Behind the Bottle: Royal Tokaji Essencia

Royal Tokaji Essencia is widely regarded as one of the finest sweet wines in the world, highly prized for its harmonious combination of intense sweetness and acidity. Adam Lechmere investigates the origins of this historic wine

Words by Adam Lechmere

Royal Tokaji Essencia
Royal Tokaji Essencia is available in a few exclusive restaurants around the world, where it's often sold by the spoonful

Tocai, Tokaj, Tokay, Tokaji: there are almost as many ways of rendering the name of the Hungarian wine as there are words to describe nectar, ambrosia, the elixir of life. The sweet wines of this far north-eastern region of Hungary were once so revered that they were credited with raising the dead to life – an elixir indeed. There are, of course, many renowned producers of the botrytised sweet wine, all revived since the ravages of the Soviet era, each with their own fascinating history. But the story of The Royal Tokaji Company (that -i suffix indicating place of origin, as the -er in Londoner) is perhaps the most compelling of all. And its most exalted wine, the vanishingly rare Essencia, fires the imagination like no other wine on earth.

Royal Tokaji Essencia bottles
Royal Tokaji Essencia is 'rare by any standards' with fewer than 2,500 half bottles made in good vintages

The origins of Royal Tokaji Essencia

It’s a truism of the vineyards of Eastern Europe – the former Soviet bloc – that the Russians did more damage than two world wars put together. Collectivisation of farms and the focus on quantity rather than quality meant that vineyards hundreds of years old were grubbed up and replaced with high-yielding varieties, ancient skills were forgotten and traditions lost.

The first records of wine production in the volcanic soils surrounding the town of Tokaj in Hungary date back many centuries; Tokaj wine was first properly classified in 1730 by Francis II Rákóczi, the splendidly moustached Transylvanian nobleman. His system of first, second and third growths holds good today; there was another classification in 1968, at the height of the communist era, which is largely ignored.

The high point for the sweet botrytised wines of Tokaj were in the glory years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like Vin de Constance, the legendary (and now revived) wine of South Africa, Tokaj was fêted throughout Europe, lauded as a restorative by kings and the nobility.

Aszú grapes, used in the production of Royal Tokaji Essencia, under the influence of botrytis
The different stages of Aszú berry development as botrytis and the Tokaji drying process take effect

Then, like Vin de Constance, it faded and was almost forgotten. The ascendancy of Tokaj lasted until the First World War. Zoltán Kovács, winery director of Royal Tokaji reckons that ‘somewhere around the beginning of 20th century was when we had the highest prices across the world.’ As contemporary wine lists show, Tokaj wines commanded higher prices than Cru Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Political upheavals after the First World War began a slow decline for Tokaj; the period after the Soviets took over in 1945, reaching a peak in the 1950s and 60s, ushered in what Kovács calls ‘the prostitution of Tokaj; Russia just needed a wine that looked like a luxury product, it didn’t matter how it was made.’ Sweet wines continued to be produced – five and six puttonyos (‘puttonyos’ refers to the quantity of residual sugar in the wine) Aszú and Essencia by village producers who sold almost all their grapes to the big cooperatives, but most production was predicated on quantity and not quality.

Tokaj was fêted throughout Europe, lauded as a restorative by kings and the nobility

That is how the Tokaj landscape looked when Danish aristocrat-turned-roving winemaker Peter Vinding-Diers drove up the muddy road in Mád and decided that one of the world’s greatest sweet wines ought to be revived. He called his friend Hugh Johnson, who he knew to be passionate about Tokaj, and asked him to join a joint venture to buy into one of the old Soviet cooperatives.

Hugh Johnson, one of the co-founders of The Royal Tokaji Company

It must have looked at the time as if they were throwing money into a hole. ‘It was exactly like that,’ Kovács says. ‘People weren’t interested. Prices were very low. Most growers weren’t doing anything at all with their wine.’ The pair’s inspiration was to offer the now-rudderless cooperative shares in a company they were putting together. István Szepsy, one of the growers who had carried on making fine Tokajs under the Soviet regime, became the de facto leader of the 62 producers who signed up. The Royal Tokaji Wine Company was born.


What goes into making Royal Tokaji Essencia?

