1999 Tokaji Aszu Releases

by David Schildknecht

The 1999 vintage offered a nearly perfect opportunity for the many estates that have been revived, resurrected or newly minted in this historic region since the advent of privatization in 1991 to showcase their great talents and terroirs. Nature provided perfectly ripe, well-balanced material on which a subtle botrytis could work its magic. For details on Tokaji and on the 1999 vintage in particular, readers are urged to consult my extensive report in Issue 98. This year time did not permit me to visit the estates. I slipped across the Austrian-Hungarian border in late June where most of the top Tokaji growers had collected some of their recently bottled 1999 Tokaji Aszu at Jozsef Horvath's extraordinary restaurant and "vinarium" on the shores of Lake Fertod (known to Austrians as the Neusiedlersee).

My notes below are for vintage 1999 and for bottled wines, except in a few noted cases where the wines were in their final form and were awaiting bottling. All retail prices are per standard 500-ml. Tokaji bottle. All of these wines will reach the U.S. market this fall. As always, I have designated wines I thought particularly impressive with 1 star, while reserving 2 stars for wines of clearly profound complexity. The top 1999s constitute a splendid treat worthy of a serious search of the marketplace by readers with the slightest interest in botrytis wine. I hasten to add that given the uncanny balance of sugar against acidity and extract and the consequent food-friendliness of these wines, they would no doubt come as a delicious revelation to many readers of this journal who don't think they are interested in noble rot.

Brief comments are in order concerning some wines on which I have not reported below. The Tokaji Azsu of Vince Gergeley in Mad - whose barrel samples I reported on in Issue 98 - had not yet been prepped for bottling, and Gergeley preferred not to submit further barrel samples. In any event, this exceptionally talented vintner has yet to be courted by the right U.S. importer. Royal Tokaji (Wilson-Daniels), also in Mad, is always late to bottle and release their Azsu wines, so a report on their 1999s, which partner Hugh Johnson describes as their best yet, will appear in a future issue. In certain instances where I tasted an outstanding Azsu from cask but the finished wine in question was not submitted to me this June, I have noted that fact parenthetically for the benefit of readers who might subsequently encounter those other wines in the marketplace.

Finally, please bear in mind that nearly all of the growers canvassed below have previously released some of their outstanding botrytis wines as Tokaji "late harvest" or "kesoi szuretelesu," rather than leaving them in barrel for two years and in bottle for an additional year, as required to earn the appellation "Tokaji Aszu." Wines exhibiting yet-higher levels of ripeness and concentration than those measured by the standard local unit, the "puttonyos," will be released by many of these wineries - following extended additional bottle aging - under the designation "Tokaji Azsu-Eszencia." For details on the technical terminology of Tokaji, readers are referred to my coverage in International Wine Cellar Issues 86 and 98.