Six white grape varieties are officially approved for Tokaji wine production, with Furmint, Hárslevelü (also known as Feuille de Tilleul or “Lindenblättriger), and Yellow Muscat, or Muscat Lunel (Hungarian: Sárgamuskotály) being the most important ones. Moreover, Zéta, Kabar and Kövérszölö are approved for Tokaji production, but do not play a significant role.
In years that produce only few noble rotten berries, selecting those berries manually would not be economical. In that case, grapes are processed as they were harvested, without selection. However, a certain quantity of Aszú berries is obligatory for the Szamorodni. Depending on their proportion, the resulting wine will be either a dry or sweet. A Sweet Szamorodni must contain at least 30 g/l residual sugar. Dry Szamorodni can be best compared with a dry version of Sherry, or a Vin Jaune, which makes him an excellent aperitif wine.
The Tokaj Aszú is the typical noble sweet wine from Tokaj-Hegyalja. The basis of this wine are hand-picked, dried and noble rotten berries. After selecting, those dry berries are processed to an Aszú dough. Taste and quality of the Aszú mainly depend on the number of hods (puttonyos) filled with dry berries (25 kilograms each), which are added to a cask (Gönc type, 136 liters) of dry base wine. Consequently, the proportion between aszú berries and dry base wine is about 1:1 for a 6 puttonyos Aszú. A 3 puttonyos Aszú needs at least 60 g/l of residual sugar; 90 g/l are required for the 4 puttonyos, 120 g/l for the 5 puttonyos and 150 g/l for the 6 puttonyos. Before 1945, also 2 puttonyos Aszú was sold. After several months of fermentation, the Aszú matures for 3 to 8 years in the barrel. Aszú is not made every year. The winemaker decides, if the quality of harvest allows Aszú production or not. The Aszú´s decent, stable acidity characterizes this dessert wine, which is one of the slowest maturating and most long-living wines in the world.
Tokaji Aszú Eszencia
Often confounded with the Essencia, the making of Aszú Eszencia is actually the same as that for the Aszú. The quality level is not indicated anymore by the number of puttonyos. However, it is much higher than the 6 puttonyos Aszú, with more than 180 g/l of residual sugar content, so it can be seen as a 7 or 8 puttonyos Aszú. An Aszú Eszencia with a residual sugar content of 300 g/l (which can rarely be found) would equate with a 10 puttonyos Aszú. Aszú Eszencia was introduced as an official quality level during the communist era in the 1970s, as a transition between Aszú and Essencia. However, since wine consumers still confuse Aszú Eszencia with Essencia, the Hungarian authorities decided to dispose this denomination. The vintage 2009 was the last one which will brought Aszú Eszencia on the market.
Tokaji Essencia is the most valuable and rarest type among the Tokaj wines. Hand-selected and noble rotten berries, which are later needed for the Aszú preparation, are gathered into a keg and kept in it for a couple of days before the Aszú paste is prepared. Then, due to the berries’ own weight, some highly concentrated juice of noble quality will have accumulated on the bottom of the keg. This is the juice the Essencia is made from. Its fermentation process is incredibly slow, yielding an alcohol content of 5 to 8 % only after a couple of years. The Essencia’s residual sugar content is at least 450 g/l, yet record-breaking 900 grams and more have also been measured. One keg containing 25 kilograms of dry berries produces only between 1 and 1.5 liters of Essencia. It is also added to Aszú wines for ennobling them. Because of its enormous sugar content (balanced always though by tremendous acidity), often syrup-like texture and very low alcohol levels, Essencia is not really a wine in the conventional sense, but rather a unique elixir, the quintessence of the grape, with an almost supernatural concentration of taste and aroma. It's something that every wine aficionado dreams of tasting at least once, and to do so is likely to be a life-enhancing and never-forgotten experience.
Amongst the traditional Tokaji wine specialities, there are two more less important, but notable historic types of Tokaji, which are by-products of Aszú production. Forditás is a wine made by pouring must on Aszú dough which has already been used to make Aszú wine. It can be seen as a „second-aszú“. The oldest by-product of botrytis wine in Hegyalja is Máslás, a lesser quality botrytis wine but superior table wine, made from non-botrytis wine and the lees and marc of Aszú or Szamorodni. The Tokaji wine specialities described above, including Forditás and Máslás, are the only wines of Tokaj-Hegyalja, which are allowed to be bottled into the traditional white long-necked half-liter bottles, which are characteristic for the Tokaji. Winemakers in the region produce also regular white wines, from sweet (Late Harvest) to dry, mediocre as well as outstanding qualities. In the last years, some winemakers produced even some excellent icewines.