By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 3 September 2022
Imagine a wine so intense it has to be served on a spoon, rather than in a glass – and a spoonful of this dense luscious sweet liquid could cost you over £100.
Some restaurants sell Tokaji Essencia, the world’s sweetest and most luxurious wine, as a dessert in itself by the spoonful - whilst others try to match it with blue cheese, olive oil icecream or fruit-based desserts.
This extraordinary ‘wine’, if you can call it a wine as the alcohol level is rarely above 2%, is created in the famous Tokaj region of north-east Hungary. It is produced from the slow dripping of intense juice from carefully macerated dried botrytis-affected Aszu berries, usually from the Furmint and Harslevelu grape varieties.
The drips, collected through a hole at the bottom of the vat, are then stored in glass jars of 25, 50 and 100 litres for years to slowly ferment – if at all – and then carefully blended and bottled from different batches.
“It is the most extreme wine that we produce”, says Zoltan Kovacs of Royal Tokaji winery in Mad who showed me his latest creation, 2009 Essencia vintage. It sells at a mere £900 for 37.5cl bottle packaged in a gift box with crystal engraved spoon.
This incredible liquid has an astoundingly high residual sugar level at 581 g/l - compared to Royal Tokaji’s standard 6 puttonyos Tokaji Aszu at just 188 g/l – but when Essencia is made from a high acid grape like Furmint it manages to retain superb freshness despite its dense sweetness.
“Essencia can really show the footprint of the vintage, but we only make one in four vintages as conditions are not always right”, explained Kovacs. “The most important thing for making good Essencia is the careful individual selection of the best botrytis-affected grapes. This time-consuming process means pickers can just do one kilo in one day”.
Making Essencia is not only very labour-intense, but it can also be tricky. They apparently loose about 15% of this dense liquid ‘stuck in the pipes’ when they attempt to bottle it – so that is why the best are so rare and expensive.
But despite these difficulties, this Tokaj speciality has been made for centuries. Savoured by Kings and Popes - Pope Pius IV is known to have kept Essencia by his bedside as a medication, to enjoy by the spoonful for its restorative properties. This rare liquid was also even made during communist time by the state winery.
I recently tasted two Essencias. The first was 1947 vintage made by Grand Tokaji at the start of the communist era. The second was Royal Tokaji’s recently released 2009. The first was much darker with figgy, raisiny, molasses flavours. The more youthful 2009 had an incredible gunpowder green tea scent with rich undertones of dates, figs, cinnamon, marmalade and dried orange peel. Both were thickly textured, honeyed, unctuous, complex, but not cloying - with an intense long finish. A magic experience.
There are a wide range of Tokaji Essencia on the market. Much cheaper ones tend to be made from earlier ripening grapes like Kabar and Zeta, which tend not to give such intensity and freshness. The best Essencia is made from Furmint which has superb natural acidity to keep it fresh, but some also use Harslevelu and Muscat Lunel in the blend.
Wineries also use different methods - some make Essencia just from dips with no ferment. Others work harder with the free-run juice to encourage spontaneous fermentation creating a more complex wine.
Tokaji recently had a great run of outstanding Essencia vintages in 2007, 2008 and 2009 – but according to Zoltan Kovacs there will then be a gap before the next great Essencia vintage of 2013 which will be released in 2026.
Royal Tokaji Essencia 2009 will be available from Berry Bros & Rudd, Farr Vintners, Cru & Bibendum Wine from 1 October.
WHITE WINE OF THE WEEK
Southern Rhone, France: COTIN JAILLET COTES DU RHONE BLANC 2020
An outstanding Lidl bargain: honeyed, peachy, apricot flavours with creamy leesy palate. Drink as aperitif or with rich textured seafood dishes.
RED WINE OF THE WEEK
Szekszard, Hungary: SZELESHAT BIKAVER 2017
£11.50 The Wine Society
Hugely popular at our recent Hungarian tasting – this predominantly Kekfrankos/Kadarka blend has cherry fruit, plum with spice, silky velvety tannins – very elegant for the price.
Join Rose’s Tokaj Masterclass on Thursday 24 November in Edinburgh www.rosemurraybrown.com