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Royal Tokaji: the first decade tasting
09 January 2018
Stephen Brook in Decanter looks back at Royal Tokaji's first decade of wines, and the resurgence of a once-great region following the fall of communism in 1990.

Royal Tokaji wines Royal Tokaji: the first decade tasting

This ‘first decade’ tasting that I attended was a welcome reminder of the revolution, oenological as well as political, that took place in Europe in 1990.

The communist years, when private ownership and winemaking were suppressed, nearly destroyed the Tokaji style, which had to be painstakingly resurrected after its fall.

I was a frequent visitor to the region in the 1980s, and simply assumed that the oxidative and rather heavy style then prevalent was the norm.

Royal Tokaji was one of the very first new companies in Tokaji after the collapse of communism, and the style that it and other new wineries pioneered was not just fresher and more vibrant, but lower in alcohol and higher in residual sugar.

Hungary’s wine authorities fought against this change, but the passage of time has proved the newcomers right – Tokaji aszú since 1990 is far more intense and energetic, and in good vintages is able to age and develop for decades.

Spearheaded by Hugh Johnson, Peter Vinding-Diers, and winemaker István Szepsy, Royal Tokaji sought from the outset to focus on high quality single-vineyard wines, as identified in the 17th-century classification.

The company bought grapes from local growers until 1993. Today, Royal Tokaji farms 112 hectares of its own vineyards.

In spring 2017 the company decided to review all of its old vintages from the 1990s, opening all bottles and rejecting those (about one quarter) that were faulty or oxidised.

The remaining 1,746 were rebottled and recorked in 37.5cl bottles, rather than the traditional 50cl format.

All the wines I tasted were from the first growths of Szent Tamás, Nyulászó, and Betsek.

Ben Howkins, involved here since 2003, admitted: ‘To be honest, we really didn’t know what we were doing in the first few years. The tradition of authentic Tokaji had almost been lost.’

It was therefore gratifying to see how well those early wines have held up.

Royal Tokaji, Gold Label Aszú, 6 Puttonyos 1999 94
Gold Label is a blend of declassified wines from the estate's first growths. The colour looks evolved - a deep coppery brown with an orange rim. The nose is subdued, with aromas of dried fruits, caramelised oranges and honey, yet the palate has remarkable freshness with a good attack, a sleek texture and a bright and intense presence. Assertive, and with striking acidity (14.4 grams), it displays complex flavours of orange sherbet, dried fruits and smoky botrytis. This has drive and pungency, with a very long lemony finish. Drinking Window 2017 – 2028

Royal Tokaji, Nyulászó Aszú, 6 Puttonyos 1996 94
Deep orange-gold. This has a lush but forceful nose with quite evolved aromas of honey, dates, stewed apricots and oranges. There's an assertive attack, with high acidity that provides pungency. It shows delightful poise on the palate, with an almost citric character and dried apricot flavours. This has flesh and weight, but it's also elegant. The nuances and flavours shift repeatedly with aeration, leading towards a long, smoky finish. Drinking Window 2017 – 2025

Royal Tokaji, Betsek Aszú, 6 Puttonyos 1995 92
Very similar in hue to the 1993 Betsek. The nose is opulent, ripe and generous, showing caramel and fig aromas alongside a smoky botrytis fruit character. The palate is sweet but less complex than the nose. The 12 grams of acidity ensure that this is a fiery rather than succulent expression of Aszú: peppery and minty, and gaining in complexity with aeration. Mature but pristine. Drinking Window 2017 – 2025

Royal Tokaji, Betsek Aszú, 6 Puttonyos 1993 94
The first great vintage of the 1990s. Full caramel-gold in colour, with a still powerful nose offering complex aromas of honey, peach syrup, apricots, and crème brûlée. The concentration and richness is impressive, the palate remaining powerful and dense with clear botrytis influence. It may not be that nuanced, but it's imposing and very spicy, with a very long, creamy finish. Very sweet, with 231 grams of residual sugar, which is balanced by 11 grams of acidity. Drinking Window 2017 – 2030

Royal Tokaji, Nyulászó Aszú, 5 Puttonyos 1991 93
Bright orange-caramel in colour, with secondary aromas of honey, caramel and dates, but it's still fresh and lifted. The attack is lean, with high acidity, and the palate is taut and silky. The
wine still shows energy and pungency, although not hugely complex, and there are flavours of caramelised oranges, barley sugar and peach syrup. Very long and exceptionally sweet, with 194 grams of residual sugar. Drinking Window 2017 – 2025

Royal Tokaji, Betsek Aszú, 5 Puttonyos 1990 92
A bright orange-gold colour with a complex nose of smoke, honey, dates and dried apricots. It shows moderate concentration, but the acidity is somewhat jagged and the palate lacks some weight and succulence. A pretty, rather than imposing, wine with a sleek aftertaste of mandarins and barley sugar. It has extract and a surprisingly dry finish, with good length. A great success for such an early stab at authentic Tokaji. Drinking Window 2017 - 2025

Click here to buy Royal Tokaji’s first decade of wines online from Farr Vintners