Simon Field MW tastes Royal Tokaji Essencia 2009, the most intense expression of Tokaji Aszú, a wine that is as high in sugar and flavor as it is low in alcohol and production.
Tokaj is a remote province located in northeastern Hungary, on the border with Slovakia, the wine region cleaved between the River Tisza and the Carpathian Mountains. The further intersection between the rivers Tisza and Bodrog recalls that between the rivers Garonne and Ciron in Sauternes, with similar climatic influences lending the perfect conditions for the cultivation of the noble rot, Botrytis cinerea.
In Tokaj, these conditions are, if anything, even more extreme, thus allowing what Hugh Johnson has described as the “world’s purest expression of the world’s ripest grapes,” namely Tokaji Essencia. Mr Johnson is one of the co-founders of the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, and is thus, one may venture, very well qualified to make such an assertion. The numbers certainly back him up: The 2009 Essencia—its production a somewhat modest 1,386 half-bottles—has an ABV of 1.8 % and a residual sugar level of 581g/l, leaving all other sweet wines behind, in terms of structure at the very least.
How so? The source grapes, known as Aszú, have already been shriveled to within a centimeter of their lives by the working of Botrytis cinerea. The Essencia, as the name suggests, is the purest and most intense byproduct of these wonderfully raisined and rotten grapes, its personality literally formed by the slow dripping of free-press juice from the tubs of syrupy Aszú, which itself has already lost 80 percent of its weight to the rigor of noble rot. Patience is a prerequisite, given that the process is inevitably painfully slow, itself mirrored by the pace of fermentation, which labors against the treacly morass and often fails to start at all.
The resulting “wine” is unique and completely peerless, its historical reputation as a restorative elixir forged during the salad days of the Habsburg Empire. The recognition by advocates including Peter the Great and Frederick I of Prussia, allied to both inherent rarity and the painful length of gestation, ensures that Essencia is still one of the most expensive wines in the world. Indeed, one does not order a bottle or even a half-bottle in a restaurant—rather, a crystal spoon’s worth, itself likely to cost something well over $180 per unit.
The sommelier is afforded the opportunity to indulge a pleasingly different ritual. This is a rare and rather wonderful beast, and one that was even more rare during Hungary’s years under the dominion of the USSR, when such putative extravagance did not chime with the deprivations of existence beneath the communist yoke.
Today, thankfully, a little more is available, with companies such as Royal Tokaji championing Essencia as a wonderfully idiosyncratic ambassador for the sweet wines of the region. The 2009 is the seventh outing since 1990 and the first to bookend a trilogy of releases. (One cannot impose commercial rigor on nature’s whim.) The 2009, with its perfect combination of rain and drought, proved just too good to overlook. Indeed, with its alcohol level of 1.8% and its focus exclusively on the Furmint grape, it alchemized into a more “classic” expression of Essencia than its forebear, 2008, which reached an unusually high 4% ABV and included a little of the earlier-ripening Muscat in its blend.
We are advised that henceforth the focus will be always on Furmint, with the possibility of adding small volumes of the equally late-ripening Hárslevelű. 2009, according to winemaker Zoltán Kovács, proved to be an “extreme” vintage, ultimately ideal for the picking of the botrytized Aszú grapes, which were harvested relatively early between the end of September and the middle of October, after which the rains set in.
Essencia, maintains Kovács, should bear the “purest footprint of the vintage in question and should remind one of how the Aszú berries tasted and smelled during the harvest itself.” An early “explosion of fruit,” he advises, will lead to an “explosion of complexity.” For all that, the other terms he uses to describe the wine are not especially incendiary. They are purity, balance, elegance, finesse, and subtlety—all of which are eminently fitting. How, one may speculate, can a wine be balanced at 500+ grams of sugar? Is it, indeed, a wine at all?
Here we fall upon a second paradox: The wine should be the most faithful mouthpiece for the vintage, but not necessarily for the specific terroirs within the region. Crus that were established long before Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification allow venerable entities such as The Royal Tokaji Wine Company to exploit with its single-vineyard statements. One should thereby be able not only to identify the personality of the vintage in question, but also the specifics of provenance; Mézes Mály differs, for example, from Betsek, which in turn differs from Nyulászó—the essence of a sophisticated cru system.
Not so with Essencia, however, which nonetheless sits at the apogee of the whole hierarchy. Not only are the grapes sourced from across the estate, but some are even bought in from other producers. At the end of their maturation in demijohns of varying sizes, each will assume its own unique path of evolution, some not fermenting at all. The nectar will be cross-blended to underwrite the desired style.
One thinks of Champagne here—a statement of the personality of the vintage, for sure, but nothing more than that. Experiments are ongoing to produce a single-vineyard Essencia, Kovács advises, but the complexity of the process, allied to the minuscule volumes captured, invests very real difficulties in such a scheme. We must accept, for now, that the sine qua non of the category does not cleave to the qualitative template adopted elsewhere—another of the many fascinating ways in which Essencia stands apart.
The 2009 entered demijohns in early 2010 and was blended in 2017, then waited another five years before its release this year. Even the bottling itself is tricky, given the viscosity in play. Up to 15 percent of the precious nectar is left “stuck” in the pipes and will end up in the Aszú bottlings that take place immediately afterward.
It looks as if the next release will probably be the 2016, with the 2013 deemed of insufficient quality to make the cut, despite the excellent quality of its botrytis. Thereafter, 2017, 2018, and 2019 all have the potential to offer another trilogy, and wines have been set aside to achieve this, though it remains to be seen whether any or all of them will finally make the grade.
It’s far too early to say, according to Kovács; and even if any of this trio does win through, we will not see them before 2030. Patience… and a little more patience, then. One would not expect anything less. Essence must precede existence, as pre-Sartrean Hungarian philosopher György Lukács might well have put it.
Tasting Royal Tokaji Essencia 2009
Tasted in October 2022
The hand-blown crystal spoon is discreetly embossed. Discretion gloriously forsaken by a viscous flood of amber and gold, its beguiling aromatic soon fills the room, an indescribable cocktail of Japanese plum and passion fruit, then fig, heady flowers, and hints of incense. Sui generis. I thought that it might be darker in color; I thought it might be more raisined of aroma. I was right about one thing, though: the intensity of the interplay between the sweetness and acidity, both of them, apart, impossibly intense. Theirs is a joint and several liability, however, the juxtaposition of the cloying and the bitter far more than the sum of its parts, needless to say. Balmy, honeyed, spicy, rich, zesty, pure… Its encyclopedic flavors challenge long and hard, their patrimony in ever sharper focus. It is more Proustian than Wagnerian, this one, subtlety and nuance lingering long in the memory. | 97