The time-honored technique was developed in the pre-scientific era of intuition, custom and observation. Tokaji botrytis wine originated in the late Middle Ages, in the first half of the 16th century, when long-matured white wines were at their peak popularity. This preference was especially true in Poland, the chief customer for Tokaji in its early centuries, and sometimes resulted in exaggerated maturation–possibly even to the detriment of distinctiveness. But with the post-Pasteur advent of scientific enology, Hungarian enologists began looking critically at the question of maturation practices and what their predecessors since at least the mid-19th century have dubbed “Tokaji character.
Those who argue today for minimal and/or nonoxidative ageing point out that a “Tokaji character” exists apart from maturation practices. Actually, they do not go far enough along that line of argument, since not even botrytis is necessary to a clear display of terroir in Tokaji wines. In fact, Tokaji’s fame was on the rise for a full century before botrytis was known and employed. This “primal” terroir aspect varies somewhat by grape variety (the chief varieties in Tokaj-Hegyalja are the Furmint and Harslevel), but it speaks to the strength of this feature that following phylloxera in the late 1 800s, it was readily perceptible even in experimental varietal Othello wines, their “foxiness” notwithstanding. However, botrytis serves to boost Tokaji character as inherent in each grape variety, which long ago favored Furmint and Harslevel in gaining dominance. Further, the long maturation of the botrytis wines had empirically proven to be a handmaiden to terroir.
The assumption that the communistera wine industry was averse to anything but long-matured aszu wine is mistaken. Already during the 1950s Hungarian enologists were experimenting with and acknowledging the potential commercial worth of minimally-matured aszu. The major communist-era book on Hungarian regional wine history, Magyar Borok — Bor Videkek (Hungarian Wines-Wine Regions), published in 1963, stated that even while recognizing the “primacy” of the traditionally matured wine, “an appropriate role also needs to be assured for Tokaji aszu which is hastened into cask to ripen, and thus is in a marketable state after one year.
With respect to the primacy of the typical aszu wines, but in tandem with the revamped outlook, Hungarian enologists were trying to uncover the parameters of the classic Tokaji features that were owed to the traditional maturation. Namely, how much maturation time and how much direct exposure to oxygen are sufficient for the development of “Tokaji character?” At what point does that character begin degrading? What are the chemical parameters involved in confirming these determinations?
In his 1956 book Borgazdasdgtan (Vinicultural Science), Istvan Soos wrote, “The true (Tokaji) character only develops after a longer maturation (several years in barrel), for which are necessary the Tokaj-Hegyalja cellar environment (kept hygienic by the wall fungus cladosporium cellare), cellar climate (steady low temperature of 9-11[degrees]C), the gonci barrel (of 136-140 liter capacity) and a certain degree of darabbantartas (maturation in partly empty, partially bunged barrels).”
Writing in articles of 1976 and 1977 in the journal Borgazdasdgtan (Viniculture), Zoltan Kerenyi explained the purpose of his chemical analyses of aszu wines as a contribution to the question of choosing “optimum maturation time.” He particularly wanted to distinguish the respective effects of botrytis and barrel maturation, and in summarizing his conclusions he indicated that a number of chemical aspects of Tokaji character that were only nascent or latent in botrytis grapes, musts and new wines were developed to a “striking” degree by maturation in wooden barrels. Notable in this respect were aldehydes, which related in part to Tokaji’s content of amino acids.
Among the chemical peculiarities of Tokaji aszu and szamorodni attributable to the Tokaj-Hegyalja terroir is an exceptionally high content of nitrogenous compounds, the source of amino acids. Research was conducted on Tokaji’s amino acid content at the Magarach (Crimea) enological institute in the early 1960s, and the results were published by Nilov and Almasi in 1964 in the Russian journal Vinodelie 1 Vinogradarstvo (Enology and Viticulture). A definite correlation was found between the breakdown, or deamination, of these amino acids and the manifestation of “Tokaji bouquet.” Specifically, deamination of easily oxidized amino acids ushered in optimal Tokaji character, whereas deamination of the other, remaining amino acids detracted from that character.
