nose develops into more caramel, with apricot preserves replacing some of the tropical fruits. A perfect example of the outstanding 2000 vintage.