Tokaj vs Sauternes

On March 19 the second annual VinCE event was held in Budapest, with several great tastings and wines. Among them was a comparative tasting with some great Sauternes, and several Tokajis. The event also qualifies as the Budapest Master Class for the Institute of Masters of Wine.

The Sauternes wines were introduced by Pierre Montégut, manager of Chateau Suduiraut, and the Tokaj wines by winemaker István Szepsy. Conclusions are at the end of the post. As this was a tasting event with limited time and wines, it is naturally less comforting than a pleasant wine trip at home. Please treat the scores as such.

1. Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2007

Medium gold colour, apricot on the nose. A bit of nail polish, with a faint vegetality and a light barrique note. It is opening up, and shows some mango and sweet tropical fruits. Full bodied and creamy on the palate, mostly sweet, sugar, sweet spice with some chemical notes. A long finish. Really smooth, a very well made wine. Acidity is just enough to balance the alcohol. Really, I great composition. A strong finish earns the wine 91 points in the end.

2. Chateau Coutet 2004

Bright gold, slightly higher on volatile acidity, chemical notes and ripe tropical fruit and some walnut. Not the typical apricot stuff, for sure. A smooth mouthfeel with a soft creaminess. Not so sweet as the previous wine. A bit of vanilla, and much more in the aftertaste. Alcohol is not too high, acidity is just enough to keep the wine in balance. Easy to gulp down, a very good wine indeed. Breaches the 90 points barrier.

3. Chateau Suduiraut 2005

Medium-deep gold, some volatile acidity, a hard-to-dechipher fruitiness deep inside, rather quincy. Evolves into ripe peaches and apricot, with a bit of mango. Lots of oak add an elegant vanilla. A round, full body and creaminess,  a sweet taste, but less acidity this time. Later some mint appears. A long finish is evident, pretty much the class of the previous wines, a stable 91 points this time. (Though it is simply thin when retasted after the Yquem.)

4. Chateau Suduiraut 2001

Deep golden hue, opens with pretty intensive volatile acidity, some aged quince jelly, and a bit of hard cheese stink. Definitely not what I expected. Adds some stale herbs and oriental spices later. Overwhelmingly large in the mouth, but not overly sweet, alcolhol is slightly higher, though. Much nicer on the palate: dried apricots and spices dominate. A beautiful structure, smoothness, this wine is also very easy to drink. Intensive flavours guarantee a very long finish, but the flavour profile is quite hard to decipher, and I admit it fails to capture me. Great intensity, with some mature notes, great length. A really fine job, 93 points, mostly for the structure and craftmanship.

(Only a sidenote, and a faint idea from my Tokaj experience, but I cannot escape the thought that a huge lot of sulphur has been used in making this wine.)

5. Chateau Yquem 1988

My first Yquem ever, a developing wine from a grand vintage. This particular Yquem received a consistent 99 point score from Robert Parker every time. A landmark wine for Sauternes, it is definitely something to compare to a good Tokaj.

Deep gold in colour, a very intense nose of walnuts, toffee, brittle and marmalade. Toffee dominates the taste, dried apricots arrive in the aftertaste. Not a heavy wine, rather light and elegant, but still has a powerful structure. Not overly sweet either. Dried green herbs appear, just as in Suduiraut 2001, and some oriental spice mix. Really interesting, a very different wine from both Tokaj in general, and the earlier Sauternes of the day. Both walnuts & toffee, plus the oriental spices suggest the heavy use of barrique, the herbal notes some botritys, while the previously dominant tropical fruit-peaches-and-mango line is swapped for a bit of marmalade and dried apricots.

While the nose may be of a mature wine, it is definitely not one, it has still a lot to go. I would rather not guess how the aromas develop, I expect them to stay fairly unchanged, keeping the notes of oak & aging in front. A very long aftertaste, great intensity, and admireable craftmanship make this wine a 94 point experience. Lagging behind the complexity of the two Oremus tasted at Christmas, but still grand material.

