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Tokaji

A vertical tasting of Royal Tokaji wines was a highlight of the Pebble Beach Food and Wine event.

In the wine industry, there are many once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Tasting a wine for the first time, pulling an old vintage out of the cellar, sitting with winemakers and tasting their wines, every wine experience is unique in its own way. But, from time to time a tasting takes place that takes once in a lifetime to a new level. At Pebble Beach Food and Wine in April, a tasting took place that really was the tasting of a lifetime.

Since Royal Tokaji started in 1990, they have produced only 10 vintages, made only in exceptional years. Our tasting of a lifetime was a complete history of the company through nine of its vintages (sadly, there is no more 1993 left).

Tokaj is a region in northeast Hungary. It was the first vineyard classification in the world in 1700, more than 150 years before the Bordeaux classification of 1855. The wines of Tokaj were consumed by royalty, emperors, popes and czars for more than 300 years.

Following World War I and II, as well as the rise of Communism, the wines were mass produced and the quality diminished. But, in 1990 Royal Tokaji was founded by wine writer Hugh Johnson and a group of investors who were inspired after the fall of Communism to restore and preserve Hungary’s wine legacy.

Royal Tokaji owns 11 of the 22 hectares in Mézes Mály, one of only two vineyards in Tokaj to be designated a First Growth. In fact, Mézes Mály (which means honeycomb) is a Super First Class vineyard, meaning it is for the Royal table only. Mézes Mály is located on a south-facing slope, and the loess topsoil (wind-blown silt) results in wines with honey and floral characteristics. There are three grape varietals used. Furmint is the core of the wine. It is a thin skin grape, making it susceptible to botrytis and has the potential for high-level ripeness and good acidity. The other two varietals are Hárslevelü and Muscat for aromatics.

Tokaji Aszú (meaning dried) wines is painstaking to make, like Champagne, Madeira, Port and Sherry. The berries require humidity, heat, wind and rain to create botrytis, which concentrates the sugars and acidity, creating new flavors. The berries are picked individually and only the best berries are desired (one man will pick only 22 pounds per day). In fact, to make 1 kilogram of Aszú berries can take up to 5 kilogram of healthy grapes.

The Aszú berries are macerated with the base wine for 48 hours. The ratio of base wine to Aszú berries dictates the level of sweetness. This blend is placed in old oak casks to ferment for 3-6 months. The wines are then aged for a minimum of two years before final blending and bottling.

Aszú wines can range from 1 Puttonyos to 6 Puttonyos. Traditionally, this indicated the number of Puttonyos (20 kilograms) of Aszú berries added to each 140-kilogram cask of base wine (or Gonci). Today the final classification is based on technical analysis of sugar levels. Royal Tokaji only produces 5 Puttonyos (120-150 grams of sugar per liter) and 6 Puttonyos (150-180 grams of sugar per liter) wines, as controlled by legislation. The wines from Mézes Mály are 6 Puttonyos.

Royal Tokaji wines are not dessert wines. They are sensory experiences to be enjoyed with foie gras or cigars. As we tasted through the nine vintages, it was an unforgettable experience. The wines developed in the glasses resulting in extraordinary aromas. And, no matter how old the wine is, while the sugar seems to have decreased, the acidity has increased.

1995 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 36 months in old Hungarian oak

Production: 500 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 11 percent

Total Acidity: 12 g/L

Residual Sugar: 152 g/L

The 1995 has nutty (almond) aromas and tasted like melted brown sugar. It has linear acidity, a long finish and amazing sapidity.

— 1996 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 3.5 years in old Hungarian oak

Production: 350 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 9.5 percent

Total Acidity: 10.5 g/L

Residual Sugar: 185 g/L

The 1996 has smoky, iodine notes, as well as tarragon. There was an almost chewy, meaty quality about it. It is a wine you can almost see and feel and the flavor is like long gentle waves.

— 1999 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 5.5 years in old Hungarian oak

Production: 645 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 9 percent

Total Acidity: 12.9 g/L

Residual Sugar: 235 g/L

1999 was a vintage with the most botrytis. It has aromas of golden raisins and nougat. It is a full mouthwatering wine, almost creamy, with gentle acidity, like a little bright light sparkling in the distance.

— 2000 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 5.5 years in old Hungarian oak

Production: 199 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 9 percent

Total Acidity: 11.5 g/L

Residual Sugar: 215 g/L

2000 was a vintage with the least botrytis. The wine was like light brown sugar with honey and more mineral notes.

— 2003 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 3.5 years in old Hungarian oak

Production: 300 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 8.5 percent

Total Acidity: 11.3 g/L

Residual Sugar: 232 g/L

Similar to the 2000, the 2003 is creamy with notes of caramel and a burst of acid.

— 2005 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü

Barrel Aging: 30 months in old Hungarian oak

Production: 308 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 9 percent

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Total Acidity: 11.5 g/L

Residual Sugar: 200 g/L

The 2005 was leaner on the nose with intense smoky and almost pine-like notes.

— 2007 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 30 months in old Hungarian oak

Production: 425 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 10.5 percent

Total Acidity: 8.2 g/L

Residual Sugar: 221 g/L

The 2007 has aromas of dry tea leaves and honey. It is sweeter and the acidity is not as pronounced or assertive, resulting in a creamy, fruiter, richer wine.

— 2008 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü, Muscat

Barrel Aging: 24 months in old Hungarian oak

Production: 196 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 9.5 percent

Total Acidity: 10.1 g/L

Residual Sugar: 213 g/L

The 2008 vintage is a voluptuous wine with notes of chocolate cacao. This wine has great acidity and great aging potential.

— 2009 Vintage

Varietal Composition: Furmint, Hárslevelü

Barrel Aging: 30 months in old Hungarian oak

Production: 397 cases (6/500ml)

Alcohol: 9.5 percent

Total Acidity: 8.3 g/L

Residual Sugar: 220 g/L

The 2009 is still a baby and is very youthful and playful. It is bright and fresh and the fruit notes really shine through.

A tasting of Royal Tokaji like this had never been done before, and with the small quantities of wine produced this exact tasting may never be done again. Currently, 2013 is in barrel and will be the next vintage on the market. Perhaps there will be another of Royal Tokaji at some time in the future but it will be its own unique tasting of a lifetime. One can always dream.

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