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Jancis Robinson on Royal Tokaji's 2008's
12 June 2014
by Jancis Robinson

Jancis Robinson Royal Tokaji BetsekJancis Robinson Royal Tokaji Betsek
One of the most obvious recent developments in meteorology has been that weather has become more extreme. There are more of those natural phenomena known, rather strangely to me, as 'weather events'. European weather has been particularly topsy turvy in recent years, as we have seen from the character of recent vintages.

In Hungary's most famous wine region Tokaji, there has not been a really decent vintage for its unparalleled botrytised Aszu 6-puttonyos supersweet wines since 2008, which is why those who appreciate these wines' extraordinary ability to combine extreme sweetness with heart-stopping acidity, relatively low alcohol, massive longevity and the tang of dried apricots may be interested in the recent release by the Royal Tokaji Wine Company of their 2008 single-vineyard bottlings, available in wooden six bottle cases for the first time.

István Turóczi, Royal Tokaji's managing director, pictured here in Mád with a bottle of dry Furmint, made these comments about the 2008 growing season: 'A very mild winter was followed by a rainy spring and early summer. August was hot and dry while a cool wet September delayed ripening. A lovely long Indian summer from the beginning of October turned a good vintage into a great one. This wonderful weather provided perfect conditions for the developing Aszú berries on the Furmint, Hárslevelü and Yellow Muscat vines.'

The raisined berries from each individual vineyard were macerated with dry base wines for up to 48 hours and then transferred to old Hungarian oak barrels for fermentation and ageing. After two years in barrel, the best were selected for blending and bottling as Single Vineyard Aszú wines.

But in 2009, apparently, there was very good dry Furmint, the new calling card of the Tokaji wine region, and some good late-harvest, non-botrytised wine. Everything was perfect up to 12 October but then it rained solidly for 50 days and all hopes of a great vintage for noble rot were dashed. The 2010†season was cold and rainy and it has been described as one of the worst vintages ever for Tokaj. In 2011 the summer was extremely hot and dry, which did nothing to help the spread of botrytis, and was not especially propitious for Furmint grapes, which don't like heat. In 2012 even the nights were hot and midges plagued the vines to the extent that there was vinegar in the vineyards. Apparently 2013 was the best year since 2008, with high sugar levels but less botrytis than 2008. So 2013 will not yield anything like the plenty represented by the collection of 2008s described below.

Having tasted the full range of Royal Tokaji's 2008s, I can thoroughly recommend them. They are currently being offered by Farr Vintners of London and Hong Kong here at between £90 in bond per case of six Gold Label, the 'basic' blend, and £335 for six of the traditional half-litre bottles of Mézes Mály, described as 'the Lafite of Tokaj' by the cofounder of the company, wine writer Hugh Johnson.

As you can see below, the vineyard that spoke to me most loudly when I tasted them at this early stage was the Nyulászo, but they are all admirable and admirably different. Quantities are tiny, with the single-vineyard bottlings running to just over 1,600 half-litres of the Mézes Mály to 4,600 of the Betsek. The only way to acquire the Birsalmás single-vineyard bottling (just 1,056 half-litres filled) is as one of six bottles in the special red lacquered box of each of the five single-vineyard bottlings plus the Gold Label for £320 (the equivalent of £80 per 75 cl bottle but Tokaji is so concentrated that each mouthful lasts an age). This apparently works out at £411.84 including duty, VAT and UK delivery.

(I can thoroughly recommend the Mézes Mály Dry Furmint 2010, incidentally, although I don't think it has been released yet. Half barrel-fermented, it is the product of a particularly short vintage and is admirably tense and youthful.)

These wines have always been famous for their exceptionally long life except for during the Soviet period when standards slipped in a big way but since the turn of the millennium, Royal Tokaji's winemaking and winery have been upgraded so as to ensure an even longer life for these wines. Minimum residual sugar and dry extract levels for any 6-puttonyos Tokaji is 140 g/l and 40 g/l respectively.

