Royal Tokaji
Royal Tokaji
In The Media
Let's hear it for Tokaji
14 November 2019
The Field
May 2018
2014 Royal Tokaji "The Oddity" Dry Furmint & 2013 Royal Tokaji Blue Label 5 Puttonyos
Jonathan Ray

Jonathan Ray celebrates the current quality crop of Hungarian wines. The central European country famed for Bull's Blood in the '70s is enjoying a spectacular renaissance.

2014 Royal Tokaji "The Oddity" Dry Furmint
Really tasty bone-dry white with scrumptious creamy finish
£11 Corney & Barrow

2013 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos
Sheer class: sumptiously sweet but with a keen acidity
£22 per 50cl if you mix six, Majestic

I guess Hungary ain't the first country one considers when thinking of fine wine. The only vino that probably springs to mind is Bull's Blood of sainted or - rather - tainted memory. You know, the stuff you drank after the Blue Nun and the Mateus Rosé and before the Hirondelle and the Kanga Rouge. After the subsequent throwing up you had a quick wipe down and turned the various bottles into lampstands. It really wasn't much fun being an impecunious wine drinker in the 1970s.

Well, titter ye not, for Bull's Blood is having something of a renaissance and what was once risible is now extremely tasty. I had some delicious rich, concentrated and complex examples in Hungary only the other week. Come to think of it, I had some bloody good whites and rosés, too. Hungarian wine makers have smartened up their acts and there are some real treats to be had. All too few are finding their way over here, sadly, although the Wine Society, as ever, is taking the lead in championing such wines and has excellent examples.

However, it wasn't Bull's Blood that took me to Budapest and beyond, it was the wine that Louis IV - The Sun King - referred to as "The wine of kings and the king of wines"; the wine that Catherine the Great guarded with a detachment of Cossacks; the wine that the Emperor Franz Joseph gave to Queen Victoria every year on her birthday (a dozen bottles for each year of her life); the wine that hails from the world's first-ever classified wine region (1730). Oh go on, stop messing about, you know the wine I mean, the gloriously, tongue-tinglingly, marmaladey sweet wine that is Tokaji.

This liquid gold fully deserves its reputation as one of the great wines of the world and if you haven't tried it, I beg you to do so. And goodness, I envy you if it's your first time. What a treat you have in store.

Tokaji comes from the region of Tokaj on the edge of the Great Hungarian Plain, in the north-east of the country. One of the best known producers is the Royal Tokaji Company (RTC), the winery of which I was delighted to visit th other day in the charmingly named town of Mád.

The wines of Tokaj are made chiefly from Furmint (a white grape that is especially susceptible to noble rot) with some Hárslevelű and small amounts of Muscat de Lunel. Dried and shrivelled (aszú) grapes are picked one by one and gathered in plastic buckets or traditional wooden tubs (puttony). The grapes are then placed in a steel container with a rack at the bottom where their weight gently ekes out a small amount of free-run juice that is collected and put into glass jars, after which it can take an astonishing ten years or more to ferment, thanks to its intense sweetness. This becomes that rarest of wines - Essencia - famed for its supposed aphrodisiacal and restorative properties.

The almost juiceless, raisiny sweet grapes that remain are then mixed with a dry base wine (made from non-aszú grapes) and fermented in 1401 Gönci barrels made from Hungarian oak. At the Royal Tokaji winery, this takes place in deep, labyrinthine, mould-covered cellars dating from the 13th century, which stretch for more that 2km. The level of sweetness is determined by how many puttonyos of aszú grapes are added to the wine.

I tried a number of the RTC's wines, my grin growing ever broader as I did so. There was the Blue Label 5 Puttonyos (widely available in the UK), which is perfectly balanced. It might have 155g of sugar per litre but it also has searingly high acidity, so it tastes sweet, of course, but so fresh and much less cloying (I would argue) than an equivalent quality Sauternes. Indeed, so high in acidity is fine Tokaji that it's the only sweet wine I know that doesn't need to be chilled. It's equally at home alongside rich starters, powerful cheeses and opulent puddings.

We had the 2013 single vineyard Szt Tamás 6 Puttonyos, full of honey, marmalade, barley sugar and yet so vibrant; the 2008 Mézes Mály 6 Puttonyos (ditto) and then - oh crikey! - the 2008 Essencia with just 4%vol alcohol and a staggering 468g of sugar per litre. So thick, gloopy and viscous is this wine that it's best supped from a crystal teaspoon. It's a mind-blowing price (Jeroboams stock it at £400 per 375ml) but it's a cracker. Sweet, rich and mouthfillingly delicious.

This is the wine that's supposed to raise one from the dead, to remove the screws from one's coffin lid and, erm, to put lead in one's pencil. I can't vouch for either. It did put one heck of a grin on my face though.