This was it for Sauternes – a really nice lineup, presented by Mr. Montégut in a credible and consistent way. Textbook trademarks for Sauternes did appear, like lower acidity than Tokaj, and a bit higher volatile acidity, but these turned out to be fact of life, rather than complaints. All the wines are smooth, creamy, and very palatable indeed. There is a power in tradition, and in finding a common walk, and the French already have theirs – after such a showdown, Tokaj looks pretty much like a work in progress.

6. Disznókő 5 puttonyos aszú 2007

The first Tokaj wine from the youngest vintage currently on the market. (All aszú wines have to age for 2 years in barrel plus 1 year in bottle before going on sale.)

The younger face of Tokaj, dominated by fruitiness. Pale lemon colour, grapes, dried apricots, pineapple and mango on the nose. A really thick body, as if had a stone inside after the Sauternes. Higher on sugar, higher on acidity. A very nice wine, thick, but reasonably balanced. 90 points. (All aszús can be cellared for decades, but I expect the warm vintage of 2007 to be the most enjoyable while still young, pretty much like 2003.)

7. Szepsy 6 puttonyos aszú 2006

Suddenly we switch to hardball. The ’06 is a vintage that produced high acidity aszús, which I did not always like. Well, I definitely did not taste this wine before.

It has loads of acids, but they are well contained. They are neither sharp, nor agressive, but simply ripe, they are just looming inside, flexing incredible muscles.  The wine has depth, it is compact, it has a heavy, impenetratable core inside. Huge concentration, huge potential.
The colour is deep gold, the nose is loaded with ripe and overripe fruits of apple, apricots, and quince. It is intensive, and hits immediately on the nose – the same applies to the palate.

A notch less acidity would make it rounder and more drinkable, but it is not meant to be drunk yet. Wait a few years so that the acids get closer to a perfect balance, and try again. The best wine of the day for me, with huge potential and a momentary score of 96-97 points. Fortunately, there was competition.

8. Béres 6 puttonyos aszú 2005

I never really liked the 2005 vintage, to be honest, the aszús were rather thin and acid-driven with less fruit than I hoped for, as far as I remember, but this is just a fading impression. Lots of people talk about great potential and beautiful acidity, something that I rather attach to 2006 in my mind. And even there my favourite producers can hit me upfront with unexpected, excessive acidity .

Medium gold in colour, and a really reserved nose. Strong botritys with some dustiness. High acidity lingers long on the palate, carries the wine slightly off track, making it a bit sour altogether. Apple and dried apricots. Diverging components, and a rather simple flavour profile, when compared to the other wines of the day. Still, a reasonable effort, scoring 87 points. Not my cup of tea, really.

9. Dobogó 6 puttonyos aszú 2005

Medium gold, with a pronounced nose of apples, fresh quince and green herbs. Acids are high, but there is more content behind. Tasty, with a strong character of (sour) apple, and sweet spices. The acids dominate, it asks for more time in the bottle. A preliminary 90 points, if you can wait for it.

Well, the 2005 vintage is still not my favourite, I would not have included either 2005 wines in such a strong lineup. Nevertheless, it was a good exhibition of vintage variations, and some producers considered the huge acids an opportunity to produce great longevity prestige aszús for cellaring.

10. Szepsy 6 puttonyos aszú 1999

A wine that I truly missed from the Christmas tasting. Now it has arrived, and turned up the expectations. As Mr. Szepsy explained, the 1999 vintage aszú was something really different from his 2006 aszú – a lot has changed in between, his philosophy, his winemaking technique, and his ideas about the Tokaji aszú have all been considerably revised through the years.

The colour is a deep amber by now, pretty dark for today’s aszú wines. A mature nose, with figs, a bit of toffee, and roast coffee beans. Acidity is high, higher than anywhere else, but still fits into the wine well. It has kept its composure, preserved the tastes without being overly sour, it is now showing dried apricots, figs, and candied lemon peels on the palate. It still has its time to run, will show more, as the acids withdraw, while still being a remarkable wine from a long-runners vintage. I daresay that the acids are kept in check by now, and it is definitely OK to drink up this wine. I found it rich & complex enough, and I hope I can possibly expect a bit more later on. I got to like this wine, mostly for its flavours, so despite its lean figure and definite acidity (tamed, but still stronger than the ’06!) it is worth 94 points with me, that ranks it in my top 5 aszús. A rather different character though, showing more age, and less body by now. My friends liked it a lot less, which is funny, as it is quite similar to the more popular Kapi vinyard aszú 1999. Yes, it is much more developed, but it is OK with me.

