A five-centilitre sample may sound miserly but, when we’re talking about Tokaji Essencia, it’s lavish. To make the wine in this miniature bottle will have required between two and three kilos of grapes and taken one person about half a day to pick, snipping out individual grapes. No wonder production is on an equally tiny scale: just 1,386 half bottles (37.5cl) were produced in 2009.
Not only that but 2009 is only the seventh vintage of Essencia that Royal Tokaji has produced since the company was founded in 1990 and it's one of the smallest. No wonder Essencia is the most expensive wine in the world. Much of what little Royal Tokaji produces is sold to sommeliers, who serve it with due ceremony in the special hand-blown crystal spoons in the photo above to diners as a dessert, rather than with a dessert. The theatre of it usually arouses the attention of every other diner.
And the cost of the world’s rarest wine? Charlie Mount, Royal Tokaji’s MD, has had a spoonful of Royal Tokaji Essensia in a restaurant in Miami for $65, but hastens to explain that “they had done their sums wrong”. He’s also encountered it – again by the spoonful – at $225 (and that’s before the 15% service charge). It’s hard to give a retail price, but a ballpark figure for a half bottle (37.5cl) is about £900 in the UK, or $1100 or €1100.
"Essencia oozes, syrup-like in viscosity and sweetness, out of a pile of Aszú berries"
So what is this almost mythical wine? The first thing to say is that technically it’s not really wine. The 2009 is 1.8% alcohol and that’s normal. The 2008 is the highest it’s been at 4%. Some producers’ Essencias never even start fermenting.
Essencia, then, is a concentrated essence of the ripest but most shrivelled grapes that has oozed, syrup-like in viscosity and sweetness, out of a pile of Aszú berries in the winery – berries that have been attacked and wizened to raisins on the vines by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) until they have lost 80% of their weight, mostly water.
Not every year when there is abundant botrytis yields good Essencia (2013 is a case in point), but when winery director Zoltan Kovacs thinks a harvest has produced some Aszú berries that could potentially produce Essencia, they’re put aside. The juice that drips out is then put into into glass demijohns and left in the dank, dark cellars to ferment. The yeasts struggle with the sugar content, stopping and starting and gradually dying off over several years before they have produced much alcohol.
"It's said to live for ever. It's just that no one has ever been around to test it"
The 2009, made entirely from Furmint grapes from a selection blended from the demijohns, was bottled after eight years in 2017. Another five years on, it is being released aged 13 years. As for the Essencia that wasn’t selected, the quantities are so minute it can be blended into 5 and 6 puttonyos Aszú wines (luscious, sweet wines of 10.5–11.5% alcohol). The Aszús also pick up the 15% Essencia that gets left behind in the pipes when it’s bottled, because their bottling follows on.
By law, Essencia has to have a minimum 450g/l of residual sugar. To put that in perspective, for 6 puttonyos Aszú the minimum is 150g/l (although they can top 200g) and for 5 puttonyos it’s 120g. Royal Tokaji’s 2009 has 581g/l, while the 2008 has 468.8g/l, thanks to its higher alcohol, “which actually I like,” says Zoltan, but it’s not a sign of things to come because, as he points out, they don’t intervene in the fermentation. It stops when it stops.
How can something so sweet be balanced and even refreshing? The answer, unlike the wine, is simple: very high acidity, concentration of flavours and time. The 2009 has 11.8g/l acidity, which Zoltan says is a little lower than expected (2008 has 13.5g/l), whereas 6 puttonyos Aszús tend to hover around 7.5–8g/l acidity. (Scroll down for my tasting note.)
The monogrammed hand-blown crystal spoon in which it's recommended that Royal Tokaji Essencia is served
The weather that produced 2009 was extreme. Up until budding, everything was normal, but from then it was one challenge after another: drought until the end of May; good conditions for the flowering then a very rainy June; but the rain built up reserves of water in the soil that were sorely needed during the next two and a half months when there was pitiful rainfall and very high temperatures.
The second part of October was very, very rainy (some producers lost 30% of their crop, others harvested in December), but there was a window for Royal Tokaji to pick Aszú berries from the end of September to mid-October, particularly those for Essencia around the 10 October.
Ideally you should serve Essencia in a crystal spoon and, as you might a top Sauternes, at a temperature of 12ºC (i.e., not too cold). As for food, my advice is short: I wouldn’t. This is a liquid dessert. And it's said to live for ever. It’s just that no one has ever been around to test it.
Royal Tokaji Essencia 2009
1.8% abv. 581g/l residual sugar.
Amber-shaded gold. A nose of apricots, figs, strawberry (I don’t think I’ve ever tasted strawberry in a Tokaji), blood orange, orange marmalade, angelica and ginger-flavoured honey. The palate, carrying all these with it, is intensely viscous, sweet and concentrated, but fresh – and it goes on and on. With age, the flavours will lose their immediacy and primary qualities and become more complex.
Photographs by Joanna Simon