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Royal Tokaji Wine Company Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos Birsalmas 1995

Royal Tokaji Wine Company Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos Birsalmás 1995

I had considered opening something from Domaine Huet this weekend, following the surprise news last Friday – although as I was so busy all day (and all evening, and all night) that I only picked it up Saturday morning – that Noël Pinguet is to part company with the domaine and its main backer Anthony Hwang. Although I know many long-standing fans of Vouvray and the domaine in question have met and tasted with the late Gaston Huet, Noël’s father-in-law, for me it is Noël Pinguet who has always been the face of this remarkable Vouvray domaine. His departure will leave behind a great void that will be difficult to fill.

But let me stop myself right here, before I become engrossed in this development. I have a swathe of new Huet tasting notes tucked away in the background, from meetings with Noël last November and again just a couple of weeks ago at the Salon, and so decided I should publish these this week or next, and use the update to bring out any new developments that come to light in the interim. Meanwhile my mind is currently turned in a new direction, towards a vineyard which is more distant and yet will be very familiar to both Anthony Hwang and Noël Pinguet thanks to Anthony’s involvement with Királyudvar, where Noël Pinguet consults. This week I’m looking at Hungary’s most famous and iconic wine, Tokaji.

There is much more complexity to the wines of Tokaji than might be apparent at first glance; although we are probably all aware of the region’s sweeter styles, there are also excellent dry wines produced here – as evinced by recent tastings of the wines of Zoltán Demeter – but to try and deal with every aspect of the region would be beyond the scope of this post. It’s perhaps best if I restrict myself to a few words on the Aszú wines, the classic sweet wines of the region characterised by the addition of sweet, hand-picked botrytised berries to the ferment, the fruit traditionally added in quantities of puttonyos. Otherwise, before long, all my Wine of the Week posts will grow to the same size as last week’s post on the 1997 Quarts de Chaume from Domaine des Baumard.

Royal Tokaji Wine Company Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos Birsalmas 1995

As a quick refresher, any wine which declares the addition of puttonyos is inherently sweet; puttonyos were the traditional wooden harvesting hods used to carry the fruit in from the vineyard. Thus the base wine, held in a 136-litre barrel, might receive 3 puttonyos (the smallest addition) for create a fresh and gently sweet wine, or 5 or even 6 puttonyos for a more intense wine intended for the cellar and long life. Although this traditional system of describing the sweetness of the wine remains in use today it is also worth noting that the wines must meet criteria on residual sugar, dry extract and acidity in order to use the puttonyos designation. A 5-puttonyos wine such as that tasted here must have 120-150 g/l residual sugar and at least 35 g/l dry extract, and all wines must have at least 7 g/l tartaric acid.

This 5-puttonyos wine comes from the Royal Tokaji Wine Company which was created in 1989 by Hugh Johnson, Peter Vinding-Diers and a team of foreign investors who acted just as the Iron Curtain came down. Their aim was to revitalise the region and its wines which had suffered during years of communist rule; in order to do so they created this company, the vineyards acquired piecemeal, a multitude of tiny plots purchased from the cash-strapped growers of the region. The wine in question here, the 1995 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, comes from the Birsalmás vineyard (birsalmás translates as quince), a 0.4-hectare site which sits on the southeast-facing slopes just behind the town of Mád where the Royal Tokaji Wine Company is located. This vineyard was – as declared on the label above – classified as a second growth in the 1700 classification agreed by Ferenc II and which is the world’s oldest surviving terroir-based classification (there are reports of a classification by Rákóczi family in the 1600s but records of it do not survive).

From the vines here, mostly Hárslevelü, the Royal Tokaji Wine Company make this single cuvée. The acidity in this vintage is 11.9 g/l, the residual sugar 156 g/l (just above the 150 g/l limit, I note) and the alcohol 10.5%. The colour in the glass is really quite remarkable, the wine showing a rich golden-brown at its core, and with a greener tinge around the edges. Aromatically this wine is marked, first and foremost, by a deeply-veined botrytis character, heady and sweet and liquorous, all toffee, orange, quince and vanilla, with touches of fresh tobacco providing some complexity and lift. Then, as a secondary element, there are also some notes reflecting the wine’s oxidative handling, suggestions of nut and wood, although it sits very comfortably behind the sweetness of the fruit. This is no surprise of course, as the philosophy at the Royal Tokaji Wine Company is traditional, aiming for an oxidative/oxidised style rather than the more modern path followed by some estates which seek out freshness and purity of fruit instead. On the palate the wine has a great flesh and quincy sweetness from the outset, with wall-to-wall sugar and substance. Yet with this richness there is also a very fine freshness, brought by a fine and crunchy grip in the finish, with a leafy, dill-like edge to it. 16/20

As a piece of history, representative of one of the world’s greatest wine region’s, I think this wine is very good. I’m glad Tokaji exists, and that so many have worked so hard to reinvigorate the region. Personally, though, I’m not so sure about the traditional, oxidative style, it’s not one that makes me swoon. But that debate is for another day I think. (27/2/12)

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