11. Disznókő 6 puttonyos aszú 1993

Back to the ancient days… I do not know much about this vintage, except for often hearing how remarkable it was. Much more aszús wines were probably made in the oldschool oxidative style in those days, as I recall an old Szepsy, but Disznókő might have been an exception back then.

The wine looks actually younger than the Szepsy 1999, showing a light amber colour, and deep intense notes of botrytis: overripe quince, old, dried apricot jam and marmalade, green herbs, and a light touch of animality. Still not an old wine, lively acids in the mouth, but in a smooth and well integrated way. It is similar to the herbal charaters of the Oremus 1999 of the Christmas tasting, but the volume is turned down considerably. A beatiful, enjoyable mature wine, also at around 94-95 points, with possibly a bit shorter aftertaste, but I seem to be losing touch by now…

Putting it all together

I found this tasting really useful. It represented the top wines and the style differences well, one could put the textbook phrases and prejudices to a test, and it is also possible to draw a good snapshot of where Tokaj is standing at the moment.

The Sauternes wines were very convincingly represented by Mr. Montégut, he could introduce them and argue for style and vintage differences without a problem. The wines were there to taste, they showed what they had to show, it seems to me that Sauternes winemaking styles & practices and producer represesentation fell into place a long time ago, making it possible to present and represent Sauternes in a consistent way.

The Tokaj wines showed much more divergence, it is harder to recognize a typical style for the aszús yet, and the whole region is pretty much a work in progress at the moment. The old oxidative style, often using avination is dead by now, at least among the most important producers. Vintages boasting high acidity do live long, showing surprisingly lean wines.

I did leave the Yquem 1988, the Szepsy 2006, Szepsy 1999 and Disznókő 1993 in the 4 tasting glasses at the end, and they are all top class wines: take a sip in any order you like, these wines surpress their predecessors immediately, and wipe your mouth clean. While very different by taste and structure, they refuse to assimilate, they all wield the same power.

On a different note, I think the regular Oremus 6p aszú 2000 of the Christmas tasting would have suffered very serious competition here, but the Oremus 6p selection aszú 1999 would still have easily won the race again.

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9 Responses to Tokaj vs Sauternes

  1. I like this post, great, I’ll share it on Facebook 🙂

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  2. drbarta says:

    Thank you for the post!

  3. Attila Halasz says:

    Very interesting…I long hold the view that Tokaj should never versus Sauternes. What is interesting for me that in the Riverina region of Australia, we grow top quality Semillon and Sauvignon that is regularly competing with Sauternes. We loose all the time but getting closer and closer to give the French a hard time.
    About 10 years ago our wine club has done a T vs S tasting and in the end we came away that Tokaji seemed more interesting than Sauternes. Having said that, 2001 Yquem absolutely rules.

    • Actually, Tokaj vs Sauternes was rather the title of the tasting, as Messrs. Montégut and Szepsy both emphasized that there is a natural alliance between them in advertising sweet botritys wines in the world.

      Still, it was interesting to see how to have a carefully-planned style in common, producing very much edible wines, while still having difference in chateau styles and vintages.

  4. akov says:

    Thanks for this, very interesting and useful to hear about the experience indeed. From many Hu people I heard that Tokaj – again – beat Sauternes. I can see now, this is not exactly true. 🙂

    • Well, I would not really state that anyone ‘won’. The 4 Sauternes wines put up a good picture about Sauternes, the 7 Tokaj wines put up a mixed picture about Tokaj. By my scores the best Tokajs were were better than the best Sauternes, but they were rather different. In certain aspects Sauternes was actually superior to Tokaj. Some others have scored a really mixed top 5.

  5. demisec says:

    Wooow. Szepsy 99, Disznókő 93! Great Wines! I’m jealousXD

  6. Pingback: Tokaj Renaissance – the aszú vintage of 2007 | Hungarian Wines

  7. Pingback: Terra Australis 2011 | Hungarian Wines

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