28 November 2023 / Borbála Kalmár (translated by Sue Tolson DipWSET) Copy actual URL Facebook share Twitter share

Liquid gold: the best years for Aszú. Is this year one of them?

The idea that Aszú shouldn’t only be drunk on holidays comes up again year after year, but most people’s wallets still only open up a little more to indulgence as December approaches. We drink it with the Christmas bejgli (typical Hungarian Christmas pastry), give it as a gift or, if you’re lucky enough, you may even receive a bottle yourself. In this case, you could decide to leave it to age for a few years, so it’s good to know whether it’s worth it. Let’s look at the vintages from almost a quarter of a century, from 1999 to 2023.

Aszú wine is one of the world’s rarities, and since 2003, the regulations stipulates that only wine produced in the Tokaj wine region can be called Aszú. Often referred to as ‘liquid’ gold because of its colour, its costly production method and its higher price than dry wines, special geographical conditions are essential for making this wine, i.e. the unique terroir that Tokaj boasts, although nature does not always recognise the boundaries of a wine region.

Disznókő seen from the vineyard (Photo: Disznókő)

 

Making a truly great wine depends on numerous factors. Just as no two years are the same, with the same amount and distribution of rainfall, or even the same amount of sunshine, you cannot categorically say that every year will produce Aszú of the same quality or character. I’ve met people who, when I wanted to pour them some Aszú, said no thank you, as they don’t like sweet wines. But I have never met anyone for whom I then poured an Aszú with crisp acidity who didn’t say “this is different, it’s lovely”!

The way to have this moment of recognition is to choose a wine that best suits your individual taste. To help you with this, we called on Gergő Ripka, author of guide to the wine region, Tokaj Guide. Luckily for us, Gergő’s head is a dictionary when it comes to Tokaji Aszú, so we asked him to tell us about vintages that are still commercially available and what we can expect from them.

Gergely Ripka (Photo: Balázs Szmodits)

 

Vintages from 1999 to 2022

 

“Both 2000 and 2003 were very good years, although both were very hot. It’s surprising how well these Aszús are still showing – especially 2000. Both are 5-star vintages. 2002 can also be surprising at times, but 2004 and 2005 were cooler, moderately good vintages, with perhaps fewer Aszús made. However, the subsequent 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages certainly represent an outstanding, brilliant trio.

2006 was really harmonious, with wines demonstrating beautiful balance between acidity and sugar, without either being intrusive to the detriment of the other. 2007 was hot, so the Aszús were broader and richer, and then evolved very nicely, not at all lacking in acidity. 2008 is one of my personal favourites, with very good acidity and an intense botrytis character.

Aszú berries (Photo: Gergely Ripka)

 

Little Aszú was produced in 2009, while 2010 was rainy and required very careful selection – although it is interesting that, on the lower slopes of the very cherished loess Tokaj Hill (Kopasz Hill – ed), it is weaker vintages like this that can deliver surprises. Fewer Aszú were produced in the extremely hot years of 2011 and 2012.

However, 2013 was an exceptional vintage, a fact that can still be clearly stated even ten years later. The lovely, warm autumn weather resulted in a lot of aszú berries, thus yielding wines with somewhat subdued acidity and sugar rather in the foreground. 2014 was another rainy year, resulting in almost no high-quality wines. 2015 was warmer, again with few aszú berries.

2016 is again a personal favourite, with lots of rain mid-harvest, resulting yet again in lessons in selection. These are real citrus bombs of wines, with high acidity, lovely balance and longevity. 2017 is an absolute top vintage, and although these Aszús are still very young, they will be long-lived.

Botrytised grape clusters

 

2018 was another warm year, with little Aszú made in the wine region. 2019 was an exciting, harmonious vintage with not too much sugar and not too much acidity, yet balanced flavours. 2020 was rainy again, so not an outstanding year, unlike 2021, which was again a 5-star vintage. It looks to be worth waiting for (according to the regulations, you have to wait 3 years from 2021 – ed), as this year yielded some really lovely wines. Even the residual drops in the glass give the impression of fresh, citrusy wines with a long life. Many people compare it to 1999, one of the greatest vintages of the last millennium.

2022 was again an extremely hot, dry year, which negatively impacted botrytis development in general.”

Harvest at Bott Winery

 

What can we expect from this year?

 

Although it’s still a long way from being time to taste the 2023 vintage, Aszú enthusiasts eagerly check the weather in Tokaj every autumn. Whether it’s raining, there’s morning mist or whether the sun is shining enough – whether there is hope. We now asked László Mészáros, the estate manager of Disznókő estate, the winery perhaps best known for its Aszú whether it is worth waiting till 2026?

“2023 is definitely a great vintage, and in every respect, as the dry wines will also be beautiful. This year’s weather was relatively normal: we had enough rain during the growing season, budburst was late, and flowering began later than on average in recent years, and especially than last year’s extremely hot year.

Harvest at Disznókő (Photo: Disznókő)

 

There was no regular rainfall in the first two months of autumn, but it was very warm: September was warmer than June or August 2021. Even though there was not much rain, there was some mist, which triggered botrytisation, especially in our higher vineyards. Although it didn’t explode like it did after last autumn’s dry spell, when botrytis covered practically everything, this year, the aszú berries have formed nice and gradually. Initially, shrivelled aszú berries with high acidity formed, then there was more and more noble botrytis, which perfectly consumed the berries’ flesh. Thanks to the rains at the end of October, botrytis has now developed everywhere, so we expect to be able to harvest sweet Szamorodni and late harvest grapes in the first and second weeks of November.”

 

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