István Turóczi also reported that three new grape varieties were permitted in the Tokaji region, in addition to the traditional Furmint, Hárslevelü and Yellow Muscat (Sárga Muskotály), of which Zeta and Kabar are being planted quite enthusiastically. 'The problem with them though is that their Bouvier character can be too pronounced unless they are very ripe, in which case the acidity can be a bit too low.'

These single-vineyard 2008s are being offered in the US by Artisan Wine Depot of Mountain View, California. Just the job for Google execs perhaps?

Wines are listed in the order they were shown in a launch tasting in London at the end of April.

Royal Tokaji, Gold Label Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 Tokaj 17 Drink 2014-2034
Estate blend. Blend of 'the rest': all but Birsalmás. 206 cases from 1 ha is apparently big production! 910.5 g/l TA. RS 160 g/l.
Masses of dried apricots, chenille piano throws and wonderful pure acidity. Very clean and bracing. Quite marked volatile acidity. Seems perhaps just a little clumsy when
tasted after the Birsalmás...

Royal Tokaji, Birsalmás Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 Tokaj 18 Drink 201-42030
Means quince orchard. This is the only second class site among their single vineyards. The smallest is 12 ha, of which they own 0.5 ha. They need to buy in some berries because their 0.5 ha is mainly planted with Hárslevelű. In 2008 there was much more aszú in the north than the south. Mix of red volcanic and loess soils. 1184 bottles. Greenish hue. Very lively. Elegance the key. Almost flyaway even compared with the Gold label. Masses of acidity and lightness.

Royal Tokaji, Nyulázso Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 Tokaj 18.5 Drink 2016-2036
This means hare/rabbit hunting land. Red volcanic soil and clay leads to great complexity and general robustness. They had thought this site would have the least terroir. RS 161g/l provided a completely different character. 53 ha of which they have 17 ha. Half of that was replanted in 2001, some later. Many of the eastern slopes had new Hungarian vine crosses which are not suitable for Tokaj. Two-thirds Furmint and one-third Kabar vines planted. Kabar is relatively low acid. Elegant. Very subtle, rather Alsace-like nose with a touch of smokiness. Subtle and racy. Lots to chew on. Quite savoury. Could almost drink with something meaty! Long and very refreshing. Not really particularly obviously sweet. Very smart indeed.

Royal Tokaji, Betsek Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 Tokaj 18 Drink 2017-2035
Betsek is an old Hungarian noble family name. The largest first growth in Tokaj, 93 ha of which they have 15 ha. Mainly black volcanic clay with some red. Other sites are on a single hill but this is 3 smaller hills, at 140190m elevation, opposite the south face of Kiraly (royal) vineyard. Usually as high acid as Szt Tamas but different structure. Acid usually harsh acid not in 2008 when it's positively peachy. Great minerality and spiciness. Greenish copper colour. Nutty, broad and rich and smooth. Can see the black pepper as a top note. Acid at the very end only.

Royal Tokaji, Mézes Mály Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 Tokaj 18.5 Drink 2014-2034
This means honeycomb. Hugh has a little house in the middle of the vineyards that the locals call Fort Johnson. The house didn't exist on the map and the guy who sold it wasn't the owner it was owned by the state in fact all very complicated. Lovely terrace view. Loess soil only, which generally yields softer grapes and an earlier harvest. The only site outside Mád. Just 19 ha of which they have 11.3 ha. SSW facing. Round and charming. Easy to see the honey element. Very fresh. Hugh's favourite. Broad and round, even almost syrupy in texture. Lightly floral and with great smoothness and relatively low acid.

Royal Tokaji, Szt Tamás Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 Tokaj 19 Drink 2015-2040
Saint Thomas. 54 ha in Mád of which they have 12.2 ha. Red volcanic topsoil, one of very few terroirs which have subsoil. Is one of the few sites which can make very good dry as well as sweet wines. They have vineyards on west and southeast facing slopes, mostly west facing, which were owned by Jesuits. Amazingly tense and exciting. Dense. Sings and reverberates. Real finesse.
Find out more about the complete range of Royal Tokaji wines