It is truly the nectar of Gods. Louis XV said of this sweet wine ‘Vinum Regum et Rex Vinorum’, meaning ‘the wine of kings and the king of wines’. In reverence of its cultural prominence, it even finds mention in the national anthem. Such is the stature of these Hungarian wines of Tokaj Hegyalja. By a royal decree in 1737, it became world’s first officially delimited wine classification system, and in 2002 UNESCO gave these vineyards the title of a heritage site. The sweet drops of this area, Tokay wines a.k.a. Tokaji, have kept the wine enthusiasts and serious wine connoisseurs spellbound with their notoriously mystifying nuances and elegance.
Tokay is known for its dessert wines produced by specially affected grapes. The local varieties, Furmint and Hàrslevelü are easily susceptible to a fungus that flourishes in special conditions – Botrytis Cinerea, or simply, Noble Rot. It punctures the grapes, making an opening for the sun to evaporate the water, and magically thickening the sugar and concentrating the zippy acidity essential for the balance of resultant wines. Thanks to this rot, wines are infused with a layer of delicious fungus and mouldy flavours that may not sound appetising, romantic, or desirable, however are dearly relished. The produce can be dangerously addictive. With over 150 grams of sugar per litre, they are among the sweetest form of wines than the sugar syrup Gulab Jamun and Jalebi swims in. Slurp!!
Amongst these delectable drops exist a wine so rare that you can taste it only once in your entire lifetime. You must be really lucky to even encounter it in the first place. ‘Eszencia’ is the pride of Tokay winemakers. This regal drop is produced by handpicking berries most affected by the generously aggressive botrytis in prime vintages. They’re collected in small vessels and are somewhat forgotten for the next half-a-decade (legally) or longer. These potent berries push themselves to produce drops of nectar so sweet that even the strongest of yeast cannot break down the sugar to produce alcohol. Result is a discerning liquid, with up to 70% residual sugar per litre, lesser than 4% alcohol, scrumptious flavours, luscious texture, and an unfailing appeal.
In my recent trip to the area, I tasted not one but three. Patricius winery brought me my first eszencia experience, and I was as excited to taste it as a kid’s first visit to a toy megastore. A tasting portion of a few drops was poured from that tiny 250mlbottle holding the liquid gold produced from the 2000 vintage. The snail-like moving elixir for this wine was collected to ferment naturally in small glass containers and further matured for nine long years! It is the reward of patience, and boy did it taste sweet. A souvenir of fifteen years of history, with over 600 grams of concentrated caramel-like sugar, only 2% alcohol, and piquant acidity, the liquid was ambrosial. Scent of white flowers, elderflower, acacia were followed by a layer of sweet white fruits and peach marmalade, apricot jam, cutting through with sweet lime, lime zest, and blood orange acidity, with a long-lingering note of golden sultanas, dark honey, and fig juice. It showed a decade and a half long age too with developing flavours of Hungarian oak, dark chocolate, sweet tobacco, wet leather, and finishing on a clean spicy note of cinnamon, cloves, and warm baking spices. It’s the celestial matrimony of sugar and acid that doesn’t let the palate cloy, rather make it velvety and luscious. With such high sugar, the wine is immortal, however after half a century it can be an indulgence. With a tag of 400 Euros, it’s still a bargain.
Some say it cannot be classified as wine with such low alcoholic strength. I agree, it’s shouldn’t be. It’s an experience, an emotion, a divine seduction, and a soul-touching moment where anything else is redundant.