From the start, Johnson and his partners focused on single-vineyard wines from the first growth vineyards Mézes Mály, Szent Tamás, Nyulászó and Betsek, and the second growth Birsalmás. The major grape variety is the acidic Furmint, which makes up around two-thirds of the vineyard of Tokaj; this is supported by Sárgamuskotály (known elsewhere as Muscat Blanc), Hárslevelü and Kabar. Royal Tokaji’s range includes dry whites, late harvest wines – and the Aszú wines with, at the top of the range, the Essencia.

Essencia is rare by any standards. The 2016 was one of the largest Essencia vintages and still only 2,300 half bottles (37.5cl) were made and released last year (the first since the 2009, released in 2022). Essencia is profligate in its consumption of grapes. ‘From 1,000kg of green berries you get 200kg of aszú berries,’ says Kovács. All Tokaj comes from aszú grapes (aszú meaning ‘dried’). These are berries that have lost 80 per cent of their weight through botrytis and via a drying process whereby they are put into 700kg containers and allowed to settle, releasing juice literally drop by drop. The syrupy must this produces is then put into glass demijohns, taken to Royal Tokaji’s 13th-century cellars, and left to ferment. Only when it is most concentrated, sweet and acidic (the 2016 clocks in at a bracing 15.5gs/l total acidity) is the juice deemed good enough for Essencia.

A half bottle retails at £589; it’s somewhat more expensive in restaurants, where it’s sold by the spoon

The crucial difference between Tokaj and other famous botrytised wines – Sauternes for example – is the fact that the Essencia is not pressed but made from dripped juice. This gives it its extraordinary concentration and its mighty dose of sugar: the 2016 contains 534 grams per litre – that’s around four times the residual sugar content of a bottle of Château d’Yquem. It also comes in at only 2% alcohol – the slow-drip must is so syrupy that yeasts struggle to do their work. Fermentations are achingly slow (the 2016 took three-and-a-half years to complete).

A glass demijohn, crucial to the fermentation process of Royal Tokaji Essencia
The glass demijohns within Royal Tokaji’s 13th-century cellars are crucial to the fermentation process

Critics extend themselves. ‘A viscous flood of amber and gold,’ Simon Field MW wrote of the 2009, ‘…an indescribable cocktail of Japanese plum and passion fruit, then fig, heady flowers, and hints of incense… the intensity of the interplay between the sweetness and acidity, both of them, apart, impossibly intense…It is more Proustian than Wagnerian, this one, subtlety and nuance lingering long in the memory.’

There have been only eight releases of Essencia in the last three decades: 1993, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2016. The winery isn’t exaggerating when it says this is one of the world’s rarest wines. A half bottle retails at £589; it’s somewhat more expensive in restaurants, where it’s sold by the spoon (50cl contains the juice of 748 grapes, we’re told). You can find it in the French Laundry in Napa, Gabriel Kreuther in New York, Sexy Fish in Miami and a couple of dozen others. La Dame de Pic in London sells a spoonful at £600. ‘It is a rare liquid,’ Kovács says, with some understatement.

How did the design come about?

‘The name came when we had a meeting with our Mád farmer friends in Budapest,’ Johnson told me in an email. ‘What to call it? I mentioned Imperial Tokay and was shouted down. “Hungary is not an empire, it’s a kingdom”. So, Royal.’ He said that the inspiration for the label – they wanted it to look like an old-fashioned calling card – came from Vinding-Diers. He also found the old, lost, vineyard names in a book (in Latin) of the 1700 Classification. So Mézes Mály, Szent Tamás and their neighbours were revived.

Zoltán Kovács, the winery director at Royal Tokaji

Royal Tokaji Essencia today

The pace of production of Essencia makes the movement of glaciers seem hurried. There’s little appetite for change as the fermentation carries on its mysterious purpose, bubble by bubble, in the ancient cellars. Kovács notes that harvests are getting earlier, in common with all wine regions, as climate change makes its effects felt. But all that means, he suggests, is more abundant harvests. ‘Maybe it’s not the worst thing because if we get more good weather in the autumn, it will allow us to make more selections for our aszú berries.’ It might also mean more frequent releases, although Kovács stresses that he’s not interested in increasing quantity. ‘My idea would be to compare more vintages, to be able to see differences between Essencia according to the difference in vintage.’ Like all custodians of the rarest wines, he won’t give much away but he vouchsafes that the vintages succeeding 2016 have been generous. ‘From the quality of the aszú wines, I’m more than sure we’ll release some vintages in between years.’ Watch this space.