The details of the 1964 analyses show a high content of several of the individual amino acids in Tokaji relative to Crimean and sherry sweet wines that were also analyzed. It is the deamination of these acids that is picked up by our umami sensors. But particularly notable is Tokaji’s elevated content of glutamic acid, since glutamares, which are the salts of glutamic acid, led to the confirmation of our fifth sense of taste. Glutamates make mushrooms and Parmigiano-Reggiano paragons of umami.
Umami’s verification is too recent for Hungarian enological researchers to have undertaken the pinpointing of attributes in traditionally matured Tokaji that might derive from deamination of amino acids. Nevertheless, several organoleptic aspects may be indicated as meriting attention in connection with umami. We might consider that it allays the mid-palate chalkiness of feel and a certain kinesthetic “irritation” at rear palate that have always set Tokaji apart from Sauternes, Rhein and Cotnari (Romania) botrytis wines. Also notable in traditionally matured Tokaji is the characteristic and prolonged tang, particularly since umami has been credited with extending pleasurable aftertaste.
In all these instances, the allencompassing mellowness that umami tends to contribute to taste may be key to rendering palatable what might otherwise leave an impression of disharmony. Maybe we should not wonder that the Polish nobility that admired longaged Tokaji were the same people who ensured umami in their hunter’s stew of game, sauerkraut and mushrooms by re-cooking it several times.
But there may be an entirely different facet to terroir and umami at Tokaj-Hegyalja owing to the traditional cellars. The fungus that dominates the cellar walls is cladosporium cellare (also called rhacodium cellare). While Hungarian enological research has shown that this particular mold does not have a direct effect on the aromatic profile of Tokaji, more than 50 other fungi occur along with it, and their aggregate, or “global,” influence (not just on aromatics) on the nature of the long-aged botrytis wines has not been studied. If we think of the telling effect of molds like penicillium roqueforti and penicillium camemberti on their respective cheeses, we might wonder about the Tokaji cellar molds and the wines that are matured for multiple years with use of the darabbantartas method. Certainly it is an area deserving study now that umami has been verified as a fifth sense of taste.
As indicated by the earlier enological research, the botrytis wines need several years in barrel to attain the umami potential inherent in their nature as given by the Tokaj-Hegyalja terroir. Especially, time is needed for the breakdown of amino acids, which is precisely the process that yields umami.
But what is the ideal time range for maturing the Tokaji botrytis wines so as to bring their terroir peculiarities to fruition? Of course this will vary somewhat with the vintage and the wine. But Kerenyi in 1976-77 stated that it was “the longer (barrel-) stored aszu wines” that exhibit the superior presence of some aspects of typical Tokaji chemical consistency that were “scant” in younger botrytis wines and nonbotrytis Furmint wines. Nilov and Almasi in 1964 did not specify how many years are needed for optimal, beneficial deamination; however, the youngest analyzed aszu and szamorodni wines were five years old. Soos in 1956 concluded that” at least four years” are needed for the “true character” to come forth in aszu wines.
As to the old darabbantartas method, it was the general custom in the 19th century to use the technique throughout the aging of the botrytis wines. But a major Hungarian enological manual of 1973 specified a one to three month period. This would seem to be the minimum for exploiting terroir to set Tokaji apart from its peers, since it was the practice in use for maturing the wines analyzed by the cited enologists. But whether or not it is sufficient for any role the cellar wall molds might have in umami development is a question that has not been addressed.
Hungarian enologists have frequently commented on the singularity of Tokaji among wines. Certainly the topics raised here suggest that there is far more than meets the eye in the amber color of the traditionally matured botrytis wines. Indeed it is not going too far to suggest that those involved in drawing up legal requirements for old and new categories of Tokaji wine ought to be digging beneath the surface to determine just what terroir should mean in chemical terms in the context of Tokaj-Hegyalja.